Originally published in Cape Argus in Cape Town.

Feeling that life has let you down and that fate has treated you unfairly? Of course you are one among many in a time where depression and despair are becoming increasingly prevalent by the day. But you needn’t continue to feel that you are a loser, according to Elizabeth Schnugh of the Institute for the Study of Man.

The first simple step on the path to recovery, says Elizabeth, is to realise that you have a choice. And then to exercise it.

For Elizabeth, no one is a victim of life unless he or she chooses to be. Inevitably there will come a time for all of us, she says, when we have a choice either to wallow in destructive self-pity because life hasn’t treated us fairly or to rise above adversity and turn it into our advantage. That choice as to whether we are victims or victors is one which is ours and ours alone.

The quietly confident director and founder of the Institute for the Study of Man teaches a range of courses which provide people with the tools with which to uplift themselves and change their lives for the better.

One of seven children, Elizabeth speaks from sound practical experience. After qualifying as a Chartered Accountant at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, she entered the male-dominated corporate world where she enjoyed singular success, eventually becoming Financial Director of Gilbey Distillers and Vintners in 1984 – a position she held for eleven years. Those were immensely happy years for her and she loved every minute of the job and working with the people in her company.

So when in 1990 she was called in by the Group Financial and Human Resources Directors and told that she was being relocated to head the financial management of the group’s retail division, the news came as a bombshell.

The first simple step on the path to recovery is to realise that you have a choice. And then to exercise it.

To get out of our comfort zone is one thing, but to change your area of expertise is quite another. I was being challenged to do both. I was being asked to go into a retail environment in which I had had practically no experience except long ago as a junior auditor. But I didn’t see it as a challenge at the time; I just saw it as being victimised in one way or another and that these men were out to get me.”

At first Elizabeth resorted instinctively to trying to elicit the support of “accomplices” partners in crime; those whom she assumed would be “on her side” – but here came her second rude awakening: they weren’t. The reality eventually dawned on her that she would have to change her thinking and her strategy if she wanted to get anywhere.

I was pretty ineffectual for a couple of weeks – I was not taking any action. It was only when I looked at the situation and asked myself: ’What am I actually resisting here? What is the reality of the situation?’, that things began to happen. And the reality was that these two men wanted me out of that position; and if I didn’t agree, then I had to leave the group – something I didn’t want to do because I enjoyed the industry. It didn’t matter what I felt because that was the reality and nothing was going to change it.

That, for Elizabeth, was her moment of truth and also the turning point at which the tide began to turn. She phoned a colleague in London – the man the group wanted to head marketing in the same retail division – to discuss their strategy.

After we had bemoaned the company politics on the company’s telephone account for about half an hour we started to talk about strategy and to look at what we could do to turn this group of retail companies around. We made a pact that we would only take on the job if both of us could go, and soon we got quite excited about the whole idea.

The point of the story, says Elizabeth, is that people – all of us – always have a choice. Only when Elizabeth became aware that despite the unwanted relocation, she still had a choice – to define herself as a victor rather than a victim – did she regain her power as an individual.

At first I felt that because I was being pushed around I was powerless. The wake-up point for me was when I asked myself what my choices were in the circumstances.

Elizabeth took the new job and didn’t look back.

Despite her prodigious success at Gilbeys, Elizabeth soon began to realise that her talents and future lay not in the corporate world but rather in helping others to help themselves. How she came to found the Institute is another story.

Founding the Institute for the Study of Man

It was in 1991 when she says that although ’on the outside everything seemed successful, the circumstances in my life were at such a low ebb inside me’. While on a visit to Johannesburg, she was told about a course and decided to postpone her return to Cape Town and do the course. It changed her thinking and set her life on a new and challenging path. In 1995 she resigned from Gilbeys and soon founded Institute For The Study Of Man and began teaching on a full-time basis.

Elizabeth believes that choice and responsibility are concepts at the heart of our lives.

Every single person, at some point in their life happens upon a path of sorts. And it’s usually when we have hit one of our biggest challenges – when you are at what is probably your all-time low. It is at that point in one’s life that we have to make a choice. ’Either I am going to get up now and start to fight to change my life or I am going to roll over and accept that this is my lot in life.

The bottom line for every single person is to believe that they do have the answers for themselves and that sometimes we just need some guidance to get that clarity.

We teach people to address the issues in their lives from where they originate, rather than treat the symptoms. What this boils down to is handling relationships, for at the end of the day all of life is about relationships. We give people practical tools to transform all types of relationships, and we address them at all levels.

David Yutar
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