You are stronger and smarter than you think!

By Shelley HourstonTapestry with bird

Perhaps you already know that we are all stronger and smarter than we think. I wish that someone had shared this gem with me when I was floundering in my twenties. Now these many years later, I know this to be true and it does give me comfort. I’ve also discovered that it’s easier to access my strengths and knowledge than I’d thought.

Every one of us has a unique blend of strengths and knowledge woven throughout our life experience. Even if you are younger, your life experience is an extraordinary resource. The key is to learn how to separate the strengths and knowledge from the emotions that may be clouding our memories. We tend to minimize our abilities and resilience because we measure ourselves against other people or our own standards, dreams or ambitions. We learn to use a “glass half empty” or deficit perspective and we may believe that acknowledging our personal strengths is conceited or boastful. The truth is, we need to recognize and call on our personal strengths from time to time. Recalling our life experiences to identify our strengths can provide enormous practical and psychological benefits.

I’ve discovered a couple of tools that help turn life experience into resources and strategies. The first is Appreciative Inquiry (AI), a reversal of the standard “problem-solving approach.” Broadly speaking, AI involves a search for successes or “what’s working” and then utilizes the “lessons learned” to generate more success. The second tool is one that complements AI and is called Guided Autobiography (GAB). GAB is a method of life review or reminiscence—recalling and writing about your life experiences in short, focused chapters or stories. AI meshes nicely with GAB by focusing our attention on experiences of success or growth even when the experience may have originated as a difficult or challenging experience.

Learn to use AI and GAB
BCCPD is currently offering GAB and AI experience in both group and individual formats for people living with HIV and/or HCV in BC.

Group format—new groups forming now:
Small groups of people meet weekly for two hours over five weeks. It is possible to meet face-to-face in the Vancouver area. For those outside of Vancouver we’ll meet by teleconference at a time agreed upon by participants. Writing experience and skill is not required. You’ll be “writing like you talk” and the emphasis is on capturing the story rather than producing eloquent prose.

A teleconference group for HIV/HCV co-infected is currently forming. Two spaces are still available. Please contact me as soon as possible if you’re interested.

Individual/interview format:
The individual interview is for people who may not wish to write or feel more comfortable with a one-to-one interview scenario. Meetings take place by phone. We meet for one hour and you’ll receive a copy of your story. You may wish to experience the individual interview before committing to a group class.

To participate or for more information, contact Shelley at or 604-875-0188 (toll-free 1-877-232-7400).

Print a PDF of this blog post: GAB March 2014

Resilience Tip -- Disabling Stigma: Don’t Let Others Write Your Life Story

By Shelley Hourston

I’ve always been intrigued with the “quirkiness” of life… you know, those things that are common yet completely nonsensical. Stigma is one of those things. Sometimes from birth, and sometimes later in life, people find themselves a member of a group without ever signing up. Examples include poverty, racial/ethnic heritage, LGBT, age and disability/chronic illness. Other people who believe themselves spared from membership in one or more of these groups create (or accept) elaborate fictional stories about a specific group’s members without even meeting them! Stigma is a negative life story assigned to you and created by an unauthorized person (e.g. not you). Internalized stigma occurs when members of stigmatized groups believe these negative, unauthorized stories. The shame and fear evoked by someone else’s fiction about your life can make you forget that you are responsible for creating your life story. In fact, stigma can completely derail your life story if you let it. By harvesting our life experiences and strengthening our own story we can combat internalized stigma. If and when we feel strong and/or safe enough to share our stories with the world, we can also help others see stigma for what it is.

Maximizing the benefits of our life stories requires a bit of effort. Too often we let the strengths and wisdom within our life stories evaporate with time. We’ve all experienced adversity and successes but unless we are an avid “scrapbooker” or journal writer, we tend to forget that we are resilient. Collecting and reviewing personal life stories is empowering. Familiarity with your stories reinforces your wisdom, values and resources with evidence gathered in real life. Standing up to stigmatizing fictional stories is easier when your authentic life stories are easily accessible.

Getting started on your life stories
Your public library can direct you to autobiographical writing resources and possibly writing groups too. Or you can contact Shelley (see contact info below) for a Life Story Resource List.

For people living with HIV and/or Hepatitis C, BCCPD is running a pilot five-week course beginning in January 2014. Stories of Adversity & Resilience (SOAR) is free and will meet for five weeks by teleconference. Each week participants write a short story (two pages or less) about a life theme and prompted by a list of questions intended to stimulate memories. Stories are read at the next class and participants share their observations of strengths and resilience illustrated by the stories. Feedback is based on the Guided Autobiography method and the principles of Appreciative Inquiry. Space is limited. For information or to register, contact Shelley (certified Guided Autobiography instructor) by calling toll-free 1-877-232-7400 to leave a message or email Exact start date (after January 13, 2014) and time will be determined with participants.




New Year’s Challenge: Group Coaching Program for People Living with HIV

Tired of giving up on your New Year’s resolutions?

Is fear, low energy or lack of motivation preventing you fromSnail achieving goals? If you’re interested in making 2012 different than every other year, consider joining BCCPD’s pilot coaching program.

No, this isn’t another “get rich/successful quick” scheme. It will take commitment and willingness to keep an open mind. We’ll use strategies from positive psychology and narrative/personal storytelling to:

    • challenge assumptions that can limit your options and actions
    • maximize gain by identifying small but powerful actions
    • recognize and access personal strengths and resources
    • realize the potential of re-authoring your personal stories

Weekly sessions will include discussion/exploration of:

    • techniques and research from positive psychology, including happiness, resilience, gratitude, strengths, goal setting and mindfulness
    • life as narrative or story: sharing your short (2 pages maximum) stories on various life themes (Guided Autobiography or GAB). GAB provides new perspectives through the experience of authoring and re-authoring our stories. Stories will be written during the week between sessions.
    • ways to adapt and use these tools while living with chronic illness

Dates & Locations:

Groups are forming now and will run through February and March 2012. They are free for people living with HIV. Each group will meet two hours weekly for six weeks.

Face-to-face groups: held at the BCCPD office in Vancouver and at other locations/organizations by special arrangement. Service providers please contact us to discuss hosting a group.

Teleconference groups: teleconference programs will be offered for participants outside of the Lower Mainland. Contact us for dates & details.


Shelley Hourston is a trained coach with an Appreciative Inquiry/positive psychology focus and a Guided Autobiography Instructor. She is Program Director at the BC Coalition of People with Disabilities’ Wellness & Disability Initiative/AIDS & Disability Action Program. For more information or to register, contact her at or phone 604-875-0188 (toll-free 1-877-232-7400). Contact us soon as spaces are limited.