“Success is not final, failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue is what counts.”
Resilience has, I think, a bit of a Pollyanna rap. For those of you who didn’t grow up with either the book or Disney movie version, Pollyanna was a young girl who was irrepressibly optimistic. Yet in a crisis or traumatic situation, always looking on the bright side-as Pollyanna found out-can feel unbearably hard. Sometimes, before you move on or bounce back, you might just need to throw a pity party first.
I don’t believe that resilience means you never have a bad day or that you accept everything that comes your way with a blithe smile and a song on your lips. During the three year stretch that my family went through one life threatening illness after another, I hosted a few pity parties – some of them fairly spectacular. At the time, the extra glasses of wine or spirals into dark thoughts seemed a logical outcome, given the fact that two of the men I loved most in life both had cancer.
The real question is, after you’ve had your pity party, then what? Do you stay stuck in victim thinking? It can be pretty cozy, snuggled up in the cold comfort of feeling mistreated by the world. But for me, staying in that gloomy spot didn’t seem to get me anywhere. And, frankly, I didn’t like my own company that much when I was dining on negative thoughts and crooning over my hurts.
That’s when I would find just enough energy to rummage around in my heart and remembered my goal – who I wanted to be—even when things were lousy, even when I felt just a little bit neglected by the Divine, and even when part of me wanted to crawl back under my comforter stuffed with victimhood and whine a while longer.
I had decided, when my son was first diagnosed with lymphoma, that the only way for me to keep it together, and be who he needed me to be, was to have a plan. Since I couldn’t control the outcome of his diagnosis, I decided to focus on who I wanted to be during that journey. My answer had been that I wanted to trust in the Divine, believe that growth, even blessings come from hard times, choose generosity of spirit over pettiness, and stay positive. With those intentions as my anchors, I always found the next step, the one that took me back towards courage.
Having a goal, and taking those actions-however small-is one of the ways I believe resilience is built. Making one small movement towards your goals or intentions – even if it is only washing your face or taking a walk around the block-is a step away from feeling overwhelmed or impossibly discouraged.
To get back on track with your goals or to find just a bit of courage to keep going, ask yourself:
- Who does my best self want to be right now? What are the qualities and characteristics I want to demonstrate in my life—even if I don’t feel like it right now?
- What is one small step I can take that will get me moving in that direction again?
Good luck and don’t forget to clean up the mess from the pity party!
Where did this come from? I pointed to a note someone had left in my husband Vito’s ICU unit where he was lying paralyzed. A serious case of Guillain-Barré, a neurological disease that attacks the myelin sheath around nerves, had rendered his body’s nerves useless. I had gone out to grab a quick lunch only to come back to find a yellow post-it note with some words scrawled on it.
Who left this? I asked as I re-read the quote, beginning to tear up. The words landed squarely in a well of vulnerability and need that I hadn’t yet named. Despite my outward facade of having it all handled, I really needed to hear those words. That quote meant someone believed in our family’s ability to handle this latest gut punch, even if I was feeling kind of shaky.
The ICU nurse smiled and said that Dr. Jason Litten-our son Nick’s oncologist-had dropped by. He only had a short break from his own duties, but wanted to see Vito and spend some time with him.
Jason was especially important to our family. He had been the lead on Nick’s oncology team from the moment that Nick was diagnosed at age sixteen and had seen us through some really hard times.
It was precisely that knowledge of who we were as a family and what we had gone through that made his words so powerful. He believed in us and in our ability to get through this. But even more than that – Jason held up a mirror so that we could see it ourselves – our own resilience. He came by to remind us that we had, even if we might have temporarily forgotten them, inner stores of courage, persistence, and wisdom.
What do we know about resilience?
Webster’s dictionary defines resilience as “an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.” For me, it means being able to get back up after a gut punch and keep moving forward, even when the way isn’t yet clear and the footsteps are still bit wobbly.
Resilience has been a research topic for many years, focusing on both children who survive traumatic childhoods and adult victims of serious crises—for example, hurricanes, cancer, bombings, and earthquakes. Researchers have puzzled over why some children and adults go on, even after the most horrific of circumstances, to lead successful, productive lives and others don’t. What makes the difference?
What creates or fosters resilience?
Jason personified one of the most important factors we’ve come to understand in creating or fostering resilience—family, caregivers, friends who surround and support us in hard times. Other factors, according to research, include a belief in one’s ability to solve problems, take action, and personal temperament. (For more on this topic, check out The Road to Resilience)
So how do you develop your own resilience or foster it in someone you love? Over the next several blogs, I’ll share some practical strategies taken from the research and my own experience. I hope you will try them out, keep the ones that work for you, and share them with others. For now, here’s the first two:
Create a community of support: I’ve written about this previously (see the blog archive) but it bears repeating. Having a team of people who guide, advise, handle logistics, or just listen is critical, not only when you are trying to survive the initial shock of a crisis. They can also help us find our inner resources and ability to endure during the crisis and afterwards, when the process of recovery begins.
Talk back to the mind monkeys: Your mind, when faced with a crisis, will do what thousands of years has evolved it to do—look for the most dangerous outcomes and respond with the thoughts and emotions those scenarios will evoke. Part of enhancing your resilience is to see the crisis as potentially solvable—maybe not all of it, but parts of it. Like the old adage goes, “How do you eat an elephant? A piece at a time.” Chew on the pieces you can solve now, rather than focusing on how huge the problem seems.
Next time-more strategies and ideas of how to build resilience in yourself or foster it in someone you love.
“The human capacity for burden is like bamboo- far more flexible than you’d ever believe at first glance.”
― Jodi Picoult, My Sister’s Keeper
Focus on the positive. It’s hard to believe that a serious life crisis and the word “blessing” would come in the same sentence. When my son and husband had cancer, idea of looking for something positive in our family’s experiences probably seemed hyper-religious or Pollyanaish in the extreme to some people. Spiritually, I viewed it as a form of radical surrender to an organizing framework of my life; practically, it kept me sane.
Tune down the victim thinking. Leaving behind the “poor me” mentality meant walking away from the norm. After all, my family was going through hell. Didn’t I deserve to throw myself a pity party and invite a few friends? Yet, as comforting as it seemed initially to wrap myself up in the cold comfort of victim thinking or anxiety, or as easy as it was to allow the fears take over my day, I always came away from those internal, negative conversations wearier than before. And I couldn’t afford to add to my exhaustion.
So, logically, anything I could do to grow the positive in my life made more sense to me than focusing on the negative. I needed all the infusions of energy I could get and I found that looking for and counting my blessings filled me up. Gratitude turned out to be the best antidote I could find for fatigue, anxiety, self-doubt and dread.
Cultivate gratitude. Research bears the importance of gratitude. The Greater Good Science Center, citing the research of more than 30 scientists and graduate students, has found that gratitude impacts not only our emotions with increased happiness, joy, optimism, compassion, and generosity, it can also lower blood pressure and improve the immune system. Robert Emmons, a leading expert on gratitude, suggests a few ways to increase the time we spend being grateful:
- Using a visual cue (such as a picture or even Post-it note) to remember to take the time to be grateful.
- Keeping a gratitude journal—what happened today that filled you with a sense of appreciation?
- Learning prayers of gratitude as ways to incorporate more gratitude into your life.
Hang on to the good a bit longer. The author of Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom, Rick Hanson, suggests “taking in the good” as a way to counter the brain’s natural tendency to hang on to the negative thoughts and too quickly let go of the positive ones. Whenever something good happens, he suggests that you first fully experience it. Notice that the sky is bright blue after a week of clouds or the delightful smell of fresh baked cookies in the bakery that you’ve just passed.
Once you’ve noticed, focus your mind fully on the experience. Second, keep your attention on that positive experience. If your mind tries to shift away, bring it back to the deliciousness of what you are thinking, feeling, sensing, seeing or touching. Finally, visualize those lovely thoughts, sensations and emotions flowing into your entire body. See them and feel them filling you up until you are full to the brim with all that this experience has to offer.
Next week. More ways to cultivate resilience and make your crisis just a bit better.
Gratitude bestows reverence..changing forever how we experience life and the world.