Resilience may toughen us up, but it’s tough to master



We all have resilience in different degrees. Just think about the past two-plus years. We all lived through a pandemic and adjusted to wearing masks, practicing social distancing, wiping off newspapers and groceries and mastering Zoom gatherings in lieu of in-person meet-ups.

Pat yourselves on the back for being resilient or give yourself a hug. However, we’re still going to need heavy doses of resilience as we get through the rest of summer and move into fall. Who knows what lies ahead?

At the same time, we face rising inflation with gasoline prices still high, although some have come down, as well as the realities of a war in Ukraine and tensions with China. How about the resilience of the Ukrainians and their leaders? What an example they’ve set for the world.

What exactly is resilience? The American Psychological Association defines it as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or even significant sources of threat.”

That definition led to more questions for us, however. Is resiliency something we’re born with or something we learn from our parents, friends and work colleagues? Or can we learn how to gain it by reading about resilient people and try to learn where their resilience came from. We also wonder why some seem to have so much more resilience than others.

A Huffington Post article, “The Science of Resilience,” gave us some answers since it dug into the origins of those who have resilience in spades.

Writer Steven M. Southwick, a Professor of Psychiatry, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Resilience at Yale Medical School, wrote, “When my colleagues and I began to study post-traumatic stress disorder, we assumed resilient people were somehow special, perhaps genetically gifted. We were wrong. Everyone can learn and train to be more resilient.”

A book, Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges, co-authored by Southwick and Dennis Charney M.D., found resilience to be a complex product of genetic, psychological, biological, social and spiritual factors.

All of these ideas prove comforting to us since they give us hope that we might learn how to train ourselves to handle the vicissitudes of life and bounce back healthier or smarter, so we’re better prepared for the potholes ahead. Obviously, it helps if we inherited some of the necessary gene pool, but even if we didn’t, we could pump up our resiliency level with some work.

We thought about our own experiences and what we did and could have done more of to shorten the learning curve. We both struggled with geometry in high school. We’re too old to each remember how we dealt with it at the time but now as adults we think we would get extra help if we faced a similar tough course. We would also focus more on our strengths so we wouldn’t feel so worthless about the subject. And we would tell ourselves that getting an A or C in the class wouldn’t affect our lives permanently, even if it impacted our report card.

There have been other times when we needed resilience–dealing with a difficult boss, losing out on a bid for a home, having an editor critique a story we loved and telling us to revise it or not getting an invite to a party we really wanted to attend. With the case of a difficult boss, an editor, Barbara asked for advice from a psychologist who specializes in work-related challenges. He suggested that she make a friend of the boss. Slowly, the tactic worked.

Margaret learned resilience after her husband died. She had to be strong for her three kids and her parents who were still alive at the time. It took work, going to a grief support group and a grief counselor. However, she emerged from one of the most painful and life changing events of her life stronger than ever. This strength was the impetus behind her decision to make the 1,000-mile move to New York City three years ago.

We’ve thought of others not getting a job after multiple interviews, not winning a marathon or even doing well when they had trained for months or the two of us not winning the Wisconsin grilled cheese sandwich contest, we both entered.

The list of disappointments goes on, and we’ve also heard myriad tales from family and friends of rejections from a favorite college, no invite to a high school prom and a snub at a party. This is no time to give up, yet we know some who take to their bed, sit in a corner feeling hopeless and sorry for themselves. Some even give up and never move forward.

What probably hurts us the most is watching our children and grandkids when they’ve had disappointments or experienced problems and not yet learned the secrets of becoming resilient. When they were little, it was the accepted practice to give everyone a trophy or ribbon on every sports team just for participating. What’s the lesson there? No child should be disappointed or fail.

We have learned in our older age that having small failures early in life, when a child has the safety net of family and friends to turn to, helps build our suits of armor and prepare us later as adults to deal with the big setbacks. Failure begets strength and early failure makes later failure easier to digest.

We developed 10 ways we think anybody can boost their resilience IQ.

  1. Turn to your inner circle of friends and family to be a support system. Listen to their ideas. You needn’t accept them automatically. At least, ruminate about them or try some and then decide the best course of action. When you’re asked for help, carefully suggest ways rather than offer criticisms such as “You should have done this or that sooner.”
  2. Focus on assets and accomplishments rather than deficits. Be kind to yourself. Maybe, your best account went to a competitor but think about all the business you’ve done with other clients. Now you have time to focus more on them or find new ones. Keep plugging away but maybe in a different way.
  3. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Easier said than done but try it. Not invited to a party, so what, keep telling yourself. Do something positive by calling a friend you cherish to do something that night. Or stay home and pour yourself a lovely glass of wine and learn some new technology, practice on the piano you haven’t played for months, start to journal. Shift your mindset; be thankful for what you have.
  4. Tap into your spirituality. This is not religion but it’s about treating others the way you’d like to be treated. Show kindness to others. Do a volunteer project. It will make you feel good if you’re hurting. Also, you never know where a volunteer job might take you or whom you’ll meet along the way. And that’s a positive step toward resilience.
  5. Get happy in nature. Notice the world around you more. Walk, enjoy people watching the scenery. This can be healing. Try to spend a little time outdoors each day; nature has been proven to help us both emotionally and physically.
  6. Budget so you don’t get strapped for money and panic. However, if you do find you’re short one month, figure out how to make it up. Walk dogs, babysit, work in a retail store a few evenings a week, maybe be a server, sell some possessions you never use to a consignment shop or an online resource. There are lots of jobs available now, too, as most places have “help needed” signs in their windows.
  7. If you’re down in the dumps after a setback, start a new healthy routine. Stretch in the morning, floss, walk to coffee shop rather than drive, try a new exercise regimen, practice mindfulness or learn yoga. Make a small purchase, perhaps, that new lipstick color for spring.
  8. If you lost your job, this is a great time to clean out your stuff while waiting to hear if you get that new job. Purging your life of stuff and messes makes you feel more organized and in control. It can be a small task rather than a big attic or basement. Example: Cleaning out your pantry in the kitchen of stuff with expiration dates is a great start.
  9. If you’re sinking down a rabbit hole and feel paralyzed, really sad and in the dumps, time to call up the cavalry, perhaps, a mental health professional. It takes strength, not weakness to do so, to share your sadness out loud with someone else. Together you can strategize and see things more clearly. If you don’t like the first or even second professional, you meet with no chemistry perhaps–go for a third. It takes time to build this type of relationship.
  10. Look for role models. There are many examples of people who overcame all sorts of different odds. But with resilience, they have moved forward. Think of Nelson Mandela, Viola Davis, Naomi Osaka, battered women, other prisoners–some wrongly accused, hundreds of kids in foster care, and so on.

Be patient, sometimes it takes repeated efforts. But once you learn to be resilient, you’re in better shape for the next hurdle or challenge, and then the next. Being alive means facing what’s thrown our way head on and moving beyond.