In the midst of extraordinarily difficult times, I think about something Elizabeth Gilbert wrote about her 101-year-old grandmother: “The women I love and admire for their strength and grace did not get that way because their shit worked out. They got that way because shit went wrong and they handled it. They handled it in a thousand different ways on a thousand different days, but they handled it. Those women are my superheroes.”
The same goes for men — we all hit bumps in the road that test us — but I happen to be a woman who had some stuff go wrong and I too came out on the other side a whole lot happier, wiser, and tougher. I’m finally living the life I had always dreamed of, and as a therapist, I have been deeply moved to meet a wide range of people who have weathered changes, transitions, and even trauma, and grown stronger from surviving.
The Way Out Is Through
Emotional resiliency is not a superpower, or even a special gift you’re born with. It’s a way of thinking — and a way of behaving. We all tend to suffer the same fears and insecurities about our careers, health, or relationships. For many, the thoughts that keep them up at night also keep them down during the day. However when we manage to be resilient, these vulnerabilities mobilize us into action. We still have setbacks, bouts of depression or anxiety, but we don’t let it define us.
When you are resilient, you get bent by life’s challenges, but you don’t break. You remain flexible, guided by your intentions and your values. Resiliency is not about ignoring difficult thoughts and emotions, but rather holding them loosely, facing your demons with courage and compassion, while seeking help when you need it.
I have known people, especially in mid-life, who redefined themselves in unexpected, positive ways, discovering new and wonderful things. Some of the most successful people didn’t experience the height of their careers until their 50’s, after numerous setbacks and mistakes. There are even people who have turned personal tragedy into a purpose, a career, and a gift, helping others cope with similar misfortune.
Joseph Campbell described resiliency beautifully: “Whatever your fate is, whatever the hell happens, you say, ‘This is what I need.’ It may look like a wreck, but go at it as though it were an opportunity, a challenge. If you bring love to that moment — not discouragement — you will find the strength is there. Any disaster you can survive is an improvement in your character, your stature, and your life. What a privilege!”
Okay, so how can we instill this understanding in our children? How do we prepare them for the inevitable curveballs life will throw? Well, since emotional resiliency is a behavior, parents are in a position to teach that positive flexibility to the next generation. We can help our children develop positively by not removing adversity from their lives. Instead of running in to fix things at the first sign of trouble, be supportive, but let them learn how to solve problems themselves. And of course, if you model resilience when you are faced with challenges, your children will learn by observing. In many ways, our children are mirrors.
Keep in mind it’s never too late to learn. And that goes for older kids, but also for parents. By doing some therapeutic work, we can let go of deep-seated doubts and unhelpful ideas about ourselves that hold us back from reaching our full potential. Writing in a journal is an excellent way to identify limiting beliefs, and a good place to begin shifting into more positive affirmations. Writing is also helpful in setting an intention, drawing a map of where you wish to go. Intention becomes a driving force of your behavior.
What to Strive For
Emotionally resilient people share these characteristics: they are hopeful; they understand life isn’t fair; they strive to live with a purpose; they place a premium on their relationships, which in turn become a source of comfort when going through rough patches; they can identify their feelings, and experience a wide range of emotions; they don’t let life’s challenges consume them.
And of course, an important common thread among the emotionally resilient people I know is ACTION. When faced with a challenge, they don’t allow fear to paralyze them. They put one foot in front of the other, and keep moving forward.
In that spirit, one last quote. “It is only when we have the courage to face things exactly as they are, without any deception or illusion, that a light will develop out of events, by which the path to success may be recognized.” – I Ching