Nicky Abdinor: Don’t ignore what’s wrong but focus on what’s right

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Nicky Abdinor

Nicky Abdinor is a clinical psychologist, inspirational speaker, and the founder of Nicky’s Drive, a non-profit which funds vehicle adaptations for people with disabilities in South Africa. I first met Nicky at an online course on mental health I embarked on during the lockdown. It was a one-sided communication with her tutoring in a recorded video. Yet, she was a blast — her vast amount of energy flew with such a power, reverberating through the internet. Her ability to connect with an invisible audience on the other side of the world made it impossible to not want to get to know her better. Thanks to her great sense of humour and positive attitude towards life, I imagine Nicky being the person everyone wants to hang out with. Nicky doesn’t have arms, and her legs are too short, making the vivacity and passion concentrated in her small body even more potent.

Here’s a conversation with Nicky about positive psychology, self-reinvention, and communication at a time of social distancing.

MI: How are you in your everyday life?

NA: I am generally a positive and social person. I enjoy close relationships with friends and family. I love my work, so it is a large focus of my life, but I believe in balance.

MI: Your therapy and inspirational talks are grounded on the idea that “it is not our situation, but how we think about our situation that determines our emotional well-being.” Could you tell us a bit more about this conclusion?

NA: This premise is from Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT). Often we think that we feel a certain way because of a situation we find ourselves in. If this were true, we would all react in exactly the same way to the same situation. Not true!

How we react to a situation (emotionally or behaviourally) is determined by how we think about it. The best example to demonstrate this concept is to imagine walking through a grocery store, and you see an acquaintance who walks straight past you, without a greeting or acknowledgment.

Three people in the same situation might react differently. Person 1 might feel offended or rejected (their thoughts might be “Nobody ever remembers me” or “I must have offended them before”). Person 2 might feel angry (thinking, “How rude!”). Person 3 might feel concerned (thinking, “That’s strange — I wonder why they didn’t greet me? Maybe they just heard bad news and had to rush out of the store? Maybe they weren’t wearing contact lenses and couldn’t even see me?! I’m going to check in on them tomorrow.”).

The third response is a much healthier and helpful one that doesn’t lead to a distressful negative emotion.

CBT aims to restructure irrational and unhelpful thinking patterns to improve emotional and behavioural outcomes.

MI: Why do you think more and more practitioners are turning to positive psychology, and how does it complete traditional psychology?

NA: Psychology has traditionally been from the point of pathology (what is wrong). Positive Psychology has introduced a different approach and focuses more on what is right. It focuses on our strengths, wellness, and happiness. I think it brings about a healthy balance in the field of Psychology.

MI: What is the fine line between positive psychology and realism?

NA: I consider myself a realistic optimist. You can focus on the positive while remaining realistic. Positive psychology is not about ignoring what is wrong, but focusing more on what is right. It’s about encouraging us to adopt ways to lead a happier and healthier lifestyle.

MI: You have been blessed with a supportive family that believed in you from the beginning and focused on what you can do. What would you tell an adult who grew up being told that he or she isn’t enough? How can we reinvent ourselves as adults whose self-concept has been distorted during childhood?

NA: It is important to remember that the past has shaped who we are today. Besides our personality, our past experiences and relationships have impacted how we view ourselves, others, and the world. If we were not fortunate enough to be brought up in an environment that was nurturing and supportive, we need to work hard as adults to repair and “reprogramme” those unhelpful and harmful messages we were given as a child.

Positive and healthy relationships in adulthood, as well as self-compassion, can help us to do this. I always think of our brains like a hard drive — we have a tendency to store or save experiences or memories that are more negative or reinforce the “I’m not good enough.” When something positive happens (evidence to say you are good enough), we are quick to dismiss it or forget about it later. It takes time, commitment, and practice to develop the core belief, “I am good enough.” If you decide to run a marathon in six months, you won’t start training the day before — you will work towards that goal over time, staggering your training and building endurance strength. We need to treat our brains in the same way.

MI: What does it take to believe in yourself?

NA: We are born with a temperament that develops into a personality. I think the nature versus nurture debate is always important — are we born to be a certain way, or is it our environment that determines who we become? Like most people, I think it is a bit of both. An essential part of developing self-belief in children is to provide unconditional love, safety, nurturance, and allow children to develop independence and identity.

MI: What can we do in our everyday lives to improve our listening skills? Especially when most social and professional interactions are happening virtually.

NA: Active listening is one of the most significant skills in the future of work and personal relationships. I’ve always believed that if we all learned basic therapy skills, we would have significantly better relationships at home and at work. In his Person-Centered Therapy, Carl Rogers emphasises on the importance of empathy, unconditional positive regard, and congruence (authenticity). If we brought some of this into the workplace and our everyday lives, I am positive that employee and personal wellness would be significantly better.

Listening is about making meaning of what is being said. It’s about being fully present and not focusing on what you want to say next or trying to multitask. As Stephen Covey said, “Most of us don’t listen with the intent to understand. We listen with the intent to reply.” In a conversation, always assume that you have something to learn.

MI: We tend to worry about future-related events. I think the Covid-19 crisis was an excellent lesson for many of us to live in the moment and stop pretending we can control everything. What other lessons can we take from this pandemic and the lockdown?

NA: If you had to think about what is worrying you right now, you’ll find that these worries are mostly future-oriented. We don’t worry about the past; however, we sometimes dwell on the past, which can lead to depression. All worry and stress usually have uncertainty as the “screensaver” to our brains. We want to know for sure what will happen in the future. We devote too much time in trying to create certainty, putting in safety behaviours to limit our anxiety, which actually backfires on us, instead of learning coping skills that can help us thrive in an uncertain and challenging world. The pandemic has forced us to tolerate uncertainty more, and it has made us realise how much we took for granted before.

MI: How important is humour and self-sarcasm in our lives?

NA: Being able to laugh at yourself is a very powerful tool. My sense of humour has always made it easier to connect with people and break down the barriers of being “different.”

MI: What steps can we take to become more honest with each other; to build solid, long-lasting relationships?

NA: In a world where there is so much “false news,” and there is the pressure to be perfect on social media, there is a growing trend for us to seek role models who show authenticity and credibility. I think people are looking to connect with others who are open to showing their vulnerabilities and challenges in day to day life. The more public figures are willing to do this, the more it gets normalised and people become less afraid to be real.

To build long-lasting, deep relationships, we need to be willing to show our vulnerabilities. This is a lot easier when a relationship is based on trust, empathy, and reciprocity.

MI: Children are creative thinkers and risk-takers. As adults, we are asked at work, for example, to display the same abilities. But it doesn’t come as quickly and naturally. How can we bring some of our childhood’s virtues into our adult life?

NA: Martin Seligman, one of the greatest positive psychologists, said in his book, The Optimistic Child, that children’s natural state is of activity and optimism. When we are younger, we don’t compare ourselves to others or doubt our own abilities; these become learned behaviours. Tracey Hunter, a psychologist, based in Australia, made the interesting point that what blocks our optimism or hope as an adult is the willingness to enter a vulnerable state. In other words, if we are to be optimistic, we’ll need to be susceptible to potential disappointment, failure, and setbacks. We need to embrace our inner child, stop comparing ourselves to others, and ignite that inner drive that we were born with. As adults, we forget the importance of playing, laughing, and taking ourselves less seriously. Play!

MI: Last but not least, what is the message you would like to send about living with disabilities to societies which are limiting people with disabilities?

NA: We forget that we all have “disabilities” of some sort. When they are physical, they are easier to see and imagine what some of the difficulties may be. Emotional or psychological challenges are the least understood. I think our greatest strength can be to know what your disabilities are and find ways of compensating for them.

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A wanderer at heart, when people ask me where I come from, I say “it’s complicated.”

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