Adversity is part of life – whether we like it or not. Problems, big and small, present themselves to us every day. So how do we survive – and thrive – when tragedy, trauma and adversity threaten to take us down?
We build up our resilience – that’s how.
My story of resilience
I know a thing or two about resiliency.
February 4, 1998, was a life-changing day for me. That day, the ground shifted below my feet and my world was changed forever. You see, that’s the day that I learned that my best friend, Lin Kreis, had been murdered by her domestic partner. He also took the lives of his two young daughters, Kayla and Liane – ages 11 and 9. It was horrific and senseless and we’ll never know the real reason why he did it.
I was beyond grief-stricken. It completely rocked my world. I couldn’t rationalize what had happened. I questioned God “How could you let this happen to someone as beautiful as Lin and those innocent children?”
Lin was the woman I was most spiritually connected to and I’ll always regret that I only got to spend a few short years with her here on this plane. But in retrospect, her death has been the most important catalyst that set me on the path I am on today.
In the months and years following Lin’s death – amid the grief counselling and court appearances and memorial services and victim impact statements, and finally sentencing of the perpetrator – a series of miraculous spiritual teachings, and what I can only describe as “magical encounters”, appeared in my life and helped me to heal and grow from that life-altering event. And the blessings continue in my life today.
So . . .
Why do I tell you this story?
I tell it to illustrate that the human spirit has an amazing capacity to heal and to grow and learn, even from unimaginable tragedy and loss.
Now – just to be clear – healing didn’t happen overnight. It required that I allowed myself time to grieve Lin’s loss. For me that took over 2 years.
But during that time of grieving, I came to see and understand the blessings that would come from her death. And I tell her all the time how grateful I am that she was in my life on this earth plane for that brief few years and I know that she continues to be in my life, guiding me, just on a different plane.
In the face of events like these, each of us has a choice – a choice to let it take us down, or to work our way through it, and learn from it and not only carry on, but to actually transcend the pain and grief.
Out of this tragedy, I found the strength and tenacity to not allow this event to take over me. And that’s how I know you can do it too.
We all experience tragedy, loss, and setbacks that have a profound effect on us. And whether we realize it or not, we are not alone and we are resilient to varying degrees.
What resilience is and what it’s not
Let’s talk about what resilience is – and isn’t.
Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant define resilience in their book Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy as “the strength and speed of our response to adversity.”
Resilience is not the same as stress management, which is an immediate reaction, it’s “fight or flight”, when your heart is pounding and your brain just reacts.
Resilience is the quality of character that allows us to rebound from adversity, misfortune, and trauma. It’s that ability to work with adversity so that we come through it unharmed or even better for the experience.
Resiliency is rooted in a tenacity of spirit. It is that indefinable quality that allows some people to be knocked down by life and yet come back stronger than ever.
Characteristics of resilient people
Some of the characteristics that define resilient people include:
• Optimism and positive attitude – there’s neuroscience and MRI studies to validate the connection between optimism and resilience.
• Ability to regulate emotions
• Ability to see failure as a form of helpful feedback
• Ability to cultivate community – specifically relationships where they can lean on others for support when they need it
• A clear sense of identity and purpose – which allows them to see a vision for a better future
• A belief in themselves and also a belief in something much bigger than themselves
• Ability to not let adversity define them.
Nature or Nurture?
In their book Option B, Sandberg and Grant point out that there is proven science that resilience can be nurtured and it can grow. “It isn’t about having a backbone,” they write. “It’s about strengthening the muscles around our backbone.”
So how do we strengthen those muscles around our backbone?
To build resilience, we need deeper life skills – the ability to navigate not just sudden hardships that drastically change our lives, but also the ability to cope with constant change itself. To do this, we have to strengthen our belief in ourselves. We have to define ourselves as capable and competent which in turn fortifies our psyche.
7 Ways to Improve Your Resilience
#1 – Avoid the 3 Ps
Psychologist Martin Seligman believes that we can get through setbacks quicker if we avoid what he calls the three P’s:
- Personalization–thinking that it’s our fault
- Pervasiveness–thinking that one event affects everything in our lives
- Permanence–thinking that these temporary hardships will last forever.
He believes that if we remain connected to our inner strength, we can move much faster beyond blaming ourselves, assuming we’ll always feel bad, and allowing the adversity to take over our whole lives.
“Tragedy does not have to be personal, pervasive, or permanent, but resilience can be,” write Sandberg and Grant. “We can build it and carry it with us throughout our lives.”
#2 – Look for the lessons
Develop an “attitude of gratitude” and try to see every negative event as an opportunity for growth. This can be easier said than done. For me it was difficult to see the sudden and inexplicable loss of a dear friend as an opportunity for growth. But for me that’s exactly what it was. I was able to adopt this outlook early on and I’m now able to give thanks every day to Lin for the gift she gave to me through her passing.
To see it as an opportunity you must ask yourself “What’s the benefit of this setback?” and keep asking that question until you find the benefit. If you don’t perceive it as an opportunity, you will be defeated by it.
#3 – Cultivate personal insight
This is the mental habit of asking yourself penetrating questions and giving honest answers. You must take the initiative and take charge of the problem, stretching and testing yourself. As a starting point, observe how you deal with small setbacks and learn how to reframe those.
#4 – Practice self-love
When we replenish our resources, we can get through setbacks much quicker. Just as flight attendants instruct us to “put your oxygen mask on first before assisting others”, you have to prioritize your wellbeing and regularly recharge. Get lots of sleep, practice deep breathing, keep things in perspective, and be gentle with yourself and others. Give yourself whatever time you need to heal, just don’t remain there forever. If you’ve taken care to replenish your resilience reserves, then in times of real crisis, like death, divorce, illness, or loss of a job, you’ll be better equipped to bounce back.
#5 – Get your feelings out
Use any form of expression that you’re comfortable with – painting, dance, poetry, song, working out, talking to a counsellor. I personally recommend journal writing as a great way to get your feelings out. In my case, it was helpful to write unsent letters to the perpetrator of the crime. This was particularly effective as a way to express my pain with no expectation of how the perpetrator would respond to it. It was a tool for release and healing.
#6 – Find your faith or belief system
Whatever your beliefs or faith system is, embrace it, lean on it, ask others in your faith circle for support.
And if your existing ideology isn’t working for you, don’t be afraid to keep looking until you find something that speaks to you and helps you. Open yourself up to new ideas and ways of thinking.
In my case, my Christian beliefs at the time didn’t provide comfort simply because it was a time of awakening for me and I was able to open myself up to being guided and supported in new and different ways.
#7 – Get help
Know that you’re not alone and surround yourself with positive people. If you need to, seek professional help. This can quicken the pace of overcoming adversity as opposed to the usual trial and error approach. You might need to find a tutor, a marriage or family counselor or an attorney, or a coach, or a physical therapist, or a medical doctor. Talk with someone who has experience in dealing with your current predicament.
Change is fast, but transition is slow. That’s why resilience is so important. With these practical tips you can build your resilience so you can cope more effectively and bounce back quicker.