When my dad died, the first 6 months were pretty rough. I felt so empty and lost. I distinctly remember a moment where I had to make a choice – I couldn’t lie in bed anymore – I was either going to go down a similar path that he did, or I was going to pick myself up, dust myself off, and move forward. I chose the latter. I didn’t know where I was going, I didn’t know what the future would look like, and MAN was I slow to put my feet under me and simply stand. I tried to return to normal, but I couldn’t. It only set me back. I had to write a new path for myself – one that I wasn’t very familiar with. It was scary, but it was worth it.
When I used to think of resilience as an emotional concept, I would imagine us as rubber bands, being stretched out and bouncing back into place. Resilience is so much more than that, though.
First, let’s talk about what resilience isn’t –
Resilience isn’t something we simply feel.
Resilience isn’t something we just have within us from birth.
Resilience isn’t something that comes easily or fully naturally.
Resilience isn’t returning to normal.
Resilience isn’t being at your end goal, or even knowing what the end goal is.
Now what resilience IS –
Resilience is something we do – we practice resilience. It’s a process that requires us to maintain a level of mental, physical, and emotional functioning.
Resilience is something we adopt and grow in the face of hardship. Resilience requires turmoil.
Resilience is a skill that we choose to use and practice. We get better over time when we choose to be resilient. It’s a dynamic process that evolves over time.
Resilience is creating a new normal – the old normal doesn’t exist anymore. You have nothing to return to. It’s creating something different – something hopefully better.
Resilience is ANY movement forward, whatever that looks like. We don’t have to know the final destination to start.
Taking that step forward –
If resilience is something we learn, grow, and practice, it is something we can improve on with some effort. We have to give ourselves some grace, though. When placing unrealistic expectations on ourselves to “bounce back” to a “normal” that no longer exists, we’re only going to feel shame and disappointment in ourselves. Think of it this way – if we are the authors of our lives, resilience is simply picking up the pen. That doesn’t mean we have to have the next chapter written or even mapped out. Picking up the pen after it’s been completely knocked out of our hand is sometimes the hardest thing to do. Here are a few things that help –
Gratitude. No matter what is going on in our lives, we can find something to be grateful for. Sometimes we may only be grateful for hearing a song we liked, that our lunch was good, or that we had the sick day to call into work. Other times we may be grateful to be alive, that our pets cuddled with us that day, for a loved one checking in. Be specific when thinking of what you’re grateful for, and find something not necessarily in any and all situations, but certainly in every day. This can help armor you from the distress that we feel when experiencing hardship or trauma because gratitude literally physically reduces toxins in your brain and increases feel-good, reward center neutrotrasnmitters like dopamine.
Cognitive flexibility and reframing. Cognitive flexibility is our ability to mentally move from one thing to another. Similarly, cognitive reframing is our ability to adjust our perceptions. When faced with trauma, it’s so easy to look at the with horse blinders. We see the pain, the sorrow, the darkness. I’m not suggesting you “find the silver lining” by any means. What I’m suggesting is seeing the trauma, and taking off the horse blinders to see everything else as well. Simply sitting on the trauma and only looking down will get us nowhere except deeper into our pain. I’m suggesting adjusting your perceptions – the world isn’t all bad just because something bad happened. Integrate the experience into your overall sense of self – learn from the experience and allow yourself to remain open to looking for and learning different things.
Values commitment and exploration. Our most cherished values often come from our most painful experiences. Our values influence our actions, thoughts, and behaviors. When we have self-awareness and are acting from a healthy mental place, we use these values adaptively to help us push forward. Knowing what our values are helps us establish boundaries in our lives that protect us from further pain. Sometimes we don’t live accordingly with our values. This is often true after hardship. Our beliefs and ideas about ourselves / life can become disconnected from our actions and emotions. We have to bridge that gap to move forward and to be resilient. We can choose to re-prioritize our lives to fit what we value, and those things can become our identity in a healthy, positive way.
Self-forgiveness. We sometimes internalize what has happened to us – whether we had no, little, or full control over the situation. We can easily adopt the mentality that what we’ve done or been through is who we are. This is shame, and it’s the furthest thing from the truth. Nothing will keep you stuck in hardship, trauma, or turmoil like feeling unworthy of moving forward. When we separate ourselves from the the choices, nonchoices, or mistakes we feel we have made, we’re able to see ourselves more lovingly, more capable, and more worthy, and are able to take that step toward creating whatever future is in store for us.
Healthy relationship with control. There are things that are fully, 100% in our control. Those things include what we say, what we do, how we react. This circle often feels very small. There are things we can influence. These are things like the route of a hard conversation, getting into your college of choice, if you get that job. You can prepare yourself, practice, work hard, but there’s someone or something else that shares a piece of control with you for the final outcome. You can also influence your thoughts. You can have an internal conversation with yourself and evaluate why you’re thinking the way you are, exploring where it comes from, what it means, and if it’s an accurate representation of reality. Then there are things fully outside of your control. You can’t control what simply happens to you or in the world outside of yourself, what others do, say, think, or feel. This area often feels huge, and if typically where a lot of us spend our emotional energy. We have to acknowledge that these things are out of our control, and shift that focus to what we can control. You can find control in EVERY. SINGLE. SITUATION. …no matter what it is. That may not mean that you have a lot of options or a lot to do about it, but you do have choice. Focus there.
None of these things will happen overnight, and none of these things indicate staying where you were before the hardship. They do, though, indicate a brighter, more satisfying future.