Prepared by: Kristina Virro, R.H.N., Registered Psychotherapist| fresh-insight.ca
If there was ever a year that demanded resilience, it was 2020. After all, if resilience is defined as the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, that is what 2020 was all about. We adapted to following arrows on the floors of grocery stores. We developed a new vocabulary, with phrases like “social distancing” and “essential service” being part of our daily lexicon. And we adjusted to speaking and working with face masks and deciphering social cues based on eye contact alone. The good news is that resilience is a skill that can be learned. It is not an innate quality one is born with. In fact, research tells us that resilient individuals possess three important characteristics: an ability to understand and face reality, the capacity to find meaning in life, and the skill of improvisation.
This is about taking a cool, objective look at our current circumstances through a lens of honesty and openness. When we can assess our current situation in this type of detached way, we are able to see things how they really are rather than how we wish they would be.
The concept of radical acceptance plays an important role here. Radical acceptance is about fully accepting something in your heart of hearts. This is not synonymous with liking, agreeing with, or giving up; it is about acknowledging what is out of your control and channeling your efforts towards things that can be changed. You can dislike working from home, for example, and still radically accept that it is your reality. Rather than channeling your energy into venting about what you dislike about working from home, you can ask yourself, “What can I do to help make this more tolerable for me?”
If there is anyone who can teach us something about how to find meaning amidst painful experiences, it’s Viktor Frankl. His 1946 book Man’s Search for Meaning shares his learnings from being a prisoner in the Nazi Concentration Camps during World War II. He writes, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” One positive way we can change ourselves, he learned, is to change how we interpret events that transpire around us. Additionally, we can imagine how our experiences might bring us closer to our goals and values in the long run. Frankl specifically did this by imagining himself giving a psychology lecture to individuals after surviving the camps to tell them about what he learned.
The narratives we create about situations can generally fall into one of two categories: a narrative of tragedy versus a narrative of resilience. Tragic narratives are filled with tones of hopelessness and victimhood, summarized by the phrase, “Why me?” Conversely, resilience narratives frame obstacles as challenges or opportunities while reminding us of our personal agency.
To help develop your own resilience narrative, ask yourself the following questions:
- What has this experience helped me learn about myself and other people for the better?
- What internal skills or qualities helped me overcome this obstacle (i.e. my empathy, my work ethic…)?
- Why weren’t things worse?
- What were some ways that I used my personal agency – or efforts – to support myself and others?
Resilience narratives also remind us of our common humanity—that is, the ways in which our suffering is part of the shared human experience. Rather than feeling like your struggles reflect who you are as a person, you can remind yourself of the parts of your experience that others can relate to.
For example, if you have just been laid off from work and are feeling frustrated about finding another job, resist the urge to go into the self-pity narrative of, “Why does nothing go my way?” or “Why am I so bad at job hunting?” Instead, remind yourself of the common humanity of your experience by saying to yourself, “Who can’t relate to feeling frustrated during job hunting… this is something many people would struggle with!” In doing so, you remind yourself that you are not alone and that your struggles are not due to some personal flaw that is unique to you.
Improvisation is about using pre-existing skills and resources in new, inventive ways. It’s about asking yourself, “What are some of my greatest strengths? How can they be applied here?”
A key component of this is having faith in yourself. Reflect on obstacles and hardships you have overcome in the past as a way of reminding yourself of your capabilities. And remember, it is often through new experiences that we learn how skillful we truly are. While living in our comfort zone might be, well, comfortable, it is when we are pushed further than its limits that we truly grow.
Finally, there is a component of improvisation that is crucial yet easy to ignore: our physical health. For many of us, being in a high stress, panicked state can inhibit creativity and imaginative thinking, so be sure to nourish your physical and emotional health. Are you getting enough sleep each night? Are you incorporating some form of movement into your day? Are you relying on coping strategies that invigorate you or ones that are making you feel worse in the long run? Our daily wellness habits can have a positive or negative cumulative effect on our mental health, so take stock of what habits might need to stay or go.
For anyone reading this right now, give yourself a pat on the back for the many things you have done to adapt to the “new normal” thus far. Adapting can take emotional and physical energy, so be sure to thank yourself for the resilience that exists in you already. And on the tougher days, remember the words of Winston Churchill: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts.”
References: Coutu, D. (2002). “How Resilience Works.” Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5d1536ab4e50dc0001a5f6e6/t/5ed49a11d1fbb47d97587bbf/1590991378838/HBR.Resilience03Couto.pdf