Episode 324: The Calm in the Storm with Dr. Robyne Hanley-Dafoe

Episode Summary

In this episode, Dr. Robyne shares her impressive survival story of escaping from death’s fingers in a river’s cold waters. We have an inspiring conversation about resilience, self-awareness peace, and values. We also talk about the massive difference a consistent champion can make in a child’s life, the importance of accepting that having hiccups along the way is normal and expected, and how to increase our abilities to bounce back when we fail.

Steve Shallenberger: Welcome to all of our Becoming Your Best podcast listeners wherever you may be in the world today. This is Steve Shallenberger, your host, and we are so thrilled and honored to have our listeners with us today. I mean, they are game-changers making a difference and they’re here. One of the very things that we’re doing here is they tune in and that’s what sets them apart from others because they’re trying to figure out how to become their best, and to move the bar up, and to maximize their happiness and joy and performance and productivity. So, because of that reason, we have a very special guest with us today. I’ve been looking forward to having her here. She is described as one of the most sought-after, engaging, thought-provoking, and truly transformative international speakers and scholars in her field. She is a multi-award-winning education and psychology instructor and resiliency expert. Welcome to Dr. Robyne Hanley-Defoe. 

Dr. Robyne Hanley-Dafoe: Oh, thank you so much, Steve. I’m thrilled to be here today for this conversation. 

Steve Shallenberger: Before we get started, I’d like to tell you a little bit more about Dr. Robyne. What sets her apart is how she learned resiliency from the ground up as a person who has experienced significant obstacles yet forged her comeback. And as a result, her work is both relatable and accessible. She lives in Ontario, Canada with her husband, Jeff. They have three children: Hunter, who was 18; Ava Leslie, who is 16; and Jackson, who is 14. We were talking beforehand, Dr. Robyne, and we were just talking about this is game time. 

Dr. Robyne Hanley-Dafoe: All in. Yeah, this is game season all in. We are in the midst of it, and we’re loving every minute of it. 

Steve Shallenberger: Well, let’s just get right into our visit today. And I’d love to have you start out by talking about your background, especially including any turning points that helped you get to where you are today. 

Dr. Robyne Hanley-Dafoe: Great questions, happy to do this. So, just to give context, I grew up in a great house system with loving parents and doing all the things right. So, I really grew up with a solid foundation. But despite that upbringing and that consistency and that support, I went off the rails as a teenager, which I think sometimes that happens. We got derailed and I ended up getting myself in some pretty challenging predicaments. And I ended up dropping out of high school, despite all of that support that was there to want me to do well and be my best, but unfortunately, the weight of some of my challenges became too hard to stay in school, and ended up dropping out of school and really struggled with mental health and emotional health. And like we often do, we turn to some of the wrong strategies to try and feel better and get better. So, developed a lot of maladaptive coping, Steve, which was a very difficult season for my family and me. I was very much in that pretty dark place. What was quite remarkable though, my family actually tried many interventions to try and help their troubled girl get back on track. And one of the last interventions, Steve, was our family actually moved. The family moved to a small community. We were living in a big city, we moved to a small community, and I did start to get better. I had a fresh start. Because sometimes we need a fresh start, we need to do over a second chance.  

[04:42] Dr. Robyne Hanley-Dafoe: And I started to get really well. I started to learn and figure things out and get the support I needed. And then, unfortunately or fortunately, depends on how you look at it, I ended up getting my driver’s license when I moved to that small community. And I was driving home very late at night and a snowstorm rolled in really quickly. And Steve, within moments, I lost control of my car. And the car went off the road and down an embankment, and my vehicle actually crashed through the ice. And my vehicle sank in the Otonabee River with me trapped inside. And within moments, my car was completely submerged and I was drowning in this vehicle. And in that moment, Steve, I remember I wasn’t actually feeling scared, I wasn’t feeling afraid. In this moment, I actually was feeling a wee bit angry. And I was angry at this idea that I couldn’t protect my mom from what was going to happen. After all she stood by me for, I didn’t want this to be part of her story, that she lost a daughter in a car accident like this. Now, the really remarkable thing about my mom is ever since I’d been a little girl, my mother used to always tell me that I could do hard things. She had this steadfast confidence, Steve, that I problem-solve, I figure things out, I was agile. She believed with so much confidence that I figure things out. And when I started to think about my mother, as I’m trapped drowning in this vehicle, it was like this emotional echo running through my bones, and I was just so overwhelmed with that confidence that I could do hard things like she told me. And I used that to find a way to survive, and I was able to wiggle out of the seatbelt.  

[06:32] Dr. Robyne Hanley-Dafoe: I couldn’t open the door because of the water pressure, but I was able to take my fingertips and dig them to where the window met the door and was able to pull the door window out of the track, and I was able to slide it down and sneak out the window. And as I got to the other side, and I had no idea which way was up or down. The water was just pulling the car so strongly, and I was turning around. And in that moment, I realized that the only way I could get my bearings was to actually just exhale, to let go of all of the breath that I was holding because I knew my bubbles would rise. And I swam as hard as I could after those bubbles with a big winter coat on and winter boots and jeans. And then I thought I was going to make it. I had this little surge, Steve, I was like, “Okay, we’re gonna figure it out.” And then all of a sudden, smash. Something hit my face so hard, my brain was really trying to figure out what it was. And Steve, it was ice. The vehicle had crashed a hole, but I was farther downstream. They estimate the vehicle at that time was like 20 feet underwater. And Steve, what I was able to do is just scramble and found a way to get through the ice.  

[07:44] Dr. Robyne Hanley-Dafoe: And there I was, in the middle of the night, in a blizzard, on a deserted road, in this river, holding the edge of this ice. And then there was this gentleman, and his name was Joseph, just a random guy in his 30s, driving home from shift work. And Joseph just happened to see my car tracks in the snow and he just happened to drive all along the side of that road to see if he could see anyone. He pulled over his pickup truck. He sees my body out on the ice. He grabs wood and a chain, uses the wood to support his bodyweight as he crawled then onto the ice. He slid out that chain, wrapped around my body, and he dragged me to shore. Now, what’s amazing is Joseph was awarded the Governor General’s Award for bravery, which is the highest honor we give a civilian in Canada, for him and his efforts that night saving my life. And I can share with you, just lastly, I remember waking up a wee while later in the hospital, Steve, and my mom was there. And my mother said to me, “How did you do it? How did you get yourself out of that situation?” And I said to my mother, “It is very much because you told me I can do hard things.” And my mother said, “That’s not ever what we really intended when we told you that at the time, but we’re glad it worked in your favor.” So, it did work in my favor. So, see, that pretty much became the origin story for me, where all of a sudden, I realized, “You know what? There is so much out there.” And it became the origin story as to why I wanted to study human resiliency. I wanted to study what helps and what supports people finding their best and just being able to push through even what seems insurmountable or unmovable. And then I spent the next, I guess, 20 years in university studying and learning and bringing my personal experience and my academic experience into that place where I can now be a service to others. 

Steve Shallenberger: Wow, those are great turning points! That’s so cool that people can identify experiences that they’ve had and turn them into a passion that can be a blessing to others. And what somebody may perceive as a weakness, turn it into a strength and let it be part of building a magnificent life. So, great going. 

Dr. Robyne Hanley-Dafoe: Thank you. I do think it wasn’t a linear recovery. That’s one of the things, I think, so often we get lost in is that sometimes it’s going to take a lot of revisits, it’s going to take a lot of rebounds, it’s going to take a lot of support. We’re not meant to do this alone. But I do believe it’s possible. 

Steve Shallenberger: And then Dr. Robyne has written a book, Calm Within the Storm: A Pathway to Everyday Resiliency. Tell us about the book, how did that come about and what’s the purpose or objective of the book? 

Dr. Robyne Hanley-Dafoe: The way it came about is I had spent, at that point, about 15 years working in the university, and I was sharing my material with my students and colleagues in a university setting. And then all of a sudden, I realized the conversations I really wanted to be having. Yes, of course, I love talking to my students, but I wanted to bring this into the public place. I wanted people to be able to talk about resiliency in a different way, not just keep it behind these academy walls. So, what I did was create this theory that I work with called Everyday Resiliency. And then what I did was put it into a way that we can share it. And anyone, doesn’t matter what your background is in psychology or education, doesn’t matter, you’re able to onboard to these universal principles of what makes persons able to handle and really stick handle some of the challenges, and the setbacks, and the stressors, and the things that come into their lives. So, I’ve braided research, but personal story, as well as application full of tools. So, that way, people can have, essentially, a wee bit of a guide as they try to figure out those tricky parts of their lives. 

Steve Shallenberger: That’s very exciting. I’m excited to hear about some of the things that are in the book. And I’m sure that my own life, people I know, family, friends – we all deal with setbacks and challenges. I think every single one of us. And I think it’s even compounded by what’s happened in the last couple of years in our world and what’s happening right now with conflict and turmoil and uncertainty. So, what does it really mean to be resilient? What is that? 

Dr. Robyne Hanley-Dafoe: So, I can tell you, I really differentiated my work from some other scholars because to me, what resiliency really is about, Steve, is getting to that place that you are okay, that you are confident and you have that steadfast confidence that you know you’re going to be able to weather whatever comes your way. So, it doesn’t mean we’re bulletproof, it doesn’t mean we don’t have bad days, it doesn’t mean we always have to be stoic and don’t feel emotion. It’s this idea that we learn how to position and set up our lives that has that nimbleness that’s required for us to be able to figure things out and recognize. Yes, you’re absolutely right, there are going to be challenging seasons, how we respond to it is key. So, everyday resiliency is about how we build that solid foundation so we can be okay no matter what. 

Steve Shallenberger: Is that really the end game? I mean, resiliency means that you want to be able to bounce back so that you can be happy, so that you can feel good and nurture strong relationships. Is that kind of the end game? 

Dr. Robyne Hanley-Dafoe: For me, what the end game about resiliency is recognizing our comeback strategies. So, we know we’re going to get walloped, we know we’re going to have hiccups, setbacks, we know that’s inevitable. So, what I’m curious about is how do we shorten our comeback rates to get us to that place where we’re okay again and we feel steady enough to keep showing up in our lives. Especially if we think about entrepreneurs, how many no’s that they have to face. And if you get too many of them and it takes you so long to bounce back from that and to try again, it’s really going to take you out of the game. So, the idea, whether it be personal or professional, is how do we recognize, like, “Yeah, we’re going to stumble, that’s part of this. Learning is meant to be messy and disruptive, growth is meant to be challenging.” And we want to make sure we can keep moving that needle forward, and we’re not being held back by some of our past events or experiences or some of the emotions. 

Steve Shallenberger: I had a wonderful mentor, for 50 years, just an outstanding man, but I was young when I first met him. He said, “Well, we all have setbacks.” He said, “For some people, it takes three months; for some people, three weeks; some people, three hours; and some people three minutes. And how fast you can bounce back really makes the difference of your effectiveness and happiness.” So, I’m excited to talk with you about how we do bounce back. And as we do that, Dr. Robyne, how can we reframe how we view strength to include things like vulnerability and openness and emotion? Because I presume some people may see those not as strength. How do you define that and how do you look at it? 

Dr. Robyne Hanley-Dafoe: So, I think that you’re touching on such an important component about our resiliency is this recognition that, again, we’re not superhuman, we’re not bulletproof. We have this full lived experience – we have these thoughts and these emotions, we have a past, we have dreams, we have a future. And all of that is essentially this huge ecosystem that we’re going to try to show up in and manage. And so often many of us have been conditioned, or groomed, or we were raised that to be able to be a high performer, we always have to be dialed in. We have to hit that high stride. And we don’t take breaks, we just keep pushing and pushing till the job is done. But one of the things we’ve learned, especially studying at a high level of performance, who’ve been able – Steve, this is the key – to sustain high performance is they have to be able to embrace the whole lived experience; recognizing their vulnerabilities, understanding their shortcomings, also understanding the emotional waves that impact our relationships; how we lead, how we nurture and take care of one another and ourselves. So, the people who we’ve been able to study, who are able to achieve, and again, sustain high performance; they have a very rich practice of living wholehearted; they’re showing up in the full moment, they’re not just relying on intellect; they’re not just relying on a good idea. They recognize that it’s this mosaic of thoughts and feelings and emotion, skill sets, gifts, and talents that they have to put into use. 

Steve Shallenberger: Well, I’m trying to think about that. And so how do you get to that point? 

Dr. Robyne Hanley-Dafoe: I think that a starting point where I usually encourage people to start is that self-awareness piece. So often we go on autopilot, and we’re just so busy, we’re hustling, we’re moving. And we’re not always taking the time that we need to reflect; to actually slow down and take a really good inventory of what’s working? What is helping? What is holding me back? What are some of those habits that are helping me maintain success? And what are some of those may be maladaptive habits that are actually making me harder to do the things that I want to do? So, often, what happens is that people just go with that urgency to do the best, to be the best – they have that urgency, that fuel of urgency. And my gentle invitation is that’s amazing, we want to harness that momentum, that inertia. And we want to make sure that we’re pausing to be able to do check-ins. And I love that you brought up that earlier about having a mentor, that’s this kind of idea of having a checkpoint, being able to build our self-awareness, to really be honest with ourselves. Because when you get that clarity of who I am, who am I not, what matters to me – then I can make what matters most matter most, and you can really show up in an effective way. 

Steve Shallenberger: One of the things you said earlier when you’re stuck in the car under the ice is you remembered your mom’s comment about “I can do hard things.” How do people reinforce that kind of an attitude and reinforce a high self-esteem and focus on the things that are important that produce that? It’s not just high achievement, it’s being to a really good place. 

Dr. Robyne Hanley-Dafoe: So, I think what’s so interesting is somewhere along the line – and I don’t know where, Steve – is that we picked up this idea that we’re supposed to make life look easy. We’re supposed to make it look easy and effortless, and the great ones make it look easy. The reality is that life is hard, it’s messy, it’s complicated. We are these emotional beings trying to do our best with other emotional beings. This isn’t easy work. And I think sometimes we’re doing a disservice when we present this as being so easy. So, I think this kind of conversation about recognizing the hard parts, and that’s where that vulnerability comes in; to be able to say, “Yes, I’ve been able to do it, but this was hard work.” And talk about if we’re going to do that hard work, what does that look like? What is stick-to-it-edness? That’s a concept I talked to a lot with teenagers because I want them to develop that stick-to-edness because it’s a lot easier just to jump to another website or scroll to something else, I want them to learn how to stick with something. So, again, those are skill sets that we’re going to start to cultivate that idea of learning that hardiness. And you do that by talking about it, by understanding the fact that there’s a lot that goes into all of this that we’re trying to do on an everyday basis. 

Steve Shallenberger: So, one of the really vital things for success in life is to keep getting back up. So, what’s the difference between giving up and getting back up again? And how do people consistently do that; keep getting back up and have the encouragement and hope to do so? 

Dr. Robyne Hanley-Dafoe: Great question, Steve. So, what I’ve been able to come upon in my research is that it’s the piece that connects to your values. So, you get up for something because it means enough to you and it’s worth it. And so often we’re trying to do things, and maybe we’re losing motivation, or we don’t have the discipline, but then you have to ask yourself, “Is this a worthy goal? Is this a worthy goal that is going to get me up when I’m tired, that is going to give you that energy to keep showing up when it’s difficult?” So, for example, if you’re in a season of your life where you’re providing for your family, and you’re the only one providing for your family – it’s not a question, you do it. So, it’s learning that piece about the value and the integrity, and when it’s worth it, we find a way. So, often when I’m talking to persons and they say, “Robyne, I don’t really follow these health habits. I struggle sometimes with staying disciplined.” But then the reality is if you valued it enough. And that’s unfortunately why, Steve, we see so often when people don’t really value their health until they have a health crisis. And then all of a sudden, they have this complete transformation, whether it be something if they, let’s say, had a heart attack, all of a sudden, they change their entire lifestyle because we just made it real. And the idea here is that we’ve got to make this stuff real and the worthiness of what we’re pursuing and what we’re trying to do, it’s got to be in alignment with who you are and what we’re all about. 

Steve Shallenberger: How do you keep that clear in your life? What have you found? Those things that are important to you that you aspire to, that are meaningful to you, can we take that up on the dashboard there? Because this produces this motivation, and produces the willpower to keep getting back up over and over again. 

Dr. Robyne Hanley-Dafoe: I think you use that word beautifully, that idea about clarity. So, it’s this idea about how do we get clarity in such a noisy, distracting world to stay focused on what matters most? So, I’m a huge advocate, as a behavioral scientist, I’m all about the environment and how we show up in the environment. So, you keep it in front of you. You actually have to have that image in front of you, those goals written down. We have to take it from the abstract, this thinking about it, Steve, to concrete. I always tell people, “If I looked at your calendar, would I be able to tell what you value? Would I be able to tell your priorities if I looked at your calendar?” So, often people will say, “Well, no, no, of course, family time isn’t on my calendar, Robyne, or these things aren’t on my calendar.” I’m like, “They should be.” Because if you value them, you put them, you carve out space and time so you can see that. So, I think we have to keep it top of mind, we need to have that omnipresent. And another way to do that, Steve, is to create ritual where we check in with ourselves, whether it be Monday mornings, Sunday nights, once a month, on the 15th of the month, the 30th of the months – you actually create systems where it’s like, “Okay, am I showing up? Am I dialed-in in a way that best serves my goal right now? Or how I could best be of service to others? 

Steve Shallenberger: Oh, great. Well, that is so good. So, I’m just thinking about your book, Calm Within the Storm. We all go through it. And the objective is to make it through the storm and feel great about that because we have them. What are some of the key points in your book that help people do that? 

Dr. Robyne Hanley-Dafoe: So, we talked about these five pillars a lot in terms of what is it that people need to be able to show up in such a healthy, meaningful way. And the first one, it’s belonging. We’ve got to have a home team, we have to have a home team people in our corner that are words that we’re going to fight for, that they’re going to fight for us. And we need to have that sense of community, and we’re meant to be in community. So, when people have that home team, and it doesn’t need to be this huge village. The research even shows for children, one caring, consistent champion can change a child’s life. So, just that idea of one safe place that you have. So, when you have that in your corner, you’re already winning. The next we talk about his perspective. And often when we think about perspective, we think about it as like attitude or a mindset; that is perspective building, of course, but it’s also how you feel. It’s this idea of an alignment between your head and your heart. And sometimes trying to get your head and your heart on the same page is a lot of work. It’s hard to do that. Our thoughts go so much quicker than our feelings, but our feelings last longer. So, being able to work with our feelings and our thoughts and have that perspective is key. We also talk about that in the book, the role of acceptance. And the reality is a lot of us deplete a lot of our energy and resources on things that are out of our control. There are things that are unmovable, and we’ve been taught, especially as high performers, it’s like, “No amount is too high. You have to push. You have to conquer it.” But we want to make sure we’re fighting the right battles. We want to make sure we’re putting our energy in alignment that actually makes the most sense for the bigger goals. So, understanding that there’s going to be some things outside of our control. And we don’t want to deplete ourselves. And a classic example of a common depletion, Steve, we see is when people ask Why questions: “Why is this happening to me? Why did that person do that?” Gosh! Traps us in the past. So, I want instead of a Why question, I want you to ask questions like, “What’s my next move? Where do I go from here? Who do I talk to? What’s next?” Because that gives us momentum, that puts us on that right track. So, acceptance is key.  

[25:14] Dr. Robyne Hanley-Dafoe: The last few principles we talked about in the book are the ideas of hope – choosing to live hope-filled, living in hope with others is a powerful place to occupy. And the last one, actually, it’s kind of a wildcard. We talk about this in the research, it’s actually humor, lightheartedness, joy, play, merriment – all of those things contribute to us being able to weather the storms, to bounce back. We don’t take everything so personally. We don’t internalize everything. We let some things flow through us, versus bottling things up and brewing. So, in the book, we talk about those five pillars and tons of strategies on how we can foster them and build them because those are areas that we can strengthen, that is within our control. 

Steve Shallenberger: Love those five pillars, those are good, those are really great things they can adopt. I just had a good feeling when you’re talking about them. They allow you to focus on what you can focus on, control what you can control, and they’re good things, and they make you a happier person. And when you’re a happier person, you do better in your relationships and you lift people. And when you lift people, they lift you, and it just is all good stuff, isn’t it? 

Dr. Robyne Hanley-Dafoe: Absolutely. And especially when we think about those things about hope, there’s so much negativity and noise out there. And everybody’s continuing to share more negativity and noise because the human condition, we’re attuned to it. So, for example, I talk about this in my work, where if we read a news heading that said, “Sun in the skies, all is well, you’re good.” Versus a news heading that says, “Crisis, doom and gloom, prepare yourself.” Which one’s going to sell the newspaper? Which one are we going to pick up? We’re not going to pick up the paper that says, “Sunshine, you’re golden.” We’re going to pick up the paper that says, “Prepare yourself, be aware, be cautious there are threats out there.” So, our brain is actually attuned to go to negativity, and you know that. So, for example, say, you have 99 pieces of positive feedback, 99 people say, “Steve, this is the best podcast I’ve ever listened to, thank you.” And you have one person that says, “Steve, that wasn’t my favorite.” We don’t bask in that “Wow! 99% of my listeners feel served.” We want to know where’s that one guy; “Where is that person? I want to talk to that person. I want to fix that.” We focus on the negativity. So, if we really want to cultivate our most resilient self, we actually have to actually work a wee bit against our biology at times, to keep that focus, keep top of mind, seek out the good, seek out the hopefulness, seek out the joy because what’s so fascinating, Steve, is our brains are so underdeveloped for what we’re asking them to do. Our nervous system only is just trying to keep you alive, it doesn’t care if you’re happy. So, we have to take the lead there. The nervous system will keep you safe, it’ll give you worry and anxiety and fear just so you know that there’s threat and there’s danger out there in the world. It’s going to always be aware of what could go wrong. We have to train ourselves and then put behavior into place that’s going to invoke the positive because our bodies don’t do that naturally. 

Steve Shallenberger: That is great advice, and it’s a great way to conclude our visit today. I can’t believe we’re already at the end. I had a friend one time say, “Discipline leads to confidence, and confidence leads to success.” So, I love what you’re saying is just have the discipline, I’m not going there. I’m going to focus on the good and the positive, and be constructive, and do what I can, and move forward in a positive way. So, great job, and how can people learn about what you’re doing? 

Dr. Robyne Hanley-Dafoe: The best place is my website, And I look forward to these conversations continuing. So, please feel free, folks, to reach out. And again, Steve, thank you for asking such great questions. It’s been a pleasure to spend time with you today. 

Steve Shallenberger: No, it has. And it’s been a delight to have you part of the show. I know this will be such a positive, such a benefit and a value to not only me but our listeners. And I’m going to have people, I’m going to tell my friends and family about this. I want them to listen to it. 

Dr. Robyne Hanley-Dafoe: Oh, bless you. Thank you so, so much. Take good care. I appreciate the opportunity to meet you. 

Steve Shallenberger: And to all of our listeners, not only do we thank Dr. Robyne for being with us, we thank you for being with us. You are an inspiration to me, ad you are an inspiration to other people that you associate with. And just like Robyne’s mom said you can do hard things, you too are wonderful listeners, are blessing people in ways that you probably would just never really even be able to know. So, it’s a privilege to be here. We wish you a great day today and always. This is Steve Shallenberger with Becoming Your Best Global Leadership wishing you all the best.

Steve Shallenberger

Founder, Becoming Your Best
CEO, executive, corporate trainer, and community leader.

Dr. Robyne Hanley-Dafoe

Keynote Speaker, Author, Educator, Resilience Expert

Multi-Award-Winning Psychologist & Educator, Leadership & Personal Wellness Strategist

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