By Nick Allen, Neurological health advocate and founder of Mastering Mountains
Resilience is one of those qualities we've heard a lot about in the last few months. Many of us desire to become more resilient but I suspect the concept of resilience is often only vaguely understood. This article seeks to clear this up, define resilience and give actionable steps that you can use to help put your life on a more resilient trajectory.
What is resilience?
Resilience, as a concept, comes from the world of physics. It describes the ability of an elastic material to bounce back to its original shape after being crushed or stretched. New tennis balls and rubber bands, for example, are highly resilient.
Many writers on resilience borrow this notion and define human resilience as the ability to bounce back after a hard patch. At one level this makes sense, however, in my experience, challenges and difficult times often change us irrevocably. We don't always fully bounce back and the imprint of these events stay with us in our bodies and memories. We all must grapple with a new normal.
Eric Greitens, a former US Navy SEAL and Rhodes Scholar picks up on this, believing that resilience isn't about bouncing back to the old normal. Instead, he believes that resilience is about using "what hits you to change your trajectory in a positive direction."
I believe that Greitens’ concept of a positive trajectory is key. It gives us a way to think about resilience and begin to answer the question: How do we act with resilience and set a positive trajectory?
Below, you will find five steps to help.
1. Acknowledge the challenge
Acknowledging the challenge you're facing is foundational to setting a positive trajectory. Whether your challenge is professional, financial, relational or emotional you must first take stock and seek to understand the situation in which you find yourself.
Choosing to acknowledge a challenge and its difficulty enables self-compassion, which is the basis of resilience. Positive trajectories are not necessarily happy ones; growth is often painful and challenges are, by definition, difficult. You will feel frustrated, will want to grieve, or to feel down along the way — and this is normal.
For me, denial and escapism are often my first responses and this gets in the way of processing the challenging situation and its associated emotions. This sets me on a negative trajectory. However, I find that self-compassionate acknowledgement allows me to move through the difficulty and towards a positive trajectory.
Tip: Take time to think about the most difficult situation you are facing right now. Ask yourself: What's going on and how do I really feel about it?
2. Accept those things you cannot change
The next step is to identify and accept the things we cannot change. Some of the most difficult situations we face are often outside of our control. For example, as individuals, we have little control to the global economic, social and relational impacts of COVID-19, even though we might be profoundly impacted by them.
Getting diagnosed with a chronic illness was outside my control. In the years since then, my refusal to accept the constraints of a chronic illness has caused me to burn out numerous times. A stubborn refusal to accept those things that you cannot change undermines resilience.
It's important to note that acceptance is not a passive resignation. Instead, acceptance non-judgmentally acknowledges what is real, however unpleasant that may be, and actively helps you to focus on the things that can be changed.
Tip: Think about the situation you are facing and list the elements that are beyond your control. Now list those things you can change. Ask yourself: Have I accepted that I cannot change the unchangeable?
3. Develop the skills you need
Often, we must learn the skills we need to continue down a new and positive trajectory. Having identified the things we can change in the previous step, this is where we take action and begin to affect change.
Let's say you are facing an increased workload due to redundancies in your already-stressed workplace (something you can't change). Learning better time management and conflict resolution skills (something you can change) might help you move through the situation with resilience.
I find that this focus breaks the challenge down into manageable steps and gives me a way forward. Setting a light at the end of the tunnel gives a huge boost toward a positive trajectory and a resilient response.
Tip: Look at the list of things you can change and think about the skills you need to learn in order to respond positively to the situation you are facing. This will build your resilience.
4. Build in plenty of margin
Challenging situations are taxing and you need capacity (extra juice in your battery) to act with resilience. And how do you build capacity? By creating margin in your life.
Without margin in your life, you've probably reached this point in the article and feel like you don't have the energy, time and emotional support you need to even begin thinking about resilience.
On the other hand, in life with plenty of margin, you would know you have energy in reserve, enough time and a strong support network to get you through whatever situation that comes along. Margin builds resilience by giving you the capacity you need to build skills, make changes and process your situation.
There are lots of ways to build capacity, but here are a few ways to increase your margin:
- Physical margin: Make sure you're getting enough sleep, eating well, exercising regularly and participating in restorative activities. And take your MitoQ every day!
- Time margin: Learn to say no. Give yourself more time than you think you will need. Look for ways to make life simpler.
- Emotional margin: Give yourself space to process what's going on. Practice gratitude every day. Surround yourself with supportive, nourishing relationships.
Tip: Think about the challenge you are facing and consider the area of your life (e.g. physical, time or emotional margin) that has the smallest margin. Identify ways to increase your margin and build resilience in that area.
5. Create community that encourages you to stay optimistic
Community can make an enormous impact (both positively and negatively) on our trajectory in the face of difficult times. We all need people who will listen well, compassionately remind us to stay hopeful and non-judgmentally call us out if we begin to act without resilience.
However, community isn't often merely found, it is built on reciprocity. You get out of it what you put in. This is where the magic is: you help yourself by helping others.
Tip: List two or three people who are compassionate and non-judgmental. Think about how you can deepen your relationship with them and better support them in the challenges they are facing.