The Road to Resilience

Road to Resilience

“I am not what happened to me. I choose what I become.”

How can two people grow up in the same home, and yet end up completely different?  Janet and Jessica were sisters, just 2 years apart.  Jessica was younger, and always looked up to her older sister Janet, because she saw her as so very bright, talented and beautiful.  Sadly, both young ladies were raised in environments which would easily be described as abusive, painful, poverty-stricken.

As they grew into adulthood, they each went down diverging paths; the older sister Janet went from one abusive relationship to the next, ending up severely drug addicted, and continues to this day in pain and brokenness.  The younger sister Jessica went through her share of struggles and trials but found a way to cultivate the skills necessary to maintain a stable job, build a stable family, and add significant value to the world around her.  When she was asked how she created such different outcomes than her older sister, though both raised in the same home, Jessica said this: I am not what happened to me.  I choose what I become.”

Zig Ziglar said [quote style=”boxed”]You were not born a winner. You were not born a loser. You were born a chooser[/quote]
If this is the case, then it is obvious we need to choose very well.

What gives us the power to make choices that stick is resilience.

Resilience is the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties.  In engineering and physics, resilience is the capacity of a material to absorb energy, resist damage, and recover quickly.  The term resilience stems from Latin (resiliens), and was originally used to refer to the pliant or elastic quality of a substance.  It is the ability to spring back into shape and can be described as elasticity or toughness.  Resilience is the ability to bounce back from disruption, stress, or change.  Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary of English Language (1958) defines resilience as “

Resilience is the ability to bounce back from disruption, stress, or change.  Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary of English Language (1958) defines resilience as “the ability to bounce or spring back after being stretched or constrained or recovering strength or spirit,” and the American Heritage dictionary defines resilience as “the ability to recover quickly from illness, change, or misfortune.”  In the world of business, resilience is an

In the world of business, resilience is an organization’s ability to withstand the impact of interruptions and economic instability, and to bounce back while resuming operations and generating revenue.  In business, resilience is also seen as innovation and agility, the ability to be a fast mover that capitalizes on an opportunity, and to make things happen.

When it comes to people, I’ve heard it said that resilience is “the process of coping with disruptive, stressful, or challenging life events in a way that provides the individual with additional protective and coping skills than prior to the event itself.”  In other words, resilience is the capacity to bounce back, withstand hardship, and repair yourself.  So, where does resilience come from, and how do we cultivate resilience in our lives?

Research shows that the highest performers on the planet typically have developed incredible resilience.  When the concept of resilience began to come to the surface as a research topic in psychology, researchers tended to label individuals who seemed to overcome adverse circumstances as invulnerable, or invincible.  These labels implied that these people possessed a rare and extraordinary set of qualities that enabled them to rebound from whatever adversity came their way – almost as if these lucky people possessed some sort of divine intervention protected them from harm.

Today, the research is clear:  resilience is not some remarkable, innate quality that we are born with, but rather it is a developmental process.  Resilience is not a gift at birth, but like a muscle is something that we nurture and cultivate within our lives.  Research in resiliency concludes that each person has the capacity to develop the resilience that operates best when people have resiliency-building conditions in their lives.

The concept of resilience first emerged from studies conducted in the 1970’s in the fields of trauma, stress, and poverty.  While studying the effects of “risk factors” on children’s development (i.e., factors which increase the likelihood of poor or negative development), researchers discovered that several children who were exposed to severe and even chronic stressors did not experience negative developmental outcomes.  Studies followed children born into seriously high-risk conditions such as families where parents were mentally ill, alcoholic, abusive, or criminal, or in communities that were poverty-stricken or war-torn.

The surprising finding from these long-term studies was that at least 50% — and often closer to 70% — of youth growing up in these high-risk conditions did develop social competence despite exposure to severe stress, and overcame the odds to lead successful lives.  These studies not only identified the characteristics of these resilient youth but also documented the characteristics of the environments that helped them develop resilience, in other words, the resiliency-building conditions in their lives.  The unexpected finding in the research is that resilience is not a genetic trait that only a few special people possess, but it is something we can all develop, and this development is accelerated when we are in environments with resiliency-building conditions.

The truth is that life doesn’t get easier, and it won’t get more forgiving.  We get stronger and more resilient.  So, how can we cultivate resilience?  And, what are the conditions that help us build resilience?

The Road to Resilience

Road to Resilience

1)  A Positive Attitude.  One of the critical ideas in developing resilience is a positive attitude.  Our attitude determines our attitude, and so if we want to fly high, we need a positive attitude that will support high altitudes.  If a person is content to fly low, no attitude enhancement is necessary.  In our daily lives, this means that we need to forcefully weed out negative self-talk, and ensure that our operating narrative is positive, along with the stories we tell ourselves.

Part of this is how we manage “failure”.  People often tell themselves a story that failure is final, and that our performance is an indicator of our actual worth and value.  In my experience, failure is a part of life, and it is very helpful to see failure as feedback.  Failure teaches us how to succeed in the present and the future.

2)  Emotional Regulation.  Emotional regulation is the ability to regulate or adjust your emotions.  We’re not talking here about strict emotional control.  Our goal is not so much to control our emotions but to channel them.  When we channel our emotions, we can still express ourselves and vent our feelings, but we don’t do it in a random and unhealthy way.

Emotional regulation is so important because feelings so often drive behaviour, and feelings don’t just “go away”.  So, when we learn to regulate our emotions, they can serve and support us, rather than the other way around.  To regulate our emotions, here are a few tips:

  • Deepen your level of self-awareness. In other words, monitor how you are feeling, and what people and events contribute to either positive or negative emotions.
  • Learn to self-soothe.
  • Practice letting go. Often our emotions control us because we hang on when we should let go.
  • Regular rest and exercise along with a healthy diet.

3)  Healthy Perspectives.  Our perspective matters.  Differing perspectives cause two people to look at the same thing and yet see two completely different things.  That’s okay.  However, the road to resilience is about having a healthy perspective.  A healthy perspective supports and empowers us, rather than disempowering us and dragging us down.  Resilience is all about cultivating the healthy perspective of Maya Angelou, who said that, “I can be changed by what happens to me.  But I refuse to be reduced by it.”

The easiest way to develop a healthy perspective is to always be open to new perspectives.  With a closed mind and a padlocked heart, we are certain to have unhealthy perspectives.

4)  Supportive Relationships.  Resilience and supportive relationships go hand in hand.  Human beings are social animals, hard-wired to connect with others.  Research across a wide variety of disciplines consistently demonstrates that social support enhances productivity (we get more done!), psychological well-being (we feel more complete and fulfilled!), and even physical health (our body breaks down less!).  In fact, George Vaillant, Harvard professor of psychiatry, who directed the world’s longest continuous study of physical and mental health, when asked what he had learned from his 40 years of research, said that “the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.”

Cultivating supportive relationships is all about social competence.  Social competence is the ability to produce positive responses from others, thus establishing positive relationships.  This is often about reaching out in an emotionally and socially intelligent way.  People skills are crucial.  Nobody owes us.  In other words, every friend and social support we have are a precious treasure and a privilege.  The moment we take our friends for granted and lose an attitude of gratitude, that is the moment that we make it difficult for people to stay connected with us.  It is so true that the only way to truly have a quality friend or bundle is to be one.

5)  Solid Boundaries.  It is important to surround ourselves with people who will build our confidence, and don’t tear it down.  Cultivating resilience is about spending time with people who replenish you and spending time with people who respect your boundaries.  A lack of boundaries invites a lack of respect, and without appropriate boundaries, we can get worn down by the constant negativity and criticism of others.  Resilience is about being an effective “gatekeeper”; guarding and protecting our heart and mind from the energy and words of others which might be hurtful and unhealthy.  Establishing solid boundaries is a primary way we care for ourselves.

6)  Active Spirituality.  Spirituality and resilience go hand in hand.  Often when we think of spirituality, we think of religion or commitment to a faith community.  However, spirituality is a broad concept with room for many perspectives.  Spirituality includes a sense of connection to something bigger than ourselves, and it typically involves a sense that there must be more.  So to some degree, spirituality is a search for meaning in life.  Spirituality is universal and touches all of us.

Resilience and spirituality are connected because healthy spirituality lifts us beyond the idea that this life and its present circumstances make a complete picture.  When all we see is what is front of us, resilience is difficult, because the trauma and pain of the present moment can be overwhelming.  A broader perspective of spirituality helps elevate our mindset so that we develop the capacity to endure the setbacks and struggles of the present moment because we view them as temporary obstacles.

A healthy starting point is a realization that there is more to this life; that transition and change is a part of this world.  If this is the case, then being flexible and even agile is the only approach that makes sense.

7)  Empowering Routines.  There is significant research, and profound real-life experience, that suggests that having an impact and experiencing success are all about our daily routines.  Daily routines define our moments, and the accumulation of our moments determines the course of our entire lives.  Mike Murdock said that “…the secret of your future is hidden in your daily routine.”

The word “routine” comes from the French word route, or road, and goes back to the 17th century.  It speaks to a road or a set path.  A routine is literally a sequence of actions that is regularly followed, a fixed program, or a series of steps for performing a task.

In my study of leadership and resilience, I have been blessed to speak with a ton of incredibly productive people.  You know what not even one of them said?  Not even one said this: “I don’t know how I get all this stuff done.  I just wing it and hope for the best.  I think it’s sheer luck.”

Each of the high resilience people I spoke to described, in an almost mystical way, the concept of daily routines, habits and practices that added value to their lives and added multiple levels of impact to everything they put their hand to.  Productive people who consistently perform at a high level have a routine.  Almost all have personal customs, consistent habits, and daily practices that they refined and applied.

You can’t say enough about the power of routine.  People who make the greatest impact in any area personally or professionally always have a road, a route or a routine.  A routine is important because the things we do every day matters more than the things we do occasionally.  Aristotle said that “We are what we repeatedly do.  Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”   William James said that humans are “mere walking bundles of habits”, and so our impact and success is crystalized by the sort of things inhabit our bundles.

The most empowering routine is taking time each day for personal reflection, meditation, contemplation, and personal recharge.  People with resilience understand inherently that a simple daily investment in self-care is perhaps the smartest investment we can make because it keeps us energised, and energy leads to productivity.  The highest impact investments are in the physical realm, the mental and emotional realm, and the spiritual realm.  Energizing physically generally looks like sufficient sleep, nutrition, and exercise.  Energizing mentally and emotionally can look like continual learning and development, healthy relationships, visualization, and affirmations.  Energizing spiritually can look like meditation, prayer, journaling, and time communing with nature.  The most resilient people on the planet take the time to rest, replenish, recharge, and re-energize themselves.  Resilient people are energetic people.

8)  A Personal Safety Plan (PSP).  In the world of emergency response, an Emergency Response Plan (ERP) is a plan of action for the efficient coordination of resources to provide the earliest and most effective response in an emergency.  A clear plan to deal with emergencies is an important element of every well-run organization.

Besides the major benefit of providing guidance and a clear path during an emergency, developing an ERP has other advantages.  Often when organizations do, they discover unrecognized hazards and improper allocation of resources that might aggravate an emergency.  So, they can work to mitigate these challenges before an emergency occurs, rather than after one occurs.  The planning process may bring to light deficiencies, such as the lack of resources, or things that can be rectified before an emergency occurs.  In addition, an ERP promotes safety awareness and shows the commitment of the organization to the health of workers.  The lack of an ERP in emergencies in the past has led to severe losses, and the financial collapse of organizations.

The truth is that since emergencies will occur, preplanning is necessary.  Time and circumstances in an emergency mean that normal channels of authority and communication cannot be relied upon to function routinely.  The stress of the situation can lead to poor judgment resulting in severe losses.

Not only do emergencies occur within organizations, but emergencies, trigger points, and unforeseen challenges occur in all our lives.  It is never a matter of if they will occur, but when.  So, a Personal Safety Plan (PSP) is essential on the road to resilience.  A PSP a plan of action to maintain your personal empowerment and focus when emergencies, adversities, or significant triggers occur.  Proper planning and preparation prevent poor performance.  Having a Personal Safety Plan (PSP) in place before a personal emergency occurs is critical:

  • Know your triggers,
  • Have a plan to mitigate triggers when they occur,
  • Be aware of your emotions and energy levels at all times,
  • Have a plan in terms of people you can reach out to in difficult times,
  • Develop routines and practices for self-care when faced with adversity, for example, deep breathing, prayer, meditation, or taking a walk.

Resilience and a Personal Safety Plan is captured well in what Robert Jordan, in The Fires of Heaven, said: “The oak fought the wind and was broken, the willow bent when it must and survived.” 

9)  A Sense of Empowerment.  Life is full of controllables and non-controllables.  People who lack resilience feel disempowered, not only by what they can’t control but also by the things that they can.  People on the road to resilience have a strong sense of their own identity, and an ability to act independently.  They feel like they can exert control over their environment, and where they can’t have effective coping strategies to mitigate this.  Resilient people exhibit planning that facilitates seeing themselves in control, and resourcefulness in developing coping strategies, and in seeking help from others.  The essence of empowerment for those with resilience can be seen in what Emil Dorian said in a Romanian diary: “Strong people alone know how to organize their suffering so as to bear only the most necessary pain.”  A Mexican Proverb says this: “They tried to bury us, but didn’t know that we were seeds.”  The resilient have survived many burials on their way to blooming. 

10)  A Sense of Purpose and Future.  The road to resilience is all about goals, aspirations, persistence, hopefulness, and having the sense of a bright future.  People thrive when they have a sense of purpose, and they wither and fade when they do not.  Whether one is a person of faith or not, whether rich or poor, educated or uneducated, young or old, no matter their ethnic background or race, male and female, whatever their personality type, we all desperately need a sense of purpose.  Human beings are wired this way.  As Benjamin Franklin said, “Most people die at 25… but get buried at 75”.  The death happens when we live without a purpose; the burial, when our physical body expires.  Charles Lamb said: “Our spirits grow gray before our hair.” If we do not discover our “why” we quickly say, “Good-bye”.

This need for a personal “life mission” is thoroughly documented.  Dr Viktor Frankl, the psychologist, in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, detailed how life in a Nazi death camp was made bearable only through this sense of hope, this sense of purpose; this sense of a personal “life mission”.  He later developed this concept into a philosophy of psychotherapy called, “Logotherapy”.  He taught that many perceived mental and emotional illnesses are in fact indicators or symptoms of a sense of having no purpose; a sense of meaninglessness and emptiness just below the surface of a person’s life.  Logotherapy aims to help eliminate that meaninglessness by helping the client to discover and develop his or her personal mission in life.  As Nietzsche said, “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.

My experience from working with people is that this is true.  I have coached many through depression, discouragement, and despair, helping them to realize that their underlying problem was not their job or spouse or finances or felt need.  Quite simply, they lacked a reason for getting out of bed each morning.

When you lose your “Why?” you can say, “Good-Bye”:
“Good-Bye” to happiness, fulfilment, significance, and satisfaction.

General George S. Patton said this: [quote style=”boxed”]I don’t measure a man’s success by how high he climbs, but how high he bounces when he hits bottom.[/quote]  How can two people grow up in the same home, and yet end up completely different?  When Jessica said I am not what happened to me.  I choose what I become”, she was choosing the path of resilience.  Many years ago, I believe that I lacked resilience.  The good news is that resilience is something we can develop and cultivate, following the road to resilience described here.

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About Abe Brown

Abe Brown, MBA is the Coach’s Coach, and is the CEO of Momentum Coaching, and the President of the Certified Coaches Federation. Momentum Coaching has experienced triple digit growth for several years running, and the Certified Coaches Federation has trained and certified over 12,000 Life and Executive Coaches in the last 10 years. Abe does Leadership, Business, and Executive Coaching, and works with profit-based, and non-profit organizations around strategic planning, cultivating fully engaged employees, and facilitating coaching and training programs. He has also worked with several small, medium, and large businesses to accelerate revenue growth and maximize engagement.

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