Only the Resilient

rainThe holiday season can be hard on expats – away from close friends, family and the familiar rituals and atmosphere that are comforting and exciting. For me, this time of year is always a time of reflection. And this year, the lesson for me has been RESILIENCE.

While I’ve had my fair share of ups and downs over the past year (actually, mostly just downs), I have been thinking about some of my close friends and the really hard times they have faced, not just this year, but throughout their twenties. The reason I spent so much time thinking about this is that I found a sense of hope, comfort and admiration in their ability to overcome their struggles – what didn’t kill them, made them stronger, as the cliché goes.

They have experienced the deaths of loved ones (parents, partners, friends), mental breakdowns, physical disease, debilitating accidents, abuse, miscarriage, divorce, job loss, betrayal, and the list goes on….I am in awe of their ability to get up and carry on.

Of course, in my own life, I have not been exempt from suffering: setbacks, disappointment, death, defeat, heartbreak, illness, grief, rejection and so many other traumatic events, both large and small.

Through experiencing and witnessing such events, the role of resilience cannot be underestimated. In my quest to figure out how to better inoculate myself against all the terrible things that happen to us, I started paying attention to resilience research.

While I’m not as deluded or naïve to believe that I can stop bad things from happening, I know that there are tools and strategies we can use to better weather the storm and not drown.

One prominent researcher in this area is Martin Seligman. I’ve been a fan ever since my friend recommended I read his groundbreaking work in the area of learned optimism: people who don’t give up have a tendency of interpreting setbacks as temporary, local and changeable. He has undertaken research in the area of post-traumatic growth – which is simply the idea that people grow in positive ways from hardship. In an interview with the Harvard Business Review, Seligman talks about this research:

doorsExtremely bad events lead to personal and moral dilemmas. And they’re existential crises in which you have to make decisions. And therefore, we talk about it as a fork in the road. One of the most interesting things about depression, which is the big, big component of post traumatic stress disorder, it is an emotion that tells you to detach from goals you had. That they’re unreachable. And that creates a fork in the road. It makes you ask the question, what other things might I do? What doors might open for me?

And one of the important things about knowing about post traumatic growth and resilience is when those doors open for you, if you are paralyzed by the depression, by the anxiety…,you’re not going to walk through those doors. You’re not going to take advantage of them. But knowing that typically, people who suffer very bad events have new doors open for them and that it’s important to be prepared to walk through them.

I like the analogy he uses and he raises an important point about believing that those doors will open and enabling ourselves to walk through them. Resilience is key to this process, and luckily for us mere mortals, it is a muscle that we can build and develop through practice of a range of techniques and strategies.

When my resilience (which is, admittedly, not that strong) was tested in a big way about a year ago, the advice I received was to ‘take a day off, connect with your friends and family, and be kind to yourself.’ These were all helpful strategies in the short-term. But what about the long-term? How could I ensure I wouldn’t fall apart in the same way next time something bad inevitably happened?

I listened to an interview with innovator Andrew Zolli about how to bolster our resilience. He relays fascinating research about our beliefs: in a nutshell, if you believe the world is a meaningful place, that you have agency, that your actions have consequences and that successes and failures are also placed in your life to teach you something, then you have a greater chance of being resilient in the face of potentially traumatic events. Therefore, spiritual and religious worldviews have endured because they are positively adaptive by being advantageous to us in moments of crisis. I think this means that I should get rid of my nihilistic tendencies.

Also, he talked about habits of mind and referred to the slew of research that is being done on the monk population. Neuroscientists are studying neuroplasticity and how regular meditation can help us as a tool in stressful situations, allowing us to better regulate our emotions and encouraging the mind to focus on optimism and hope.

Psychologist Karen Reivich, author of The Resilience Factor, has also written on how to increase resilience. Strategies include:

Building awareness by listening to our internal radio station and what we say to ourselves in the heat of the moment – ask ourselves, what would be a more positive, optimistic way to look at this?

Ask: where do I have control? What can I do now to positively affect the situation?

mountainsPut things in perspective (don’t catastrophize by making Himalayas out of mountains).

Have some ‘go to’ coping strategies that draw on your strengths (e.g. the ability to ‘hunker down’ and get things done, using humour, playfulness etc.).

Probably the most important strategy is having the ability to ask for help and having a good social network of people that you can rely on.

Other pearls of wisdom that have been imparted to me are: learn from your mistakes – don’t allow history to repeat itself. Instead of being hard on yourself and beating yourself up, forgive yourself. Don’t blame yourself for everything that went wrong. Focus on what you learned from the experience and how you can keep from making the same mistake again.

So, if we can remain resilient in the face of setbacks and suffering, there are opportunities for growth, as long as we can get ourselves through those doors.

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