• Claire Higgins

Character Development for Courage & Confidence



This is the third blog entry in a three-part series on character development through martial arts, self-defence, and Positive Psychology. If you missed the first entry and wish to read it, please click here. The second entry may be viewed here.


For those recovering from violent trauma, the journey can be a long and complex one. Putting back together the "shattered" pieces of the self isn't as simple as a single psychology-based intervention.


The length of time needed for recovery will differ from person to person, and the timing of that recovery may be hard to predict. The same two people may undergo the same intervention yet experience different results. The first feels restored after 6 months or a year while the second person may continue to seek trauma relief many years later.


Research has suggested that we need to broaden our perspective on how people recover from trauma beyond the level of the individual. Trauma happens within a social and cultural context, and both of these aspects need to be taken into account for the recovery process (Maercker & Hecker, 2016). Given the degree to which unresolved trauma can affect interpersonal relationships (Beck et al., 2009) and community participation, for example in terms of employment (Cinat, 2004), this is a valid point.


My view is that people tend to heal best in communities yet those same communities can also create ongoing suffering. This creates an internal tug of war.

As a young humanitarian working with political prisoners who had been mentally and physically tortured, I experienced first-hand the effect of being present and listening to a person share their story. I saw how the body language and facial expressions of the prisoner shifted as he gradually felt more comfortable in sharing what had happened.


The majority of the prisoners I sat with throughout my twenties had been physically and mentally tortured. They all lived in areas of conflict, displacement, and political instability. My role was to listen and take notes for legal interventions based on International Humanitarian Law.


I would visit many of these prisoners during their interrogation phase. Without any formal training in psychology or somatics at that time, I relied on my instincts. The more distressed a prisoner appeared to be, the less I moved in my seat. The pen would be put down and the notes stored in my memory instead. I learned that even an action such as lifting my cup of tea off the table to take a sip could thwart the fragile trust evolving. Given that my aim was to establish trust in order to gather the information needed to document human rights abuses, limiting my actions made sense.


The price I paid for my lack of movement during these conversations was acute stress in my neck and shoulder area. Years later, this would turn into chronic pain that flares up on and off until this day. I also developed shallow breathing patterns. On the surface, I looked the picture postcard of calm. Inwardly, there was so much physical and mental control as I sought to "freeze" my body into a non-threatening presence.


Like most lessons in life, it is only in hindsight that I have learned what to do and not do when someone is sharing their traumatic story. A deep belly breath and relaxed shoulders can do much to put a person at ease. Will such a posture affect how their story is told? I don't know. My instinct is that another story may be told in its place. One that is spoken from a place of hope rather than one of fear.


~


My interest in movement as a form of therapy for violent trauma emerged in such a prison visit. A new prisoner arrived and sat down confidently in his seat. He had endured weeks of isolation and interrogation yet his body language didn't match that of those whom I had spent the past year visiting. For a start, his posture on the steel stool was upright. He could lift his upper body without straining his lower back, and his breathing was deep from his belly.


This man, as I would learn, was a Karate teacher. He came from a family of Karate teachers and had been adapting his training to fit his small windowless cell. From breathing exercises to memory and movement techniques (kata), he had managed to keep his wits and maintain some ease in his body.


Like most of the other men I met, he demonstrated the appearance of courage in front of me. Yet he also seemed to embody it at a deeper level.

My fascination with movement and stress in my early twenties was influenced by my training in Karate and my understanding of the language and culture in which I worked - the Middle East, where I was raised. Although I studied in English-language schools, my secondary school was Arab and I was the only non-Middle Easterner in my class. Meanwhile, my Karate training had been with religious Iranian teachers until that point (years later, I would train with Egyptian, Lebanese, and Palestinian teachers).


It was as if my senses were attuned to phenomenon I had yet to understand at a cognitive level or could think critically about. For example, I could sense when a prisoner had been physically tortured based on my observation of his body language and posture. Eye movement also gave it away. The voice and words - despite my fluent understanding of them - were the last thing that I paid attention to.


In the years of prison visits that followed, I realised I could also sense degrees and patterns of resilience through repeat visits to prisoners during interrogation and after, once they had been transferred to central prisons. I observed movement and behaviour, picking up on prisoners who were likely to talk or complain, those who complained on behalf of others yet never themselves, and those who were silent.


I learned that the ones I needed to watch out for most were those who were silent. Those who talked or complained were able to get their needs met - at the very least their need to be witnessed, as our organisation could not nor sought to change the fact of their detention. Those who complained on behalf of others appeared bolstered by their advocacy on behalf others. Representing others seemed to alleviate some of their own stress and trauma. Those who refused to talk seemed to suffer the most.


Then there was another category. Those who moved. Not just the Karate teacher under interrogation but those who took the opportunity to move when and where they could in the central prisons. Even if all they could do was pace up and down the courtyard. Their bodies appeared more relaxed which from a health perspective makes sense. Blood circulation and movement can ease the aches and pains that come with living in confined and overcrowded conditions and support digestion.


In one particular prison where basketball was available three times a week, the prisoners appeared more carefree. Emotions were deal with during the game while the anticipation of the game gave them something to look forward to. After, they savoured the game experience as they reminded each other of it in their conversations. This makes sense too given the strong links between physical activity and mental health.


~


As I write these reflections over fifteen years later, I am aware that my observations must be riddled with assumptions, aphorisms, and inaccuracies. I navigated highly stressful environments using my knowledge of language, culture, and movement, but how much did I really understand? And how much did I miss?


What did I - a privileged expatriate from the Middle East - really understand about courage? Although I had my fair share of trials growing up, they paled in comparison to the childhoods of these prisoners whom I visited and observed. Yet I connected with their plight at emotional and somatic levels. My work was meaningful and purposeful. It felt familiar to sit with such fear, pain, suffering - and hope. I often said I felt at home in prison environments, be it with the guards or directors or prisoners themselves.


About seven years after my last prison visit, I discovered that my great uncle had been a Prisoner of War (PoW).

Held captive by the Japanese army during World War 2, and badly tortured, he returned home unable to bear children. Instead of being angry with the world, he played the role of peacemaker in our family disputes. He was active in his community yet he never spoke of the traumas he had endured. In those days, it wasn't the done thing. Especially for the PoWs of Japan who carried the dual weight of the atomic bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the devastation to civilian life that secured their release.


This family story led me to explore ancestral connections to violent trauma. I asked questions such as, did my great uncle's unresolved trauma live on in me? Is that what compelled me to engage in humanitarian prison work? It makes no sense looking back. I was a sporty kid who probably should have grown up to be a PE teacher or a competitive swimmer. But martial arts and growing up amidst the various wars of the 1980s and 1990s in the Middle East seemed to change that course of my life.


A parallel admiration of Japanese culture only grew as the years went by. As I learned about Budo and Bushido, the martial way and the way of the warrior, I felt inspired. It all came to a head in Thailand in my mid-thirties as I searched the Thai-Burmese border for evidence of my great uncle's time in a PoW camp along the railway lines of Kanchiburi, just days after I learned of our family story.


By chance, I had been training as a coach in Bangkok and on hearing this story, a Thai friend arranged for her driver to take us there. The anticipation I felt during the long drive was intense. Would I discover fragments of my great uncle's life there? Would his life explain what my life had become? Would my life finally make sense?


We hunted for hours and yet we found nothing. Not a trace of his footprints. With so many different PoW locations across the region, he must have been held elsewhere.


That summer, I failed to unravel my great uncle's story but I did go on to discover unspoken parts of myself. The journey I followed from there is one that has led me here.


~


As a researcher who draws on lived experience and scientific research, I have found myself straddling two worlds. One is an intuitive world of direct experience that offers a rich and colourful backdrop. Yet is is no doubt peppered with inaccurate and biased impressions, as subjective experiences often are. The other is clear-cut and more objective, and easier to decode and decipher. Yet it can feel dry at times, missing the dynamic spirit and sense of a shared humanity that lived experience can bring.


Attempting to bring these two worlds together - the science and art of research - is a process I am still navigating. While I lean more towards the detail of qualitative research, as it offers more insights into the reasons why people think and behave as they do, I can't disregard the importance of quantitative data, particularly around physiological markers. How could you possible study topics like stress without appreciating the value of numbers? And why wouldn't quantitative methods for self-reported data be helpful, provided they are clearly explained?


The following part of this blog entry focuses on established theories that can be tested through self-directed research-oriented interventions.


But first, a backdrop why.


Focusing on theory first marks a turning point in how I conduct research. Previously, I have favoured grounded approaches. As a humanitarian fieldworker, I listened to individual stories and then interpreted the data. As an executive coach, I ran a client-centred practice where the client's narrative led the way. As a postgraduate researcher, I let my research participants' narratives (for the most part) speak for themselves.


Over the past two decades, I have listened to thousands of personal stories. The vast majority of these have been filled with memories of violent trauma, fear, suffering, and grief. I have witnessed the therapeutic relief people can feel when they are offered a safe space in which to share their difficult experiences. I have also been at the receiving end of such a space. Talking bonds us to each other, and it can help us to understand.


Yet my observation parallel to this healing process is that of narrative being a limitation in terms of long-term growth. While the initial sharing of a heavy story can feel cathartic, if the story is not left behind the person may struggle to move on. While some may speak of the need to integrate our difficult experiences through sharing, the process of integration is in my experience a largely silent one. It takes place when we let our voice rest and allow life to go on. It happens when we step away from the extraordinary and engage in the mundane. Integration has a timing of its own and it cannot be forced.


The challenge here is that modern psychological interventions are caught between two extremes.

As adults, many of the children of the twentieth century wars didn't speak up and express their emotions over what they or their parents had seen. As a result, modern psychology focused its efforts on encouraging them to talk. Cue the self-awareness and counselling movement of the 1970s and 1980s, which sparked a self-help industry that is on the one hand empowering (isn't knowledge power?) and on the other, contradictory and confusing to navigate.


This movement has also given rise to the professional "coach" - or a person who can help you get from "A" to "B".


Today, we live in a more self-aware world where anyone with internet and computer access can create their virtual platform (this blog of mine is one) and (if they have the financial means) access virtual emotional support. Any one of us can share at any time of the day what we think and feel and to some degree, be "seen and heard". And so the cycle of sharing and seeking support continues. One more Facebook post, another Instagram post, a new coach or counsellor, and so on.


The need to document life in real time with virtual followers is spinning out of control. A pressure to find meaning and purpose in what we do and who we are and why we are here is widespread, at least online. Trying to understand who we are and why we do or feel what we do or feel is prompting more people to seek out coaching and counselling, and train in these professions. Is that a bad thing? I honestly don't know.


What I do know is that balance has been lost along the way and my former self is no exception here. Knowing what, how much, and when to share, and why, how, and with whom, is a lesson in wisdom that needs to be taught. So too does understanding the different "voices" we can use to "share", with silent movement being one and ourselves being the most important audience we can ever hold.


In the midst of all this sharing, as a researcher I ask myself, why would I want to collect and tell more stories? Isn't it time for me to move on and take action based on insights I have learned over the past two decades, and explore related theories I wish to test?


This is the tipping point for what follows.


In research terms, you could say I have reached saturation point. Not in the negative sense of being unable to listen to any more stories (or tell any more of my own for that matter) but rather, saturation in terms of the number of traumatic and stressful storylines I can predict, and the ways in which modern psychology has positioned and developed itself to be of service.


The time for listening has passed. Now, is the time for action.


~


Below I present an overview of my fear, action, and movement project.


Title: "Fear in Motion? Exploring the Relationship Between Fear, Action, and Movement"


This study focuses on the experience of the fight-flight response through intense physical training. In particular, it tests the concepts of courage and confidence as important character traits to develop through movement coaching for stress recovery.


Although the long-term area of interest is violent trauma recovery, this study starts with a general population experiencing everyday stress. Why? For ethical reasons. Although observation of self and others has shown potential benefits, I can't justify the risk of putting people who have been exposed to violent trauma and not yet recovered through intense physical training. Too much is unknown about how this process actually works.


The first phase of the study looks at two physical exercise scenarios of power lifting ("fight") and sprinting ("flight"). The second phase of the study will look at a self-defence scenario that includes punches, grabs, take-downs, and floor grappling. This third scenario will amplify the experience of "fight" or "flight" response.


In the first two scenarios, the person is challenged to a point that induces some stress or performance anxiety. They may perceive the task (sprinting, lifting) as either a challenge or a threat. For example, they may be reaching for their next big lift or looking to shave off a second or two from their sprints. The working theory is that those who are coached to view the task as a challenge will have an opportunity to practice courage and over time, develop confidence, while those who are left to view it as a threat may experience courage but will struggle more to develop confidence.


In the third scenario, the same process of threat-challenge is created. The same theory applies. Those who are coached towards a challenge scenario will experience courage and go on to develop confidence while those who are not coached may experience courage but will struggle more to develop confidence.


In terms of coaching techniques, the study will draw on:


  1. Education on the psychology of courage and confidence (Coker, 2016, Coker & Higgins, 2019)

  2. Training in visualisation and imagery techniques (Holmes & Collins, 2001)

  3. Training in "broadening and building" positive experiences (Fredrickson, 2013)


Coaching in this study is viewed from the perspectives of Positive Psychology (i.e. character development and wellbeing) and Sport Psychology (i.e. skills and mastery development). It takes a more directive approach through psycho-education and skills-based training rather than the non-directive approach of client-led interventions.


The reason for this type of coaching selection is that action and movement require less talking and more instruction. The attention and focus is on the task or subject matter rather than the person's expression of self. There will be a learning session for the above 3 areas followed by immediate practice.


The research participant's voice and experience may be expressed in detail during a post-study interview where open-ended questions will be asked to help the participant process and digest what they have learned. They will receive a pre-study questionnaire where they will have the opportunity to flag up any areas of concern, and be invited to return for a further interview 3 or 6 months after the study ends.


Further to this, if they wish to engage in related studies of their own, this may be facilitated. In this way, they are not merely research "subjects" but active participants who can decide where they take their learning next.


The anticipated outcome of the study will be a coaching method that can be safely and effectively used for people who wish to better manage their stress through the embodiment of courage and confidence in physical training scenarios. This method will sit as an intervention between Positive Psychology and Exercise & Sport Psychology.


The study will also test the impact of this training and coaching intervention on other areas of the participants lives, and explore how the coach experiences what happens.


~


Undertaking such a study during a pandemic is not without limitations. There are rules on social distancing and public health factors to contend with. This means that the recruitment of research participants will need to wait - for now!


As a consequence of these limitations, I will be exploring the above intervention as a self-intervention first. I will create audio and visual recordings for the education and training components. Using self-coaching, I will then complete the first phase of the project alone. During the second phase, I will be able to draw on the support of my self-defence partner with whom I share the same social bubble.


This preliminary part of the study will hopefully help me to identify any shortcomings in the research design, and mark out areas for improvement. It will also offer an opportunity to consolidate the more extensive literature review required for this research.


~


This marks the end of a three-part series on character development through martial arts, self-defence, and Positive Psychology.


If you have followed this journey, may I express my gratitude to you for doing so.


Although these posts have been a "flushing out" of my thoughts in preparation for research, I hope that my openness and self-inquiry has been useful for you too.


If this topic speaks to you in any way, or you wish to discuss how you can create your own research project around character development through movement, exercise, or sport, please drop me a line here.


~


Claire Higgins is the Director of Inner Athletics. She is a Positive Psychology Practitioner (L7) with a Masters degree in Exercise & Sport Psychology, and leads operations, education and research at the Positive Psychology Guild.

~

References

Beck, J.G., Grant, D.M., Clapp, J.D., Palyo, S.A., (2009). 'Understanding the interpersonal impact of trauma: Contributions of PTSD and depression.' Journal for Anxiety Disorders, 23(4), pp. 443-450.


Coker, R. (2016). The Courage Pyramid. UK: Positive Psychology Guild.


Coker, R., Higgins, C. (2019). The Confidence Triangle. UK: Positive Psychology Guild.


Cinat, M.E., Wilson, S.E., Lush, S. (2004). 'Significant correlation of trauma epidemiology with the economic conditions of a community.' The Archives of Surgery, 139, pp. 1350-1355.


Fredrickson, B. (2013). 'Positive emotions broaden and build.' Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 47, pp. 1-53.


Holmes, P.S., Collins, D.J. (2001). 'The PETTLEP approach to motor imagery: A functional equivalence model for sport psychologists.' Journal of Applied Positive Psychology, 13(1), pp. 60-83.


Maercker, A., Hecker, T. (2016). 'Broadening perspectives on trauma and recovery: A socio-interpersonal view of PTSD.' European Journal of Psychotraumatology, 7(1), pp. 1-9.