The Resilience Factor

I believe that most of us have a story (or two, three or more) about a time in our lives that was a struggle in some respect or an obstacle that we had to overcome. There is no denying that life is full of challenges.  And it is normal to respond to adversity with intense, often mixed, emotions. But after that initial gut reaction, what do you do next? Do you mope, take out your frustration on somebody else, blame your partner, or try to forget about it? Many of us do these things, some of which are unhealthy and not very constructive.  By doing so, we hand power over to the obstacle and diminish our own sense of control.

When we feel stressed out, confused or upset, and we overly-identify with our emotions, we become vulnerable.  Emotions can cloud our judgment, making it difficult to think clearly. As humans, we have the ability to balance emotion and reason; this "sweet spot" has been dubbed "Wise Mind" by Marsha Linehan, the creator of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT).  When we tap into this place within ourselves, we may feel centered and peaceful because we are not, as the saying goes, getting "carried away by our emotions."  Wise Mind can be a powerful tool to help us cope with circumstances that are outside of our control; it can support our resilience by restoring our sense of equilibrium. For more on Wise Mind, please click here.

Each one of my clients has a unique story.  Some of my clients come from broken homes, suffered great losses, struggled with addiction, survived traumatic events, wrestled with questions of identity and self-worth, or struggled to stay afloat when faced with so many demands in their lives. Some of them lost segments of their childhood and innocence or were forced to abandon their dreams for a time due to various circumstances.  Throughout my work as a therapist, I have been inspired by my clients' resilience; by their ability to not just survive, but to persevere, grow and even succeed despite great difficulties and challenges.

While resilience may be easier to identify in more extreme cases, it is important to acknowledge its influence on a smaller scale.  You do not have to face extreme life circumstances in order to exercise resilience. For example, it is present in your everyday ability to spring back from setbacks and frustrations. I would argue that we all possess some degree of psychological resilience--even if we struggle to access it at times.  

By assuming responsibility for the way in which we experience our lives, we reclaim our capacities for choice and decision-making.  This means that, even when faced with adversity, we do not give up or resort to negative actions, but we use this as a springboard to rise above the situation and elicit greater hope for the future.  Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor/ psychiatrist/writer, credits his ability to survive the dismal conditions of a concentration camp to his ability to mentally reframe the situation so that, rather than focus on the bleakness of the situation and his status as a prisoner, he focused on preserving his spiritual freedom, exercising the small choices that he was able to, uplifting others' spirits, while preserving human dignity. As anyone would agree, this was no small feat.  And we can learn through others' stories about the way in which we wish to live our own lives.

Despite the odds, some of my clients managed to graduate from high school (as the first generation in their families), to take artistic risks, to redefine themselves and their roles, to not give up on their careers even if it meant changing direction or ignoring what others around them were saying. Again and again, my clients have picked themselves up off the ground and not given up on life.  I am not saying that the road was easy and that they did not struggle at times.  Much of what it came down to for them was reevaluating the core beliefs and assumptions that they held about themselves.  During hard times, they often felt small, struggled with turbulent emotions, or questioned their abilities.  By trying to shift their perspectives or reframe their situations, they were eventually able to experience reconnection, self-love, and relocate their strength and "sparkle."

How you view your situation, as Frankl suggests, is really what makes the difference. Do you view it as an insurmountable obstacle and grow rageful, hopeless, anxious, or depressed?  If so, you may find yourself caught up in the mind's emotional web and feel hopeless about your situation.  By giving yourself some time and space so that your mind can "refresh," by taking some deep breaths or going for a walk, you are flexing your resilience muscle.  You might even feel a sense of empowerment or gain spiritual clarity.

In The Artist's Way, a book filled with valuable life lessons that apply to more than artists, Julia Cameron writes about "gain disguised as loss" and encourages us to ask ourselves: "How can this loss serve me?" when we feel defeated.  She shares: "The trick is to metabolize pain as energy.  The key to doing that is to know, to trust, and to act as if a silver lining exists if you are only willing to look at the [world] differently or to walk through a different door."

Rather than spend your whole life pointing your finger in another direction, or shutting down, or exploding with anger or resentment, there exists a real possibility to both be at peace with yourself as well as to feel a sense of agency in the world around you.  The trick lies in perspective-shifting and the story that you create about your life and choose to tell yourself and others.  At any time, you can re-author your story and your experience of the world (even if the outcome remains the same).  As humans, we are not fixed, we are flexible.  We change and update and regress and progress and reinvent ourselves all of the time! Whatever your obstacle is--be it large or small--you have all that you need to turn it around and see things with fresh eyes.  There are many different healthy ways to do this: some people connect with others who inspire them, some find comfort in spirituality, some express themselves creatively, some travel, some push themselves through intense physical experiences (e.g. mountaineering or marathons), and yes, some find support by talking to a therapist or counselor. You have a right to access and know the incredible resilience that is your own--and that connects us with one another. As Cameron suggests, instead of asking yourself the question: "Why me?" try asking: "what next?"  



Sources Cited

Cameron, Julia.  (1992).  The Artist's Way.  New York: Tarcher/Penguin.

Frankl, Viktor E.  (1959).  Man's Search for Meaning.  Boston: Beacon Press.

   Wise Mind: Experiencing Intuition & Integration.  Retrieved in 2016 from http://www.dbtselfhelp.com/wise_mind.pdf