Today’s guest experienced a “trifecta of trauma” when three experiences of death and illness affected her family within just 10 months. These experiences led her to a revelation and the discovery of her life’s purpose.
Join us as Lisa Honig Buksbaum, the author of “SOARING Into Strength,” shares her personal story as well as thoughts on how trauma can actually foster resilience.
Lisa Honig Buksbaum, MAPP, MBA, is an author, social entrepreneur, and Positive Psychology thought leader. Lisa is a passionary: a visionary driven by great passion and action. An intuitive healer, well-loved inspirational speaker, and expert workshop leader and facilitator, Lisa has shared her wisdom with thousands of people throughout the world. Three experiences with death and illness in her family during a 10-month period motivated her to launch Soaringwords, a nonprofit organization devoted to inspiring children, families, adults, seniors, and healthcare professionals to take active roles in self-healing to experience greater physical, emotional, and mental well-being.
She is the author of “SOARING into Strength: Love Transcends Pain,”her debut memoir. Lisa graduated with honors from The University of Pennsylvania and holds an MBA in Marketing from Columbia University Graduate School of Business and a Master of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) from The University of Pennsylvania. She has a certificate in Narrative Medicine from Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and a certificate from the American Institute for Mental Imagery.
Lisa is President-Elect of the International Positive Psychology Association’s (IPPA) Health and Wellbeing Division, is on the Advisory Board of the Global Positive Health Initiative, and serves on the Board of the Coincidence Project. She’s been featured as an expert on ABC News, Fortune’s Small Business, USA Today, Delta Skymagazine, and CEO to Watch in The Chronicle of Philanthropy. Lisa was a columnist for Inc.magazine. She was the non-celebrity winner of the Lives That Make a Difference Award from A&E Television Networks, and won a National Mothering That Works Award from Working MotherMedia. She was inducted into the YMCA Academy of Women Achievers Hall of Fame. She was on the board of Advertising Women of New York, the leading organization for executive women in communications; board of directors of The New York Women’s Agenda; board of the Alumnae Committee for Columbia University Graduate School of Business; and the advisory board for the Center for Business Womens’ Research in Washington, D.C.
She has led professional development workshops at dozens of Fortune 500 companies such as Accenture, Cigna, Cisco, Deloitte, Lilly, Meta, Google, Johnson & Johnson, JPMorgan Chase, New York Life, SONY, Verizon, and Viacom. Lisa lives in New York City with her husband Jacob. Her pride and joy are her two grown sons, Jonathan and Joshua, daughter-in-law Evelyn, and adorable grandbaby Charlotte. She gets her energy from swimming each day and connecting with people in fun and meaningful ways.
Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, “Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations,” available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author.
Gabe makes his home in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. He lives with his supportive wife, Kendall, and a Miniature Schnauzer dog that he never wanted, but now can’t imagine life without.
To book Gabe for your next event or learn more about him, please visit gabehoward.com.
Producer’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Announcer: You’re listening to Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast where experts share experiences and the latest thinking on mental health and psychology. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.
Gabe Howard: Welcome, everyone. I’m your host Gabe Howard and calling into the show today we have Lisa Honig Buksbaum, MAPP, MBA. Lisa holds an MBA in marketing from Columbia University Graduate School of Business and a masters of Applied Positive Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of the new book “SOARING Into Strength: Love Transcends Pain.” Lisa, welcome to the show.
Lisa Honig Buksbaum: Thanks, Gabe. I’m so excited to be here.
Gabe Howard: Lisa, in preparation for the show, I read in your official biography that you are, quote, driven by great passion and action, unquote. Can you talk about the role of passion and how it fuels your work and, of course, your personal life?
Lisa Honig Buksbaum: Well, passion or zest is one of my signature strengths. It fuels every aspect of my life, the curiosity or love of learning. I’m always wanting to read about the latest discoveries and positive psychology and how I can incorporate these findings into my work to help people take active roles in their self-healing and passion shows up in my tremendous love for people. I want to know what they value, what gives them joy, what their experiences have been. And I’m constantly buying books to learn about people’s lives and how their lives shape them into becoming the person they are. And if you’ve ever been in the zone and for everyone listening, you appreciate that passion isn’t just some fuzzy woo-woo concept. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, he has a theory of flow and it shows that there’s science that what happens when we become one with an activity that we love, we lose our sense of limitation time and we become one with that activity.
Gabe Howard: I think that anybody who has considered having to do something because they have to. Like, clean up the kitchen or make dinner or having to do something
Lisa Honig Buksbaum: Okay [Laughter].
Gabe Howard: Because they want to. Right? A hobby, something that brings them a tremendous amount of fulfillment or joy. I think people can begin to understand where that passion component really, really pushes you through. So my question to you, Lisa, is how do I find passion in the mundane, in the chore and the thing that, you know, look, I’m just trying to feed my family and clean up the kitchen and move on to the next task. How do I build the passion out of that?
Lisa Honig Buksbaum: Yes. So I think we dial up other things that we know from positive psychology that also can really enhance whatever we’re doing, whether it’s sweeping the floor or folding laundry. And those are the values of meaning and purpose. And when we imbue a mundane activity with a sense of meaning and purpose, then it really can elevate that activity. And I don’t mean it in a haughty, holier-than-thou way, but if I’m making food for my family and packing lunch for my husband every day. So when he rides his bike to work and he’s working all day as an architect and going to job sites like when he has lunch, I know that he has a healthy lunch. And when I’m chopping those vegetables, I can just think that this is my love language for him in the same way that when he’s schlepping through the snow or the rain or the heat, he’s buying the groceries and he hopefully is thinking, I’m feeding my family. I’m literally bringing the food home. I’m a hunter-gatherer and I’m bringing the food home from the supermarket. And that can transform that mundane act like, did you get the oatmeal? You got the broccoli into something that has a little bit more of a sense of meaning and purpose. Also, when we’re on, quote-unquote, autopilot, what I love to do is turn on something or just start singing at the top of my lungs, because that’s what I love to do. And I was 12 years old playing my guitar, and that’s what I love to do today. So we always have a choice to dial up or dial down. And one of my favorite new expressions is don’t just do something. Sit there. Because that’s a new behavior for me to not be constantly thinking and doing, which is to be present or not.
Gabe Howard: One of my best friends in the whole wide world. She tells me this story of her mother becoming exasperated at a family vacation and says, Look, anybody can have fun when you’re having fun. And and of course, they all just, you know, cocked their head to the side and they’re like, okay, well, mom has clearly lost it. But this has taken on sort of meaning for her in that look. Find the fun. Is this sort of a find the passion kind of thing and the example that you use, you’re like, look, I could just look at it as the mundane of chopping up vegetables, or I could see it as energizing my husband during his workday to make sure that he doesn’t swing in for fast food and eat junk food and become unhealthy. And then it becomes this like, powerful statement. Is it like that?
Lisa Honig Buksbaum: Yes.
Gabe Howard: Is it anybody can find passion if they’re looking for passion?
Lisa Honig Buksbaum: So just to be more specific. So with salad, I could throw together some wilting lettuce and chop up some tomatoes, and I literally could check off that box. But, and I’m not Martha Stewart, but in these moments, I love red and yellow and orange peppers. And they’re organic and healthy, and I chop them up and I can buy, oh, take a pomegranate and chop it in half. And inside there’s hundreds and hundreds of seeds, which takes a little time to pluck out and then maybe take a fig and cut that in and put some cashews. So like putting in all those colors and textures and flavors, it’s a way to again, express creativity and love. So it just takes something that’s very simplistic and can make it more joyful, more meaningful.
Gabe Howard: Altruism is a constant theme throughout a lot of your work, your book, your stories, your keynotes. Can you share with us some of your findings regarding how altruism bolsters resiliency for those of us going through difficulties?
Lisa Honig Buksbaum: I’m reminded of the work of Angela Duckworth, who’s another positive psychology mentor and rock star and friend. And she’s the leading expert in the world on resilience, which she calls grit, because it’s kind of edgy and cool. So when I was creating my capstone thesis for my master’s, of course, it had to tie into soaring words. And the A in SOARING stands for Altruism. I built that pay it forward into every single thing with those hospitalized kiddies, because people like Lisa they’re in the hospital get them a teddy bear, send them to Disney World. And I was like, All of those distraction things are great, but I want to do something where they get to be the giver. They get to be the creative one. They get to be the person who’s not attached to the IV pole, and that becomes how they identify themselves. and we basically invite kids to do something like an expressive arts project or a writing project. And when you invite someone to do something kind for a child in the hospital, like he’s going to say, No, I don’t want to do that. No, thank you. So it just lets people tap into their empathy and their creativity and laughter, and it reminds people like fancy corporate executives or people that we do a lot of work with social service agencies and people who are living in the most dire situations.
Lisa Honig Buksbaum: And when we invite them to do something for a child in the hospital, it also lights them up because it reminds them of their core identity and their self-worth and their strength. And there’s something called reification, which is when a person starts to identify themselves as their disease. And we have to be careful about that. It used to be the guy or the gal in the white coat doing rounds in the hospital, be like the kidney patient in bed two or the cancer patient in this this unit here. And these are people. So when we invite people to pay it forward to help someone less fortunate than themselves, it mitigates their sense of isolation and despair.
Gabe Howard: Now, Lisa, in your book you talk about some of the tragedies and traumas that have happened in your own life. And there is even a period of time that you refer to as “the trifecta of trauma.” Can you tell us more about that?
Lisa Honig Buksbaum: So I was 37 years old when a phone call at 4:00 in the morning jolted me out of a deep sleep. And that’s when it launched a trifecta of trauma that changed my life forever. There were three experiences with death and illness that happened to our family in just ten months. My beloved brother Gary died suddenly of an asthma induced heart attack. And my father was battling lymphoma, the worst kind and the worst stage. And the head of oncology at that top oncology hospital in New York City told me and my mom he’s not going to make it get his affairs in order. It’s impossible for him to live. Talk about taking away hope. But he did live. He lived cancer free for 19 years. And then my oldest son became catastrophically ill when I was launching the largest telecommunications company in the world at the largest trade show in the world. My husband called and said, I need to talk to you. I said, I’ll call you later. Goodbye. I love you. And he said, Lisa, don’t hang up. Jonathan’s catastrophically ill. You need to come home immediately. And when that happened, and when my family’s world imploded, I felt as if I had become irrevocably damaged. But instead, I discovered my calling during a sunrise walk on the beach during the height of John’s illness. And I heard the words soaring words. I saw my whole life kind of float in front of me like a beautiful, taffeta ribbon. And I thought all those children in the pediatric cardiology waiting rooms with their parents and no one was looking up and no one was smiling. And I saw all those children in the pediatric neurology waiting rooms, and I knew why I was born.
Lisa Honig Buksbaum: I had this sense of knowingness that everything I had done in my life from being a candy striper and running a successful marketing communications firm, that I was going to take all of that experience and create all of the things that we so desperately needed when my son was ill, when my dad was ill. And people would be like, Hey, Charlie, how are you doing? He goes, well, they’re asking me how I am. My son died five weeks ago. I’m here fighting for my life, and people just don’t know what to say, Lisa. They don’t have the vocabulary to meet me where I am, but not say something that’s well-intentioned but really harmful. So I’ve spent the last 22 years giving people roadmaps and guidance and language and action so that they could be that healing presence in their own life or for the life of people that they know and love. And I think it’s a really important conversation. And one of the benefits of this global pandemic is that we’re talking about mental illness, we’re talking about isolation, we’re talking about these feelings that we have and people like yourself bringing it to the fore and normalizing it and destigmatizing it is is so helpful and healing. And that’s one of the gifts that this global pandemic I think has brought to the forefront.
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Gabe Howard: And we’re back with the author of “SOARING Into Strength: Love Transcends Pain,” Lisa Honig Buksbaum. Lisa, no one wishes for tragedy or trauma to happen in their lives, but it is often inevitable. How do these types of traumatic events strengthen people’s sense of resilience and gratitude?
Lisa Honig Buksbaum: We can’t choose what happens in our lives. However, we can choose how to respond to setbacks or challenges with grace, self-compassion and awareness. And when we don’t have grace, self-compassion or awareness, the next day we’re going to have 20 more opportunities to try better or to start again. When my brother Gary died suddenly at age 35, he was my only sibling, my baby brother. We were fellow entrepreneurs. We were so close. My two sons were his children because he hadn’t started a family on his own. But I made a choice that I didn’t want the rest of my life to be defined solely by loss and grief. And of course, there’s been many times over the past 25 years where it’s been incredibly painful and difficult. Birthdays, anniversaries, death, anniversaries, holidays, and then the days leading up to these anniversaries, they really suck because I get very tearful. And I process all my feelings. And it just happens automatically. Sometimes I’ll be like, Why am I so irritable? And then I’m like, Oh, okay, I’m irritable because next week is the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, and that’s the day my brother dropped dead. And it’s coming up like my body knew before I was like before I was able to say, Aha, that’s what’s happening. So the best place for me to cry is in the swimming pool or in the tub bathtub because I’m already immersed in water. And then by letting the feelings flow and then I can flow back into myself and my default way of being in the world emerges. And that philosophy and reality is that I made a decision to choose to live for both of us. So in many ways, I feel that Garry and I are doing this work together.
Gabe Howard: As I’m sitting here listening to you talk, I’m struck by two things. One, I just can’t imagine losing any of my own siblings like that, that that that kind of hits me in the chest a little bit. And it’s confusing me a little bit because I can’t tell if you’re grateful or if you’re saddened and or if that’s just really what resiliency is, the ability to be both at the same time. Can you suss that out a little for our audience?
Lisa Honig Buksbaum: Absolutely. You’ve just hit the nail right on the head because resilience and gratitude are two superpowers that we all possess and that I always hold really close. So R in my SOARING Into Strength model is stands for Resilience. And Angela Duckworth defines grit as persistence for goals that are difficult and challenging. And it’s this notion that anyone who’s gone through a challenging obstacle, being differently abled or experiencing a setback, it’s through pushing through challenge and doing your best, having helpful professionals, friends and family supporting you. That gives deeper appreciation that many people take for granted. These people who live impossible and possibly airbrushed Instagram lives. Okay. And G, the G in my model stands for Gratitude, which I believe is the most powerful of all positive emotions. So I had a choice to make when I would be flying back from doing a speaking engagement and waiting in the airport or sitting next to someone in a plane. And I pretty extroverted.
Lisa Honig Buksbaum: So I always talk to people because it’s fun and that’s how you learn new things and make synchronistic connections. And they be like, Oh yeah, well, I was just visiting my brother and sisters and I was like, Oh, how many do you have? And they’re like, ten. Like, you know, I could hate their guts or I could say I had what I had with my brother was amazing. How many people can say when someone dies we had no loose ends, we had no regrets? Or we all wish it could have been like longer. But that’s also not reality. There’s death and taxes and the incredible allure of a chocolate covered strawberry, but not being flippant about it. But it’s only by leaning into the beauty and the love and the substance of what was lost that I can appreciate moments of joy even at a greater magnitude.
Gabe Howard: People like you and I we’re we’re storytellers. We love public speaking. We love to be in groups. And we, but not everybody wants to be us. Not everybody wants to have a podcast, and not everybody wants to tell a story in front of 1,000 people. But you have often said that storytelling is important. It’s important for resiliency. It’s important to move through trauma. Can you talk to our audience who are not public speakers about why storytelling is so important and maybe provide a hint or two for the the average person that’s not Gabe and Lisa to to move forward in their storytelling is that I’m making air quotes careers.
Lisa Honig Buksbaum: [Laughter] I love air quotes. We need we more quotes.
Gabe Howard: Air quotes, they hide all sins.
Lisa Honig Buksbaum: We need more stories about air quotes. So actually, I have a fabulous story about storytelling and positive narrative, and it just happened. One of my passion projects is that I’ve just started writing a one woman show, solo show based on the stories in SOARING Into Strength and taking an amazing class with a Broadway award winning Broadway director and a Hollywood and Broadway actress. And so since I live in New York City, I’m going to see a lot of theater, Broadway shows, off-Broadway shows like a lot. And I was sitting in this one show last Saturday night. So I started talking to the people on our right, and my husband’s like, rolling his eyes. There she goes again. It’s like, Hi, What? What brings you to see this show? Why did you pick this show? So the woman says, Well, we live in Austin, Texas, and we’re seeing a bunch of theater. We’re here for the weekend and I’m giving a reading on Sunday morning. And I said, Oh, what kind of readings? She said, Well, I’m an author and I won this contest. And I said, That’s amazing. What’s your name? I want to check out your work. And she said, My name is Ruth Pennebaker. So I said, Pennebaker, Austin, Texas. Are you related to Jamie Pennebaker? She said, yes, and she pointed to the man sitting to her side and he leaned forward and he said, That’s me. But Jamie Pennebaker is the leading expert in the world on positive narrative. And I’ve studied Dr. Pennebaker’s work for years because when we can be the heroes of our stories, it gives us a sense of agency and confidence and self-worth from the most important source ourselves, from the person who’s always going to be with us, accompanying us on this path.
Lisa Honig Buksbaum: So I find that when I invite people to be the hero or heroine of their life, then you can reclaim the story of your life and not have to be a victim or not have to be what you present on the outside. We know through a lot of this civil unrest and these conversations we’re having about health equity and racial equity and gender inclusion, that we get to tell the story of how we see ourselves and how we want to be in the world. And the last thing I want to say about storytelling, and this is for everyone, no matter what you do in your life or no matter where you are in your life, you could be really young, you could be really old. That there’s something really therapeutic about telling stories. And there’s something called Appreciative Inquiry. And it’s the work of David Cooperrider. And he says that when you posit questions so people can access times when they were resilient or when people were kind to them, even in the midst of the most traumatic experiences. When you do this appreciative inquiry, when you take something instead of being like, Yeah, it was really bad, it was horrible. I was miserable. If you can authentically look for the good, find the good in that situation, find something redemptive. Find something resilient or incredibly kind. And these are small, small things. It can give a sense of hope that there’s always good to discover when we’re open to being open. And I think that’s the healing power of positive narrative that the way we tell our story to a doctor, the way we tell our story to a new group of people or a person that we’ve just met with.
Gabe Howard: Lisa, I’m so glad you were able to spend some time with us today. Where can listeners learn more about you?
Lisa Honig Buksbaum: So if you go to SOARING Into Strength, soaring into strength, it’s on Instagram and YouTube and Facebook and TikTok and LinkedIn. And if anyone’s interested in the SOARING Into Strength workshops or those activities, if you just do soaring words that will come up on Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, TikTok and LinkedIn as well.
Gabe Howard: I hope our listeners will check that out and thank you so much for being here.
Lisa Honig Buksbaum: Thank you, Gabe. It’s been so much fun, and I just really love listening to your show. And thanks for having me.
Gabe Howard: You are so very welcome, I had such a great time. And to our listeners, thank you so much for being here. My name is Gabe Howard and I am the author of “Mental Illness Is an Asshole and Other Observations.” I’m also an award-winning public speaker who could be available for your next event. My book is on Amazon because, well, everything is. Or you can grab a signed copy with free show swag or learn more about me by heading over to gabehoward.com. Wherever you downloaded this episode, please follow or subscribe to the show. It is absolutely free. And hey, can you do me a personal favor? Recommend the show to your friends, family, colleagues. If you go to a support group, recommend it there, put it on social media, send a text message. Referring the show is how we grow. I will see everybody next Thursday on Inside Mental Health.
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