Resilience is the ability to overcome adversity. Actually, it’s not simply the ability to overcome adversity it’s the ability to overcome adversity effectively. It’s the ability to navigate through difficulty so as to come out of it as you were or even better. We can overcome adversity in many ways. According to Dr. Lucy Hone, a well-being and resilience expert and associate researcher at AUT University, there are three strategies to help you be more resilient.
1. Knowing that suffering is part of life. According to Dr. Hone, knowing that suffering is part of life staves off a sense of entitlement. It keeps us from asking, “Why me?” Asking why me tends to make us feel worse, by making the person feel alone. Implicit in the question why me is thinking the person suffering is the only one doing so. This idea reminds me of one of the components of self-compassion – common humanity vs. isolation. Knowing that suffering is part of life ties us to the shared human experience. While suffering is grueling, feeling bad for feeling bad makes it even more grueling. Thus, having a keen awareness that suffering is part of the human experience allows us to be resilient.
2. Carefully choosing where you direct your attention. We are the arbiters of where we place our attention. We can choose where we decide to shine our mental spotlight. As I’ve said many times, the negative calls to us, we are hardwired to focus on the negative. Having said that however, we also know that with effort we can focus our attention where we choose. Again, I’m not advocating for closing a blind eye to difficulty, much less feeling its effects. What I am advocating for is being proactive. I’m advocating for choosing what’s best for you and subsequently placing your attention there.
As Dr. Hone says, resilient people have a way of tuning in to the good around them. This is called benefit-finding or hunting the good or focusing on the positive. Benefit finding is defined as experiencing positive outcomes following adverse life events. This means we have to choose to find the good in order to experience those positive outcomes.
3. Ask yourself: “Is what I’m doing helping me or harming me?” What a simple but powerful question! We don’t always act intuitively in our own best interest. Asking yourself this question gives you the ability to act in your own best interest. Asking yourself this question gives you control over your actions. It allows you to respond rather than react. It gives you the opportunity to take a beat and proceed thoughtfully. When we respond to a situation, because we are in control, we tend to feel better about ourselves. Asking yourself if what you are doing is helping you or harming you can be applied to every context. Is what I’m thinking helping me? Is what I’m doing helping me? Is how I’m behaving helping me? “
In conclusion, when life gets tough I encourage you to try these strategies. I also encourage you to have realistic expectations about the effects these strategies will have. The only way real change happens is gradually.
One of the most important resilience skills is an awareness of our thoughts. Remember our thoughts are just beliefs we make real. Unfortunately most of us are sorely unaware of what we are telling ourselves – what our thoughts are, which can be problematic especially during times of adversity. Theory tells us that anxiety comes from thinking about the future and depression from thinking about the past. So, for example, when you start to think about what is going to happen tomorrow, next week, next month, or next fall, you will start to get anxious. When you start to think about what you should or should not have done, the regrets of the past, you will most likely start to get depressed. Where does that leave your thoughts, you ask? It leaves them in the present, in the moment, in the here and now. So when you find yourself feeling anxious or depressed the best way to help yourself out of those feelings is to pull your thoughts into the moment. How do you do this, well that’s where all the previous skills we’ve talked about come in as well as the title of this email. When you find yourself in need of diverting your thoughts, when you are anxious or depressed and don’t want to feel that way, use any one of the resilience skills you have learned about, to pull your thoughts into the present. Remember flexibility is critical to well-being and resilience.
So for example self-compassion is a great way to pull your thoughts into the present. When you are anxious or depressed being kind to yourself, as opposed to beating yourself up (which is what most of us tend to do), is a very effective way to bring your thoughts into the moment. Acknowledging your anxiety or depression, not judging yourself for feeling the way you do is a great beginning. Then instead of saying to yourself, “Why am I feeling this way!” saying to yourself, “I bet most people are(would be) feeling this way, I’m really not alone in how I’m feeling,” brings your thoughts further into the present. And finally being able to tell yourself I feel X right now but these feelings will not last forever, further brings your thoughts into the present.
Focusing on your character strengths is another great way to bring your thoughts into the present and to make good happen. So when you are feeling anxious or depressed deploy some of your signature strengths. Remember character strengths are the traits we all have which allow us to be at our best and being at our best makes us feel good and feeling good brings us into the present. So, when you are about to undertake anything, it doesn’t matter what, consciously channel some of your strengths to help you do it. Channeling a strength takes your mind off the past or future and brings it into the present, it allows you to attend to the activity at hand. So, for example, when I write these emails, sometimes I wonder, will this email be good, will it help, will it…, when I deploy humor, perseverance and kindness (some of my signature strengths) I am able to simply focus on writing the email at hand, no wondering about all the wills (the future) and I feel less anxious.
Now for gratitude. Gratitude is one of the most simple, elegant and effective ways to bring your thoughts into the present. Count your blessings, think about what life would be like without something wonderful, or just plain and simply give thanks to someone – phone a friend, grab an offspring, reach out to a family member, tell them how grateful you are to them for… Gratitude is an amazing way to bring your thoughts into the present, it’s a win/win for everyone.
So, in summary, when you feel anxious it is because you are probably thinking/worrying about the future. When you feel depressed it is because you are probably thinking about the past. If you drag your thoughts into the present, into the moment you will help yourself feel less anxious or depressed. Remember we aren’t going for elation we are going for less of what we are already feeling.
During this difficult time, with so many people offering advice about what to do and not to do with the kids and how to do it, plus all the other demands the idea of being self-compassionate seems appropriate. There is no template for how to deal with what is happening now, I’d venture to assert most people are just trying to do the best they can.
According to Kristin Neff, the world’s leading expert on self-compassion, on the best of days we tend not to be very nice to ourselves. Actually, she says, we tend to be nicer to people we don’t like, than we are to ourselves. This is worrisome! Now more than ever it’s time to try to do things differently. It’s time to cut ourselves some slack, well actually, more than cut ourselves some slack, it’s time to be very, very kind to ourselves.
Self-compassion involves responding to ourselves when we have a difficult time, fail, or notice something we don’t like about ourself in the same supportive and understanding way we would to a friend. Easy, right! Not really, when we don’t live up to our own standards, when we feel we have fallen short, we tend to beat ourselves up. This is probably not the best time to be beating ourselves up. Lately, I’ve heard a lot of talk about how important it is to be kind to others, I believe it’s just as important to be kind to yourselves!
So how do we do this? Well, it’s easier said than done, so be kind to yourselves in your efforts to be kinder to yourselves. There are many resources out there to teach yourself self-compassion. The Greater Good Science Center has a lot of information on how to build self-compassion for parents. The Center for Mindful Self-Compassion also has a lot of resources and information on how to learn self-compassion.