In this webinar, part of our Online Positive Psychology Hour series co-hosted with the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan, social justice activist and healer Uneeda Brewer offers her insight into how we can sustain our commitment and energy when we encounter disappointments and setbacks.

Learn how positive psychology tools that focus on nurturing the inner self—such as meditation, grounded optimism, and cultivating hope, combined with the character strength of gratitude—can help us replenish and reengage with renewed energy and joy. Uneeda spoke with Caroline Kohles, Senior Director of Health and Wellness at the JCC Manhattan. 

Highlights from the Conversation
Caroline: Welcome, everybody. Today we’re discussing three positive psychology tools to sustain the inner being of the social activists with Uneeda Brewer. A little bit about our speaker today: Uneeda Brewer is a life coach and an organization development consultant working with individuals navigating personal and career transitions and organizations that seek to improve team functioning, inclusion, and belonging. She is a social worker, and a psycho-dramatist who combines practices from positive psychology, psychodrama, and strength-based coaching, with a personal interest in growth after trauma. Her firsthand experiences with racial discrimination and injustice have fueled her passion to be a social activist for racial justice and women’s equality. She uses the power of spiritual practices to help her coaching clients bring all aspects of themselves, including their spiritual wisdom, into alignment. She volunteers with the Women’s Resource Center in her town, and mentors youth in Take Stock in Children, a program sponsored by the local school board. I welcome to the call, a colleague, a friend, someone I greatly admire: Uneeda.
Uneeda: Oh, thank you so much. 
Caroline: You are someone that I consider has great resilience. And I think that no matter what, as humans, what I found is that even with as much knowledge as I have, or with as many people or experiences that I have, I still need to be reminded of the basics. And we still have those moments of despair, and I think your talk is going to address that today, and how you use some of these tools to remind you about the magic of being. I think the mind has a funny way of, when we’re in one of those sensations, making it feel like this is going to go on forever.
Uneeda: I know, and there is actually a tip about that, because we do get overwhelmed, and when we get overwhelmed, sometimes our mind locks and it’s just like this is gonna be my life from now on. And there are ways that we can move out of that mindset and step back into moving forward. Our own resilience.
So you know the name of the presentation. And I define social activist as anyone who is engaged in any way and working toward equality and justice. So I don’t have a set image of what that would look like. So anything that you do to make the world better is in my book, social activism.
I’d like to get you to put yourself in this picture. So I’d like you to think about what’s your best hope for our time together today. Why did you come and what are you’re hoping for today? My hope is that we all take one step further along to what we’re hoping together today. I hope to give you some moments of uplift. And I hope you’ll join me in making that happen. I want to offer a specific definition for self-care so that we’re focusing in the same direction, it’s a practice. And it’s about us taking an active role in protecting our own well-being and happiness, particularly during times of stress. And that’s where I’m aiming, is providing ideas that you can put into practice that keep you active in protecting your own well-being and your own happiness.

You may be wondering what started me on this quest for self-care. And it all began on January 6, with the insurrection. I was beside myself, I just I couldn’t believe that this was [happening] on the Capitol grounds of the United States of America, and 2021. The news, if you didn’t grow up in the South, may not resonate for you the way it did for me. It is actually a symbol of terror. And it was used to enforce the Jim Crow laws and segregation and discrimination. So I was really, really sad when I saw this on January 6. And then I was despairing. I know that there are some people for whom the Confederate flag is in quotes about “heritage,” but I want you to know, for me, it represents something completely different. And there may be other people on this call who grew up in the South like I did. I was born before legal segregation was outlawed in 1964. So this represents maintaining a system of bigotry and prejudice and injustice. It represents, to me, open rebellion against the government of the United States. And in a word, it represented treason. 

This is 50 years after we graduated from high school, in 1963. When we were 15, we were chosen to integrate the previously all white senior high school in our town. And we endured some difficulties and some hardships, and some suffering. And for me to see, that young man [in the image of the insurrection] carrying a Confederate flag in the citadel of democracy set me back on my heels because I thought, What in the world is happening? We made all these sacrifices to make things better, laws were passed about public accommodations … what is going on? And as I started to talk to other people about my experience, I found out I wasn’t alone. So many other activists were saying to me, I’m really burnt out. I’m standing at the precipice and I think it won’t take much to push me in. And I don’t think I can get out. I’m exhausted. My energy is depleted. I am despairing, that what I’ve worked for my whole life will actually happen. I’m disillusioned, I’m despondent, I’m distressed, and I said, that’s like me, and I’m at a fork in the road, that despondent, despairing energy is pulling me toward disengagement, toward giving up. But I don’t want to be there. I know there must be tools that will help me refill, reenergize, and renew. And in the Certificate in Positive Psychology program, I started out with a vengeance. What are the tools, because the path toward disengagement is not a place I want to be. And yet, I found myself moving in that direction. And so I wanted to make a choice for myself, that allowed me to reengage, not to deny what I was feeling, but to say, alright, this is what I’m feeling, what can I do, so that I can choose a different way.

I’d like to pause now and ask you to think about where have you been emotionally this past year? You can say longer than a year, because we’ve been in COVID times for almost two years now. We’ve been in political disarray for a long time. And so I’m wondering, where are you? And if you look at the scale, one is more toward disillusionment, 10 is I fully know how to reengage myself and when I go down, I can get myself back up. I’m good. Five is somewhere in the middle, that sometimes I’m down sometimes I’m up. Mostly I’m pointed toward reengagement, or I’m being pulled toward just disengagement. And I’m just wondering, where are you? We had thought this might be a good time for you to go into a breakout group and speak with someone about where do you see yourself right now with all that’s going on? Are you toward disengagement? Are you somewhere in the middle? Are you toward engagement? 

Caroline: All right. Susan says a five. I straddle the line, says Joanne. Elaine says seven. Kathy is at a seven. Raisa is at a four. Megha, I choose eight, because of the wonderful work I get to do with the people I am learning from.
Uneeda: So I guess we won’t have to go into a breakout group because you’re willing to share right here online. Thank you very much. And for anyone who is at a five or lower, I just want you to just be with that. And as we go through the presentation, I’m hoping you’ll find a tool where you can say, oh, yeah, I can take a step. It doesn’t have to be a big step. It can be a small step in the direction of reengagement. If you’re wondering where I am now, I was at, I think a four in January. And I’m now at a seven. I’m not at a 10, I’m still moving toward reengagement, I still need to do practices, because there’s a lot going on. And there’s a lot to take our energy away. 
All of us have triggers. All of us have things that go wrong. And I want to honor all of it. So I’d like you to start thinking now, wherever you are on the scale, what might be something that would help me enhance my self-care, so I can reengage? What is one step that you can take, that will help you maintain your self-care practice, enhance your self-care practice, so you can move toward engagement? Because my goal is for you to put yourself in this picture. And as we’re going through, you’re not a passive listener, you are engaged and searching along with me.

The tool that I want to offer first is mindfulness. And you may be aware of mindful meditation. Well, they’re actually two different practices. When I was in the CiWPP program, Dr. Ellen Langer was referenced. And we saw a video that she talked about mindfulness and how we don’t have to actually meditate to be mindful. She is considered to be the mother of mindfulness. Now, here’s the definition that she offers, that is so easy. “Actively notice new things.” Because when we notice new, when we look for new, our attention is in the present, we are into our curiosity, we are in the here and now. And we can also bolster that by using our our breath. And I bet if I were to ask you, if you would stop in this moment and look around the room that you’re in, and notice something new. You may have been in this room 100 times … what’s new, that you didn’t see when you walked in today? And in the very act of searching for the new, you come into mind full. Dr. Langer has done extensive experiments and research around this concept. We could spend the whole hour talking about her research. But I want to give you some more tools so I want to highlight some things that she says.

We spend, she proposes, almost all of our time mindless. I was like, wait, what? No, I meditate. I know how to be mindful. Yes. But on the ordinary day, am I bringing my attention to what’s going on in the here and now? When we are mindless, we’re focusing on the there and then, we’re in the past, we’re not aware of the context. Somebody said, one of the things they appreciated is seeing a different perspective. When we are mind-less, we’re trapped in a single perspective. We’re on automatic pilot. And the other thing that Dr. Langer says is when we’re not there, we don’t know we’re not there. We’re just mindless. And if this has ever happened to you, this is an example: I’ve been driving on the highway and past the exit that I was supposed to turn off up because I wasn’t there. And it’s like, oh my goodness. I’ve driven by facility or salon for a month and never saw it and someone said, Oh, do you know someone so works in that shop and all of a sudden I’m like, oh my goodness, I’ve been driving mindlessly. I’ve been on automatic pilot. And when we’re on automatic pilot, we’re not able to be in our lives. When we our mindful, our attention is in the here and now. We’re engaged in what we’re doing. We are enlivened. When we are experiencing ourselves mindful, it actually enhances our health. We’re sensitive to the context. So we don’t just barrel down the road and miss all the signs that are there to help us because we’re not paying attention. We are actually aware and paying attention to what’s going on. When we are mindful, we’re really able to tap into our creativity and competence. And our psychological health and well-being are improved.

The research on Dr. Langer is so fascinating because one of the curious things that I thought about is that when we are mindful, we actually reduce our burnout, we reduce our our focus and attention to prejudice, and even to pain. And I had to stop for a moment and say, Wait, mindfulness will help with prejudice? How does that work? And then when you think about it, if you are looking at me, and I am looking at you as belonging to a category, you’re not really seeing me. When you’re bringing all the bias to a situation and don’t allow my mindfulness, my attention, my curiosity to be piqued, I can stay stuck in these places that aren’t healthy. I want to tell you this one thing‚ you see weight loss being improved through mindfulness. Are you sitting there going wait, what? How does that happen? Anybody curious about that? Yes. Okay. So I’ll tell you.

They did a study with chambermaids, the people who clean the rooms in a hotel. And they asked them if they got exercise in their day on their job. And they were like, No, not really. And if you think about it, and this is what Dr. Langer says, they’re exercising all day long. But in their mind, exercise is what you do after work and what you do in the gym. And so they divided the groups into two, and one group they told, what you do every day is just like exercise. So when you’re making up a bed, it is as if you’re on a rowing machine, just for an example. And so they gave them all these different ways of looking at what they were doing and seeing it as exercise. And after about eight weeks, when they went back and checked all the health measures that they had checked before the experiment started, those folks had lost weight, their BMI was down. They were actually in better health compared to people similarly situated as they were, the other group, who were not told that what they were doing were exercise, were basically the same. Amazing.

Meditation can be an experience of relaxing your body and quieting the mind and awakening our spirit through a practice. There are as many ways to meditate probably as there are people. And as you know, if you are a meditator, most all meditation does involve some breathing and paying attention to your breathing. If you have been privileged to be in any kind of yoga or movement class, you know that you can also meditate through movement. You can meditate through sitting and standing, you can meditate lying down, you can meditate with mantra, you can meditate as part as a spiritual practice. I use the meditation practice from Emily Fletcher, who also has been on the Positive Psychology Hour, and it has given me a way to re-nourish my inner being. Whenever I wake up in the morning and say, Oh, wait, what kind of day is it gonna be, I can go back and say it’s gonna be a great day. Because I’m going to settle, I’m going to move into a place of quiet and nurture. The benefits of meditation are not unlike the benefits of mindfulness. And these are all backed by extensive research and study. And it is amazing what we can do to nurture ourselves when we become present to ourselves. 

Here’s tip number two: Develop and maintain an optimistic outlook. I love these dogs [in the picture], my dog is the one on the bottom left. And he is always with me wherever I’m doing a presentation. And what I love about the photo of these dogs is they look so expectant. Something good is coming. I know it. The idea here  is that we want to notice and savor our positive emotions. Again, if we are mindful, we are aware that in this moment, I am feeling excited. In this moment, I am feeling pleased. In this moment, I am feeling confused—whatever it is. But if we can notice the positives, they both are resources. And savoring is really about not just letting them slip by, it’s being aware that I am experiencing a moment of joy. And I want to be aware of that. I want to hold on to that. Because it builds our capacity, so that when we have a bump in the road, we have some resources that we can pull on to bring us back.

If you haven’t had a chance to take the VIA character survey, I’m going to give you a link to that. Because we can also use our strengths to help us. If you heard Caroline and I speaking before you got on the call, she was saying that Creativity is one of her is her top strengths. Curiosity is one of my top strengths. And when I ask myself when I’m in a difficult moment, how has my curiosity helped me move through this. How am I bringing my best self to the situation? What strengths can I use that I am actually pulling myself out of the dip? As humans, we tend to look for what’s going wrong, because that helps contribute to our survival. And when we focus on the negative then we are not able to see what’s good. If we can pause and shift our perspective by reminding ourselves that a difficulty is temporary, not gonna last forever. Even the upheaval on January 6 didn’t last for ever. Even any of the other difficulties that you’re working to correct. There have been shifts in them. It’s specific. It’s a thing that happened or something that happened. It’s not pervasive. And it’s external. It’s, I made a mistake, not I am a mistake or I am wrong. I took an action that brought about a result that I wasn’t happy with. I can take another action. We have the power to choose in any moment how we approach the situation. And I am not excluding systemic difficulties. We know systems are in place that keep us from living the best life and to exclude people, we can make a difference by the choices we make, and how we connect with others.

All right, I’ll keep going through to “cultivate hope.” You know, before positive psychology, I thought hope was just kind of ephemeral. It’s like yeah, hope something good happened. Hope is actually a verb. Because according to the positive psychology research, and especially the work of Dr. Dan Tomasulo, that in order for us to activate hope, things need to be uncertain or difficult, because hope is the only positive emotion that needs that in order to be activated. So when we’re feeling oh, my God, I don’t know what to do, we start searching and in that search, we are cultivating hope. And when we believe that it’s possible, that hope is possible. Hope is possible, because our mental state can direct us toward what we’re seeking. I love this quote from Maya Angelou: “Hope and fear cannot occupy the same space.” If we look around at the world today, we see how fear is being used to divide us or is being used to create despair. If we want to choose a different path, let’s find ways to move from what is difficult and uncertain and not sure toward what can be, what we can work on together to cocreate. People who have high hope focus on what can be done in the future. They’re moving toward something. They have energy and motivation to bring about change. Right now I have energy and motivation, because I want to bring about change. And so I’m investing my Perseverance and my Zest. These are my strengths I can use for that. I hope people also have a way of getting toward what they want. So they’re learning and exploring and saying, How can I get there? How can I make a difference in this arena? They’re good at generating new ways. They’re creative. And they’re resilient.

I want to take a moment and read this definition of resilience as a positive outcome following adversity. So it’s saying something happened, and I can still move towards something good. I can take a step in a positive direction. Most of us are more resilient than we realize, we’re more resilient most of the time. I hope people set micro goals. So what that means is we break the goals down into smaller pieces so that as we achieve a small piece, we get energized to move forward to achieve the next piece. And we get energized to move forward to create the next piece, so that we’re continuing to grow and we’re continuing to feel competent, because we are accomplishing something. I hope people also cherish relationships. We’re all in it together. We’re all connected. People who are cultivating their Hope work to create and maintain and enhance connections and relationships. If you have not had a chance to take the VIA character survey, here’s where you can find it: It’s free, and it will give you a listing of the 24 character strengths that through research have been identified as applying to all people in all cultures. And as of this moment, I think in excess of 12 million people have taken the survey. So there’s a lot of good data to support it. I use it for myself, and I use it with my coaching clients all the time.

Okay, one more. So one of the ways that we also can be mindful and activate our hope, is “notice without judgment.” That is to see what’s going on, without evaluating it. This is my favorite for myself: I have been in the habit of saying, I don’t know what’s wrong with me, I can’t find my keys. You notice the judgment in that. Now I say, I noticed that I have the habit of misplacing my keys, I wonder what I could do so that I would do that less. And all of a sudden, I’m on a mission to find a way to make it possible, not to forget my keys, and not misplace my keys. That’s a small thing. But we do it all the time. And so one of the ways that we can stop and be more hopeful is to notice without judging, we also can notice what is good, what is beautiful. What are the benefits? What are the lessons that we have? Yes, there are negatives, it’s not saying don’t notice the negatives, it’s saying, don’t linger on the negatives, have a more balanced view, that it is a beautiful day. I’m grateful to be alive and breathing. I have a lot of work to do. Wow, aren’t I lucky, I have work to do. It could be otherwise. Challenge beliefs that don’t serve us. So that we can adapt, look for what’s good. Look for resilience, look for passive positivity, set goals that are achievable, and then keep going. And then this is the gratitude practice. And you probably already know this, the three things I’m grateful for—you can do it either in the morning, or in the evening. Dr. Tomasulo has in his book, he talks about starting the day looking back, saying what are three things I’m grateful for from yesterday. I sometimes do it in the morning, what are three things I’m grateful for as I awaken … you can do it any time. And it is proven to really help us nurture and sustain ourselves. 
There’s a lot going on in life in general. And positive psychology isn’t saying to us, there won’t be ups and downs, but it’s saying is we can find ways to engage to promote our own well-being that we stand in the midst of the difficulty, centered and peaceful and moving forward, a teeny step toward activity.
Every breath we take is a miracle. And I want to reflect it back to you, that every person here has made it to this moment, has been able to stay connected and be here in this moment. And what I am saying is that we can keep doing that. And we don’t do it alone. We do it in community and we make connections with others. And we know that when we have ups and downs, we can move through them because we have tools. 
Uneeda Brewer

Uneeda Brewer

Uneeda is a life coach and organization development consultant working with individuals navigating personal and career transitions, organizations that seek to improve team functioning as well as inclusion and belonging. She is a social worker and psychodramatist. She combines practices from positive psychology, psychodrama, strengths-based coaching with her personal interest in growth after trauma to create a distinctive approach to  the work she does with individuals and organizations. Her firsthand experiences with racial discrimination and injustice have fueled her passion to be a social activist for racial justice and women’s equality. She uses the power of spiritual practices to help her coaching clients bring all aspects of themselves, including their spiritual wisdom, into alignment. Uneeda works to bridge the many divides that separate us from ourselves and from others. She volunteers with The Women’s Resource Center in her town and mentors youth in Take Stock in Children, a program sponsored by the local school board.