Resilience, or our capacity to withstand painful and disruptive life experiences (and even catastrophes), is taking on more importance than ever in the uncertain world we live in today. Surviving dysfunction, disappointment, and devastation in love and work has always been a part of our lives. But these days, the day-to-day news cycle seems to create a never-ending barrage of anxiety and sadness. The foundational belief that we live in a relatively safe, sane, and predictable world has been shaken to the core.
Let me be clear about one thing: Resilience doesn’t mean you don’t feel devastated or that you’re not affected deeply; it means you can handle the losses and pain life delivers, recover, and thrive again. For decades, researchers have wondered about resilience. After thousands of studies and years of research, we have found five essential facts about the quality of resilience.
1. Resilience can be learned.
We know that there are several components to recovery after a painful event: Remembering who you are even as life falls apart, having a strong support system, and being able to imagine life getting better even if it isn’t so great right now. Resilient people believe we are a part of something larger than ourselves, whether we call that humanity, nature, or give it a religious name. Resilient people know how to bend but not break, how to ask for help, and how to remember that who they truly are is not what happens to them. Rather than numbing themselves to their pain, they find positive ways to manage their distressing emotions and feelings: meditation, exercise, proper self-care, pets, family and friends, and pursuit of their passions.
2. Having a larger community base and support system builds resilience.
Years ago, there was a lot written on the phenomenon of “super kids,” or children who had every imaginable problem at home but who still found a way to thrive. The single quality they all shared was having at least one person in their lives who believed in them. It could be an aunt, a coach, or a woman who lived down the hall, but that person reminded them that they were more than the poor cards they were dealt. Research continues to support the theory that people with better relationships have higher emotional intelligence, think more creatively, and are more likely to ask for help. Being a part of a community also means we have other people to pay attention to, nurture, and remind us that we are not the only ones who are suffering and rebuilding.
3. The more we feel all of our feelings, the more resilient we are.
The focus on “being positive” has gotten a lot of press recently, but we are hardwired to remember painful experiences and negative events. We need those memories for protection. We also need ALL of our emotions. Repressed grief, anger, and fear lead to both psychological and physical problems.
People who are resilient know how to grieve their losses, express their anger and fear, and rebound from those feelings by going through them rather than denying them. Through doing this, they can truly embrace ways to find the gifts of compassion, wisdom, and inner strength that painful events have to offer.
4. Resilient people don’t deny their human responses to loss and pain.
We know many stories of heroes and heroines who have gone through unimaginable losses and come out with tales of wisdom learned and a deepening of soulfulness. It is easy to think they went through their experiences almost smiling. This is not true, of course, and it’s normal to feel like giving up, to doubt one’s ability to recover, and to wonder if you will ever have a night free of sorrow and sleeplessness. Passages of birth and death of any kind are full of excruciating moments, exhaustion, and momentary losses of faith in our own recovery. Resilient people can accept this as a part of the whole, and they know when to reach for the phone, grab an inspirational book, or go to the gym. They do this even when it doesn’t seem like it will help.
5. Yes, you can grow your resilience.
Since we have identified many of the qualities that cultivate and contribute to resilience, we can all find ways to grow, learn, and practice those qualities. Stress and challenges will not go away, but our capacity to mitigate their impact can grow. We can each learn to feel sadness and loss but not let them define who we are, rebuild our lives after painful events, and live happier and healthier lives.
We never find total closure; the scars become a part of who we are. As author Daniel Gottlieb said, “that’s what happens in our hearts. The holes do not disappear, but scar tissue grows and becomes part of who we are. As our hearts grow larger, and we learn that scar tissue is not so ugly after all, we accommodate what we had thought would be unendurable. And we realize that the wisdom we have gained would not have been possible without the losses we have known, even those that seemed impossible to bear.”
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