How can you be resilient and hopeful when it seems like the sky is falling everywhere you look? I can only speak for myself, but I have found these last two years have been challenging in many ways. As a naturally optimistic person, I have found my optimism waning at times. I have questioned in moments how I can possibly continue on with the amount of stress and overwhelm in my life and as a result I have tried on many numbing techniques to ease the pain and discomfort.
Thankfully, I have a great support group and have created techniques to help pull me out of these funks (or episodes of feeling depressed and anxious). Because we have all been through the ups and downs and will continue to face challenges for the rest of our lives, I really wanted to get a greater understanding of what makes a person more resilient in stressful times and how we can learn to overcome adversity in our lives?
As an important side note, I realize I live an incredibly privileged life. I have access to many things that many people around the world don’t and I think we need to acknowledge our privilege.
the Make-up of a resilient person
On my quest for knowledge, I picked up Dr Brene Brown’s book, The Gifts of Imperfection. In her book, she quotes the following factors as being important in the make-up of a resilient person:
- They are resourceful and have good problem-solving skills.
- They are more likely to seek help.
- They hold the belief that they can do something that will help them to manage their feelings and to cope.
- They have social support available to them.
- They are connected with others such as family or friends.
It is interesting to me that most of the factors stated above necessary to build resiliency center around connection with others. In the past 2 years we have been repeatedly ordered to ‘socially distance’ ourselves from others and in doing so we are weakening our resiliency to overcome the challenges that we are faced with. It is no wonder that hopelessness is at an all-time high. But it doesn’t have to be this way, you have a choice.
Some other significant patterns also emerged in Dr Brown’s research as being essential to resilience:
- The ability to cultivate hope.
- Practicing critical awareness.
- Letting go of numbing and taking the edge off vulnerability, discomfort and pain.
I’m going to take some time addressing these final three factors of resilience.
First and foremost, we need to address the fact that hope is not an emotion; it’s a way of thinking or more of a cognitive process. Hope really is a thought process made up of goals, pathways and agency and can only really happen when (2) :
- We have the ability to set realistic goals (“I know where I want to go”)
- We are able to figure out how to achieve those goals, including the ability to stay flexible and develop alternative routes (“I know how to get there, I’m persistent, and I can tolerate disappointment and try again”)
- We believe in ourself (“I can do this!”)
Hope is a learned skill. Children most often learn hope from their parents. To learn hopefulness as a skill, children need relationships that are characterized by boundaries, consistency and support (2). Research by Brene Brown has also shown that participants who self-report as hopeful, put a lot of value on persistence and hard work. So, if people are focused on fast, easy or fun as the process, this is really inconsistent with hopeful thinking.
What this is saying is that we can create more hope in our life by setting goals, pursing them and believing in ourselves and that our children can also learn this. As a family, we set aside time (every year this is what we do during our November week off) to take time to plan our goals and come up with a plan to make it happen. Dr Thom and I also check in every 3 months to see where we are at with our goals – Do they still make sense? Do we need additional resources to make them happen? We started this 6 years ago and it has been a game changer and helped us to refocus when we get off course.
Practicing Critical Awareness
Practicing critical awareness is all about reality-checking the messages and expectations that permeate our thinking such as, ‘we are never good enough.’ We are constantly bombarded with these messages from TV, social media, movies, politicians and it effects every single one of us to different degrees – but it affects us all. We need to be able to take these messages and not fall prey to comparing our lives with manufactured images. How do we do this? Start by asking yourself:
1. Is what I’m seeing real? Do these images convey real life or fantasy?
This makes me think of the curated Instagram pictures of peoples perfectly stylized house with children who are incredibly well behaved all the time. And maybe that is true for you… but my house is not always tidy and my children do not always listen.
2. Do these images reflect healthy, wholehearted living or do they turn my life, my body, my family, my relationships into objects and commodities?
3. Who benefits by my seeing these images and feeling bad about myself? (Thinking control/money… what are you selling?)
Honestly, I am grateful more people are becoming aware of the images they see and what they are putting out into the world. It is becoming more common to show the mess our lives can be at times. Showing our imperfections helps us connect with others and can turn our thoughts from “I’m the only one”, to, “Oh my goodness you too? I thought it was just me…”
As Dr Brene Brown would stay, directly in her book
- Most of us engage in behavior that help us to numb and take the edge off vulnerability, pain or discomfort.
- Addiction can be described as chronically and compulsively numbing and taking the edge off feelings.
- We cannot selectively numb emotions. When we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive ones.
Numbing or taking the edge off can provide quick relief in the moment. Some techniques that people use commonly are alcohol, drugs, food, relationships, money, work, caretaking, gambling, planning, perfectionism, shopping, chaos or social media.
For me its sweets, social media and TV. This is one the reasons in August, I stopped posting on social media. I found myself spending too much time reading people’s comments and realized that this is not serving me or my family. And it has been a huge blessing! I used to post because I thought it was how people could keep up with our family. I have now realized that if you wanted to keep up, you would reach out and we would have a relationship. Not everyone may agree, and that is OK. I had to make the decision that made the most sense for me.
When it comes to being more resilient and numbing, we need to be more aware of our behavior but doing this without shaming ourself. Instead of running from our feelings, we need to try and feel the feelings, staying mindful of the numbing behaviors and lean into the discomfort we are feeling. It is a constant practice but if you keep trying, you will become more aware and call it exactly what it is.
From Dr Brown directly, her question was, “Is spirituality a necessary component of resilience?” And her answer is, YES. When it comes to spirituality, it doesn’t have to be religion or theology (but it can be). Spirituality is more about recognizing and celebrating that we are all connected to each other by a power greater than us and that our connection to that power and to one another is grounded in love and compassion. Practicing spirituality (in any form that makes sense for you and your family) can bring a sense of perspective, meaning and purpose for our life.
But we must take the time to define spirituality in a way that inspires us individually and this takes time.
Long story short, my takeaways after spending some time thinking about resilience and creating hope:
- Pick up the Gifts of Imperfection by Dr Brene Brown.
- Set some goals and a plan to follow through, but also know when life is bringing you something different – it is okay to change direction, pause or adapt.
- Be aware of the outside-in messaging we get from the world and call it as it is. It is okay to say that is not real and it doesn’t need to be what I do.
- Address your numbing behaviors and call it what it is when it is happening.
- Define spirituality for you and how you connect to your spirituality. Whether it be church, through prayer at home, journaling or being in nature, it needs to be about your connection.
Dr Sarah Green
1) The Gifts of Imperfection by Dr Brene Brown
2) C. R. Snyder. Hope for Rehabilitation and Vice Versa. Rehabilitation Psychology. 51 no 2 (2006):89-112