The Mind-Life team interviewed people with a psychosocial disability about their experiences of engaging in community. We asked about the last time they went out and did something they really wanted to do. The stories were diverse in terms of locations and activities however, one commonality stood out.
Every story we heard named a cheerleader.
They may not be called a cheerleader – but they were always identified as someone who unreservedly supports, encourages, and believes in the person. They may, at times, give constructive feedback, or even challenge us, but always within the spirit of hope and possibility.
It’s not the name of the relationship that defines the Cheerleader – it is their personal qualities and core beliefs that facilitate a relational space and opportunities for the person to discover themselves. Perhaps, every person on a path of personal recovery should be encouraged to seek out and discover their own cheerleaders as, sometimes, they turn up in the most surprising of all places.
Michael’s story is a perfect illustration.
Michael had to go looking for his cheerleader in a cheerless world of pain. Pain has been a constant companion for Michael since he was a youngster - about 6 or 7 years of age. Not an unusual story; a broken family, a dad in jail, his family constantly on the move and, a series of temporary “uncles” or “dads”. Michael’s journey took him through many children’s homes, foster homes, hospitals, and detention centres.
By the time he had hit his teenage years he began a lifelong quest to discover who he was. In his later teens, he was also diagnosed with Schizophrenia. He landed at one point with an auntie who really wanted to save him. Aunt Jeanie loved him. Jeanie had done it tough too and was a hard country woman, determined to set Michael straight. Aunt Jeanie set tight rules for Michael; rules designed to keep him safe. Secretly, she was scared of the ‘Schizophrenia’ and its impact for Michael’s future.
Along the way Michael had discovered a love of cooking and creating his own version of signature dishes. When asked about his dream job, he would say, being ‘a chef’ or ‘cooking on a prawn trawler.’
These ideas filled Aunt Jeanie with fear. Michael heard her fear responses: “no, you don’t want to be around knives”; “those chefs are mad”; “it will be too stressful for you”; “no, you can’t live on a boat, there are too many drugs”; “who will be there for you and remind you to take your medication?”
It wasn’t just in relation to his ideal work that she was a naysayer. Her deep concerns traversed into all aspects of everyday life and growing up. If he mentioned someone he liked, she would say: “Oh, be careful about girlfriends. They will break your heart and you know you are sensitive. It’s best you don’t go looking for more pain that you don’t deserve.”
Even though Michael knew Aunt Jeanie loved him, he felt strangled by her love and her cautious approach to his life. Her fearful responses weighed heavily on Michael and undoubtedly just as heavily on Aunt Jeanie.
Day by day he lost his drive. He sat by the window of the little fibro house contemplating life and what was in store for him. He felt like his life was ebbing away - the more he withdrew, the more Aunt Jeanie nagged, begged, suggested, and directed him into the life she wanted for him. She was exasperated and, with all good intentions, was trying to activate him to do something, anything, as long as it was safe.
He didn’t respond outwardly. Inwardly his anger rose, eventually, erupting. He argued, became moody and what some would say, disrespectful to Aunt Jeanie. She blamed the illness for his change in behaviour. He blamed her approach, as he knew best. Michael felt he had no choice but to up and leave.
Michael knew he had a Grandfather on the other side of the country, but did not know him. This is where he went. Michael discovered a tough man who lived alone and liked to be self-sufficient. However, from the start Michael knew his Grandfather was different. He accepted Michael for who he was: he had no desire to change him. He just wanted to find out more about him. Michael started to appreciate that his Grandfather saw him and not an illness to manage.
Michael continued his daily window watching as he had done at Aunt Jeanie’s. Each day, his Grandfather would say good morning offer a cup of tea and go about his business. He invited Michael to join him on his daily walk. In the evenings, he invited Michael to cook with him. He would ask Michael his opinion about things as they watched the news together at the end of the day. Michael started opening up and sharing with his Grandfather.
Essentially, Michael’s Grandfather believed that he could, and would, discover who he was and who he wanted to be. He understood the real challenges and vulnerabilities that Michael experienced yet, cautioned him not to pay any “heed” to them. He mentored Michael to not be constrained by his own or other people’s limiting beliefs of what is possible.
The old man had another favourite catch phrase that he would say and then laugh: “just give it a go”. There was something refreshing about the strength and the lightness of this request that gave Michael the courage to try things anew. Michael started cooking again, experimenting with untried ingredients; creating new signature dishes. They would eat the food, savouring one another’s company. His Grandfather invited a couple of neighbours around to enjoy Michael’s food. “What’s the worst that can happen,” he said,
Michael felt like his Grandfather had some sort of magic way of being his quiet presence, his gentle invitations working their way into Michael’s heart and mind with slow glimmers of hope emerging. He began to believe the possibility that a whole new world was opening up to him, waiting to be explored.
This story illustrates the different positions we can hold with each other. We can choose the role that we play in each other’s lives. That choice, however, must be authentic. It is not possible to be considered a Cheerleader if you really, truly do not believe in the other person and their potential.
Cheerleaders and Naysayers’ roles are fluid and can only be determined by you. Not everyone in our life can be, or will be, selected by you as a cheerleader. Whilst you may choose a cheerleader in your life, they may be considered a naysayer by someone else in their life.
It is important to identify who is who in your village or on your team, especially when you need encouragement, not management. While we know that recovery is clearly a personal journey, Topor et al (2011) poses that “it unfolds within a social and interpersonal context”. Many recovery research studies have highlighted naysayers and cheerleader qualities. The list below may be useful in determining the cheerleader or naysayer qualities of people in your life.
The Naysayer is the person who, although well intentioned, cannot see the future or the hope of possibility. “No, you can’t do that. Let me save you, let me protect you.”
- Over invested or over involved
- Controlling outcomes
- Sets the bar low
- Fears of life-long suffering
- Encourages dependency
- Focuses on deficit or symptoms
- Rejecting of ideas/actions
- Infringement on individual rights
- Advocates and lobbies for the person
The Cheerleader says “you’ve got this. I’ve got you. You’ve got you. I’m interested.”
- Believes in change being possible
- Steps up or disengages when needed
- Doesn’t take credit for other people’s achievements
- Sees, hears and respects
- Shows confidence
- Goes above and beyond
- Shares shortcomings
- Shares experiences
- Acknowledges power and difference
- Fosters interdependence
- Trusts in the person
- Commitment to being relational
- Leading from behind
We are invited to pay close attention to who is in our life and who we are the lives of those around us.
Perhaps this table may help us answer some of the following questions:
· Who are the people in your life who add value? Who brings joy?
Who’s got your back?
· How do you identify a cheerleader – what are the qualities?
· How do you identify a naysayer – what are the qualities?
· Who do you need right now?
· What role do you want to play? What role are you able to play?
Topor, A., Borg, M., Girolamo, D., & Davidson, L. (2011). Not just an individual journey. International Journal of Social 57(90). Doi: 10.1177/0020764010345062.
Topor, A., Borg, M., Mezzina, R., Sells, D., Marin., I., & Davidson, L (2006). Others: the role of family, friends and professionals in recovery process. American Journal of psychiatric rehabilitation (9)17-37.