Build Resilience for Life

Resilience is oftentimes thought of as the ability to bounce back from a challenge — something you find in yourself (or not) only at the moment of crisis. But we don’t have to wait to experience something negative if we build resilience for life. If I have never experienced the loss of someone very close to me, I can either wait until it happens and attempt to be resilient or I can observe and comfort others who have had this experience, educate myself about it, anticipate my own response, seek professional resources, and even use imagery to work through the process (which will inevitably occur). Building your life to be resilient requires an understanding of perspective, an attitude towards challenge, and an acceptance that life is mostly out of personal control.

How To Make Sense Of It

If a tree is planted in the middle of a quad with high walls surrounding it, it will thrive with the water, sunlight, and attention it will likely receive from the landscapers. However, if that tree is moved to a hill in nature, it will fall after the first significant storm (or even high winds). The reason that the tree succumbs to the elements is that its root system developed in an environment that never challenged the tree to dig in and hang on. Similarly, we can also fail to harness our inner strength and resilience if it is not challenged. Parents and loved ones will oftentimes attempt to remove obstacles in order to make our lives easier and guide us to particular outcomes. The potential side effect of this support is the lack of growth and adaptability we receive from learning on our own through undergoing challenges. Ryan Holiday, author of The Obstacle Is the Way, discusses this in detail. Suffice it to say, the more we can face our challenges, the greater the likelihood that we can face more.

Key Assets

Having the perspective that challenges are part of life and we can face them knowing that they support growth is invaluable. David Fletcher and Mustafa Sarkar (2012) identified particular characteristics associated with higher levels of resilience: motivation, optimism, confidence, focused attention, and utilization of resources. Such personal qualities led to adaptable response to challenges and facilitated further growth following a difficulty. Obviously, the advantages of this attitude towards challenge cannot be overemphasized.

Significant research and literature has explored Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, identifying military personnel, first responders, and victims of assault as those most likely to experience the psychological diagnosis. More recently, there has been exploration of the positive potential growth that can follow a traumatic event. Psychology is amenable to the medical model focusing on dysfunction before turning to enhanced functioning. Dr. Martin Spiegelman identified learned helplessness (viewing negative events as personal, permanent, and pervasive) before he went on to recognize learned optimism (viewing negative events as impersonal, temporary, and isolated). Post Traumatic Growth (developed by Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun) occurs when beliefs, perceptions of self and the world, and an internal value system are altered. It is for this reason that Dr. Kanako Taku argues that those who are truly resilient do not experience Post Traumatic Growth because their resilience allows them to sustain their beliefs, perceptions, and values through traumatic events — they remain consistent. To put it succinctly, if you are resilient for life, you’re likely to mitigate experiencing PTSD and the growth experienced after trauma is likely a result of your resilience rather than a result of the trauma.

Focus On Control (or lack thereof)

Another way to look at the problem set of resilience is to identify perceptions of control. As humans, we get ourselves into a lot of trouble trying to control things we cannot. There are those who argue that free will is a significant contributing factor to human struggle. On the other hand, when we accept the limitations of our control, to include our limitations of controlling ourselves, we tend to be much more comfortable, content, and happy. Set your mind to understanding that you do not control others (their thoughts, actions, or feelings), situations (what led to something or where something will go), the world (weather, conflict, time), or 100% of yourself. Acknowledge that if you don’t like the way you responded to something, you can learn from it; rather than dwelling on the past (how you have responded — it is done already), focus on controlling your present (how do you want to be right now), and then anticipate how you would like to respond in the future.

Putting It All Together

Building resilience for life requires strong personal knowledge, an attitude that supports confronting challenge, and focusing on the little that you can control. A good first step to understanding yourself is to identify your own personal values. Developing and reinforcing the characteristics outlined by Fletcher and Sarkar takes time and effort but will result in an attitude conducive to success. Let go of the things you cannot control and instead focus time and energy towards your own feelings, thoughts, and actions.

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