Carrie interviews Greg Atkinson, an entrepreneur, speaker and author, about the power of kindness.

Greg shares his personal journey and how forgiveness and kindness have played a pivotal role in his life. The conversation highlights the ripple effect of kindness and its power to make the world a better place.

  • How Greg Atkinson’s life experiences, including anxiety, inspired his commitment to kindness.
  • The importance of forgiveness in fostering a kinder world.
  • The significance of vulnerability and openness in sharing personal stories and breaking down the stigma surrounding mental health.
  • Practical ways to incorporate kindness into your own life and make a positive impact on those around you.
  • Greg’s Book: The Secret Power of Kindness

Related links and Resources:

www.gregatkinson.com

The Secret Power of Kindness: 10 Keys to Unlocking Your Capacity to Change the World

Tune in for another inspiring episode:

Transcript

Welcome to the Hope for Anxiety and OCD podcast. I am your host, Carrie Bock. This is episode 104. We are here with Greg Atkinson, who is a speaker, author, and educator on mental health issues and entrepreneur.

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Carrie: Welcome to the show.

Greg: Thank you for having me.

Carrie: You wrote a book recently called “The Secret Power of Kindness.” In the first part of the book, you talked a little bit about your story. Can you tell us what caused you to want to open up about that or tell us a little bit about how you got to this point?

Greg: I had a desire to write a book that anybody could pick up and read, and my previous books were written to pastors and church leaders, which is a very small niche. I knew that the average or typical reader, if they weren’t in the church pastor world, you may not know who I am. I wanted to open up with here’s who I am, here’s what I’ve been through, here’s why I wrote the book, here’s why I hope you will want to read this book. I had a mentor here in Charlotte who passed away a few years ago, but he told me when he first started mentoring me and he mentors men, he said, “Greg, every man has a father wound and a church wound.” I believe that’s true for women as well, but he was specifically focused on discipling men and mentoring men. I wanted to open the book with a chapter on forgiveness and talk about my father wound and my church wound because I have both and I have found since this book came out. That a lot of people can relate to it and a lot of people have been encouraged by my story.

I talk about issues I went through growing up with sexual abuse, verbal abuse, physical abuse. And then I talk about mental health and being diagnosed with anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder. And then I share a situation of even being fired from a job due to disclosing that I had a mental illness. I had no performance issues.

I’d worked there two and a half years, but when I finally felt comfortable enough to tell my boss, then he fired me the purpose of the chapter. The whole focus was forgiveness. It’s that I have forgiven my boss. I’ve forgiven my dad. I have forgiven those that have hurt me. And it’s not a quick and easy thing.

This is a process of years and thousands of hours of therapy and thousands of dollars worth of therapy. Just a lot of individual therapy, group therapy. I talk about in the book going to on site in Tennessee and I have been through everything you could go through to deal with my father when in my church when I just wanted to read her to know that I have wrestled with forgiveness and I found that I was able to forgive those that have hurt me or wrong me, and that as the 1st chapter of 10 keys in the book, 10 keys to unlocking kindness.

This allows me to lead a kinder life because people that struggle with unforgiveness and are hurt and angry and bitter and have anger under the surface, they could snap at people or be rude or gruff and come across as unkind. It’s the opposite of kindness. So I wanted to start with a lot of people have said a very deep chapter, for a first chapter and just share my story and say, here’s what I’ve gone through to be in a place where I could respond with kindness and treat people kindly, but it has been a long journey.

Carrie: We have had a lot of guests talk about forgiveness, and I appreciate the perspective, too, that it’s a process because I think sometimes when we learn about it in church, we think it’s supposed to be just some kind of instantaneous thing, like, “Okay, I forgive this person” but it’s almost like a journey and a lifestyle that you have to adopt between you and the Lord to say like, okay, I’m recognizing when this anger comes up. I’m recognizing when this bitterness comes up and I choose not to go down that path.

Greg: Absolutely. It is a process. And that’s what they say at onsite, trust the process. They have coffee mugs that say, trust the process, but yeah, it is definitely a process and it’s been a lifelong journey with several therapists that are trained in different skills to get to the point where I am now.

Carrie: How long did it take you from when you first started showing symptoms until you got a mental health diagnosis?

Greg: Great question. I think when I look back on my teenage years and my 20s, it was obvious there was something going on, but I actually did not get diagnosed until I was 30 years old. Which is later than a lot of people, but when I got diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and bipolar, I was 30 years old now that I know what they are and what the symptoms are and what things to look for, I can totally see it in my twenties.

Even in my teenage years. I just had no words for it, I was truly ignorant. I thought everything was spiritual and you just pray and it’ll go away and pray more and do a devotional and have a quiet time and you’ll never get depressed and everything will be fine. And I was super ignorant and I did not know anything about mental health or mental illness.

Now, as an advocate and somebody that writes and speaks about mental health. I’m trying to educate those in power and leadership to be careful with their words because they may not realize that you can’t just pray it away and that some people like myself need to take medicine when I speak out and when I talk, I tell people if you need medicine, it’s totally okay.

It’s not anti Bible, anti spiritual. If you need medicine, just like if you had diabetes and you had to take insulin, If you have something going on with the chemistry in your brain, and you need to take a mood stabilizer or something to help with anxiety, whatever your doctor thinks is right for you. I have tried to educate pastors to not shame people for needing medicine or for struggling with anxiety.

I was just flipping through social media 3 days ago. And a pastor had uploaded a reel where he was preaching and he referred to anxiety and depression as sin. And so pastor that I love and respect and know, and I followed him for a reason, but he had talked about going through a season of depression and anxiety, but he referred to it as he had overcome it and he had got the victory. And that kind of made it sound like he was sitting when he was depressed and he was sitting when he was anxious. For somebody like me that has a diagnosis of an anxiety disorder, I know that those words from a person on the pulpit can be very dangerous.

Carrie: Yes, and I think unless they’ve experienced mental health disorders or have that self awareness, pastors and ministry leaders, they may not understand what it’s like to deal with anxiety or what it’s like to wake up and not want to get out of bed in the morning. Really giving them these types of personal stories and insights, I think is really helpful and It goes to show you, too, that we’ve come a long way in the church in some ways, but we still have a long way to go, and we still have people that are giving these messages about anxiety is only a spiritual problem instead of it’s a physical, emotional, spiritual problem.

Greg: As s you know, mental illness is often hereditary, and often you have relatives that have that. When I was in my early twenties, I knew that my cousin and my aunt had bipolar. I knew they struggled with depression, but I was ignorant. I was super ignorant. And I remember saying to my wife, if they would just pray more, if they would just have a devotional life and a quiet time, they would be fine. And then when I was 23, right in the prime of my life, and used to be super athletic, I had three ruptured discs and had to have major back surgery, and I was flat on my back in a hospital bed for two months, and I wanted to die for the first time in my life. I experienced true depression. It was the first time ever, but I remember telling my wife, depression is real.

It’s a real thing. I want to die right now. I was 23 years old, laying in a bed for two months. And when I did get up to go to the bathroom, I had to use a walker and I was, all my muscles had atrophied and then I went from a walker to a cane and then I had to go to physical therapy and it was a long journey back and recovery from back surgery, major back surgery.

It was almost like God opened my eyes of depression is real. This is what it feels like. I asked for forgiveness from God for how things I had said about relatives and my perspective of thinking if they would just pray it away, it would be okay. Now, as I have loved ones that struggle with depression, I am very aware that it’s real. And like you said, sometimes you don’t want to get out of bed. Super aware of that now, I don’t struggle as much with depression, but I do struggle with anxiety and take medicine for that. So I’m very aware that you could be fine with God. You could be having a devotional life and praying and worshiping and you and God are great and still you get anxiety or depression. That became real to me at the age of 23.

Carrie: How does anxiety affect you today?

Greg: There’s sometimes physical symptoms like I may be holding a cup or opening something and my wife will say your hands are shaking and I’ll notice there’s like a physical symptom of a tremor or something, which could be a side effect of the medicine, or it could be just how my anxiety manifests.

There’s also a lot of mental games that I go through of thinking worst case scenarios. Thinking about death. I have pain in my back. Is that pain cancer? I have a pain in my head. Is that a brain tumor with my anxiety? I think worst case scenario. I also at the age of 21, as I talked about in the book, my dad died, just dropped out of a massive heart attack.

I experienced a close death very young at 21 years old, and my kids are older than that now. When I was younger than them, I had lost my dad. When I have indigestion or heartburn and I feel my chest hurt, I think worst case scenario, am I having a heart attack like my dad? Am I going to die young like my dad?

When I look back on losing my dad at the age of 21, that’s when my anxiety kicked in, and that’s where my fear of death really came from. I’m sure there’s chemical issues as well and brain issues, but as far as the mental gymnastics that I go through to try to calm myself, everything became more intensified after experiencing a death of someone so close at such a young age.

I will oftentimes feel a symptom or wonder something, and I will think worst case scenario, or my counselor calls it sense of impending doom. You think that you’re going to die, and thank God my wife is a nurse and has talked me out of multiple ER visits of, no, you’re fine, stay home. But I still have those moments where I’ll go to the ER because I’ll think, no, my chest is hurting.

I’m pretty sure this is a heart attack. And I have had numerous EKGs where they say it’s normal. There’s nothing wrong with your heart. It’s just heartburn. Go home. But like I said, I have loved ones that struggle with depression. I really struggle with anxiety and it is exhausting. The medicine can help chill you a little, but the way the mind can race and the way the mind can think of worst case scenarios is exhausting.

My heart goes out to anyone that struggles with anxiety, and I know you addressed that on this podcast. I can very much relate to it. And as I have opened up to others, I’ll hear from people. Oh, my sister has anxiety or my mom has anxiety. I have found that there are so many people that struggle with mental health issues, but we’re just not aware of each other.

One of the tactics of the enemy is isolation, thinking we’re alone and we’re the only one that goes through it. Whereas, on any given Sunday, when a pastor stands up to preach, at least one fourth of the congregation has some type of mental illness. They say 25 percent or more. When they’re standing up to speak, a fourth of the congregation is struggling with something and it could be anxiety. My heart goes out to them.

Carrie: I’ve heard from some pastors too, who have been really vulnerable and I think that makes a huge difference to see a spiritual leader get up there and say, Hey, I’ve been to therapy or I hit a rough patch in the road and I needed to go talk to somebody or I needed to look at medication as an option.

We had a pastor on here not too long ago who talked about how he started having panic attacks and developing anxiety in his process. Of working through that. It’s always helpful for us. We’re scared, I think, sometimes to be vulnerable and share our story, but it blesses other people in the body of Christ when we have the courage to do that and to open up.

I appreciate you sharing your story here and also in your book. Why a book about kindness?

Greg: Well, it’s no secret, we live in a divided world, and there’s a lot of hatred online. There’s a lot of device in this. There’s a lot of anger and tearing people down instead of building people up. And, as you know, kindness is a fruit of the spirit. And I thought if this is what the Bible teaches that Christians should be known for, then we as the church have got to do a better job. I met with my publisher who I’ve known for 20 years. He flew to my house, met with me in person. I had shown him some thoughts I wrote down four years ago. He said, “I love talking about a fruit of the spirit.” He said, “I think you need to go all in on kindness and write about the power of kindness.” I adapted what was a previous book proposal that the subtitle was “The Power of Kindness,” and then we went all in on it and made the title, “The Secret Power of Kindness.” I start the book with a sentence, “Imagine a world where everyone is kind to one another,” and I end the book with that.

That’s kind of my dream of no matter who picks up my book and no matter what faith background they have, if we could treat one another with kindness, what I have found and what I talk about in the book is that kindness is contagious, and kindness unlocks kindness. I’m kind to you, and you’re kind to me, and we’re kind to others. We can change the world.

When I talk about kindness being contagious, I share a story of my youngest daughter when she worked the drive-thru at Dunkin’ Donuts. She had a day where somebody paid for the car behind them, and that went on for 27 cars, like paying it back or forward or whatever it is—they kept paying for the car behind them 27 times. And I have had times where I arrived at Chick-fil-A and Dunkin’ Donuts, and I get to the window, and they said, “The person ahead of you paid for yours,” and it made my day. That’s what I talk about in my definition of kindness.

I had written it down at like 1:00 A.M., one night, but in the preface, I wrote, “The secret power of kindness is the self-awareness to know that you have the power to make or break someone else’s day and eventually change the world.” That kindness being contagious when somebody bought my meal, I just lit up and just made my day because it was surprising. And when somebody reacts to us in a harsh way or a critical way or a mean way and we respond with kindness, it surprises them and kind of catches them off guard, and they’re like, “Oh, wow, I thought you would bite my head off.” They don’t expect you to respond with kindness.

What I am proposing is a kindness movement, where kindness is contagious, kindness unlocks kindness, and together we are kind to those that we come into contact with, realizing that we do have the power to make or break someone’s day. And I share personal stories in there of how I’ve done that with servers over the years, waiters and waitresses and people that I’ve come across where I just try to make them smile. I try to make their day.

I was literally having a business meeting with my designer last night at 11:30 PM at Waffle House. And we blessed the waitress there, and she is amazing. And I’m going to go back to see her again because it was the first time I’d been to this particular Waffle House. And then before that, I had another business dinner with a friend at my favorite Mexican restaurant, and my favorite waitress Wendy came over, and she loves when I come in because my goal is to make them smile, to lighten their load. I share real stories of that in the book, of things that I’ve done over the years ever since college to build relationships with people in the community.

But, there are stories that go back 30 years of trying to live a life of kindness. And the first chapter is important because I did not receive kindness from my dad, and I never heard, “I love you,” from my dad when I became an adult and left the house. I decided that I’m going to end the cycle, that this stops with me. And I am going to tell my kids I love them, and I am going to be nice to people. My dad used to make waitresses cry in a restaurant. He was very mean, very harsh, is what one of my friends from high school just recently described him when I told him about my book. He said, “Oh, your dad was a harsh man.” And I remember him making waitresses cry. He was just brutal. I remember family dinners around the kitchen table of crying because he just ruined the whole dinner. And I just, when they decided this ends with me, my kids are not going to grow up in a dysfunctional home. They’re not going to go through this, and I choose kindness.

There’s a lot to it that I dive into the book about abiding with Christ and developing a relationship with Christ so that those fruit of the spirit come out of me naturally and I don’t have to force it. It’s one thing to say, “I’m going to be kind. I’m going to be kind. I’m going to be kind.” It’s another thing to have it come out naturally as a fruit of the spirit. There’s a quote I share in the book of when the toothpaste gets squeezed, whatever is in there is what comes out. The Bible talks about your heart being revealed, out of the overflow of your mouth, the heart speaks.

I want to spend time with God in such a meaningful way that when my toothpaste gets squeezed, what comes out is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness. So the fruit of the spirit comes out naturally. And I don’t always get it right. I’m not perfect. I’m not the kindness expert. But I talked about things that I’ve learned. One for me that was very important was learning to forgive so that I would not hold onto anger and bitterness. Another chapter in the book that was super practical that came from my therapist in life was about the importance of sleep and rest.

There’s a whole chapter for me with bipolar and with anxiety disorder. I really wrestle with sleep and my therapist had given me a worksheet on sleep hygiene and how to get a better night’s sleep and things I can do to set myself up to succeed and to win when it comes to getting proper rest. There’s a whole chapter in the book that addresses rest because if we are not well-rested, then we’re going to snap at somebody, and we’ll again come across as the opposite of kind, and our heart may be that we want to be kind. We want to be known for kindness but we’re so tired and exhausted that we’re snapping at people. That’s a very practical chapter right in the middle of the book of this is something you can do to be at your best.

We’ve all seen the examples of the toddlers that are throwing a fit and fussing and whining and having a mental breakdown in the middle of a store. You hear the mom say, “Somebody needs a nap.” A lot of time it just comes back to something as simple as rest and vacation and days off and a sabbatical if needed, but taking the time to be properly rested and sleep is a battle for me. It’s a battle for one of my daughters. I often say sleep eludes me. It is so hard to get good sleep when you have certain types of mental illness. 

I wanted to talk about things that I have learned and tried and do and practice to get a good night’s sleep because I am not at my best if I am short on sleep. As much as I want to be known for kindness, if I had three hours sleep, I am not going to be in a good mood. And I found that that’s pretty universal. Everybody can relate to that. So that’s a little bit about why I wrote about that.

Carrie: That’s really good. We’ve had a couple of episodes on sleep on the show, one from a spiritual perspective and one from a mental perspective and kind of behavioral change perspective. It’s been good conversations about those things. 

You reminded me of a story that I wanted to share with you. I was just about 2015. I was going through a divorce. My husband was up and left, and I was trying to work, and I just couldn’t even think straight really sometimes. I went into this gas station. They had these refillable cups and if you take the cup back, you get a discount or whatever it is. You don’t have to pay the full price for the drink. So I’m in there in the gas station, and I’m struggling with this lid. For some reason, the plastic lid that I had would not fit on there very well. And this guy comes over, and he said, “You know, you can get another lid. It’s okay. Try this other lid.” It was just such a kind moment for me that someone would step in when I couldn’t even think straight and kind of solve what is a relatively simple problem, but I just remember that moment. It’s almost like bookmarked in my mind of that guy really did make my day that day because it was just tough going through that grief process and him being able to do something so simple. He has no idea how much that affected me.

Greg: That’s where the title came from. You experienced the power of kindness. I went to my barber a few days ago, and she had just opened up a new salon, new suite, and she had a framed picture up that said “The Power of Kindness.” I had already given her a copy of my book and she said, “Look what I got.” And she pointed to this picture that said “The Power of Kindness.” She had read my book, but that is something like you said, that is landmarked in your mind. It made such an impression that you’ve never forgotten it. And that is the secret power of kindness—to make someone’s day and thus change our world.

Carrie: The Bible talks about loving our neighbors as ourselves. And how does being kind to ourselves help us be kind to others? Because I truly believe this and what I’ve seen in my own life and the lives of my clients.

Greg: I write about this in the book. I have a whole chapter on love, which is also a fruit of the spirit. I talk about loving yourself so that you can love others. I talk about being kind to yourself so that you can be kind to others. I talk about forgiving yourself so that you can forgive others, but it all starts with us and self-reflection. I talk about meditation. I talk about journaling. There’s so much that has helped me in a therapeutic way from journaling, and my devotional and anxiety that I wrote came from journaling. It came from writing about what God was showing me in scripture.

I have found that oftentimes, and this was new to me, about a decade ago, I had learned and was taught, and then as a pastor taught, the great commandment poorly. We had bumper stickers at my church that said, “Love God, love people.” And I always taught love God, love others, love God, love people. And it was a two-prong approach. And then the last church I was on staff at, nine years ago, the pastor talked upward, inward, outward, love God, love yourself so that you can love others. It was a three-pronged approach, and that’s exactly what scripture says. Love God, love your neighbor as you love yourself.

I have found that oftentimes when we talk about loving ourselves, we cut ourselves out of the equation. And we exhaust ourselves by saying, “Well, and I know the Bible says to love God and love others. So I’m going to try to do it with all my might.” But if we haven’t stopped to love ourselves, we’re not properly able to love others. We won’t have the strength and the resilience to do it. In this book, I do a deep dive into love and the great commandment. And one of the most beautiful and healthy things that you can do is to love yourself, to forgive yourself, to be kind to yourself. And the byproduct of that is you’ll love others, be kind to others, forgive others. It’s a win-win scenario, but it starts with loving yourself.

Carrie: Right. I think one of the things that we do, especially in trauma work, is people will be very shameful or angry regarding things that they’ve done in the past as a teenager, as a young adult, or just a really low time in their life where they made some bad choices and went down the wrong path. And really helping that person gain empathy for that younger self, like, did they have the knowledge? Did they have the skills to act differently? Did they know how to regulate their emotions? And once you’re able to kind of go through all that, it’s like, “Oh, wow, no, I was completely ill-equipped, and I was acting out of my woundedness.” It didn’t make it right or okay, but I can have compassion towards my younger self, understanding how I got to where I was.

That’s often like just a really breakthrough, beautiful moment for someone that helps them also be compassionate towards other people who are acting out of their own woundedness and their own hurt. I think sometimes when we encounter people that are maybe a little bit prickly, we forget, well, maybe they’re really hurting right now, or maybe they have their own struggles they’re going through that we can’t see or we don’t know about.

Greg: I talk about that in the book. There’s a quote that somebody said that I referenced in the book of when somebody is harsh to you, critical of you, or rude to you, or just comes at you in a hard way, oftentimes we want to respond with, “What’s wrong with you?” instead of “What happened to you?” Everybody’s got a story. Everybody has a background. Maybe they were abused as a child, maybe they just went through a divorce, maybe they had a bad night’s sleep. Instead of responding with “What’s wrong with you?” if we have the approach of, “I wonder what happened to them that led them to this point,” because everybody’s got a story. 

As I mentioned in the book, almost everybody I’ve come across has a father when there are things that have happened in our life and our childhood and our early adult life that bring us to a point where we are not acting like our character is and like we want to be known for.

There are things that people go through that lead them to maybe treat us poorly. And if we can start with compassion and realize that, wow, that person could have been through a whole lot in their life. I’m going to extend grace to them. I’m going to extend mercy to them. And grace is undeserved. It’s unmerited favor. People don’t have to deserve grace. It’s just something we give. It is not only my favorite word, I named my daughter Grace, my first child. 

Grace is unmerited favor. It’s undeserved. It is a gift, and a gift doesn’t have to be earned. It’s just given. When somebody comes at me in an attacking way or a rude or tough way, I can choose to extend grace to them, whether they deserve it or not. And just saying, maybe they’re having an off day today. I’m going to choose to be graceful.

Carrie: If you can go back and tell your younger self something that didn’t have the awareness that you have now about mental health issues or what you were struggling with, what would that be?

Greg: Great question. I think because it’s fresh on my mind, I probably have a new answer now. My oldest daughter, who has now gone off to grad school, she’s getting her Ph.D., and she was at the house visiting before she moved into her new apartment over the summer. And somehow we got to talking about Matt Damon or something. And I said, I know it was before your time, but have you ever heard of Good Will Hunting? And she said, Yeah, I guess I’ve heard of it, but I’ve never seen it. I said, “Well, let’s watch it.” So we watched it and that scene where Robin Williams says to him, “It’s not your fault.” That’s what I would tell my younger self because I was abused, but it wasn’t my fault. I was molested, but it wasn’t my fault. My dad was terrible to me, but it wasn’t my fault. That’s what I would tell my younger self because I grew up with just terrible emotional pain because of all that I’ve been through. 

On-site, they do exercises where you speak to your younger self, and they walk you through all types of therapy where somebody stands in and you speak to another person in the group that is representing your younger self, and you address that person, but I think now, after freshly, after nearly 30 years, rewatching Good Will Hunting, I would just say to Little Greg, “It’s not your fault. It wasn’t your fault.”

Carrie: Yes. I feel like we could have this conversation for hours. This has been really great. I hope that people will look into getting your book, “The Secret Power of Kindness.” Thank you so much for sharing your story today.

Greg: Thank you for having me.

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Carrie: I appreciated this episode so much because I know those that struggle with anxiety struggle to be kind to themselves and often can struggle to be kind to others as well. We all have opportunities to practice kindness every day. All the little acts of kindness do add up to make the world a better place and allow us to share Christ’s love with others. In a couple of weeks, Steve will be back to join me on the show as we talk about what we’ve learned in our third year of marriage. Thanks so much for listening. 

Hope for Anxiety and OCD is a production of By the Well Counseling. Hosted by me, Carrie Bock, a licensed professional counselor in Tennessee. Opinions given by our guests are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of myself or By the Well Counseling. Our original music is by Brandon Maingrum. Until next time, may you be comforted by God’s great love for you.