The Pathway to Resilience
Life is full of problems, isn’t it? However, “The problem is not that there are problems. The problem is expecting otherwise and thinking that having problems is a problem.” (Theodore Isaac Rubin, Past President of the American Institute for Psychoanalysis and the Karen Horney Institute for Psychoanalysis)
After all, the problems we overcome allow us to experience the richness of life and its accompanying joy. Adversity adds spice to life and makes a wonderful teacher. Don’t the hardships we undergo create the ability to bear them? Is it possible to live through a disaster without growing stronger? I’ll let you answer these questions for yourself.
Before emerging from its chrysalis (cocoon), the young Monarch butterfly has a fat body and folded, limp wings. It is hardly an image of strength and beauty. It cannot free itself from the chrysalis without a long struggle. As it pushes, strains, and convulses, liquid from its body is forced into the veins of its wings. Bit by bit the wings extend and grow stronger. Bit by bit an increasing amount of pressure is placed against the walls of the chrysalis. At last, a slim Monarch with robust wings breaks free.
We are Monarchs. Our chrysalis is our comfort zone. Do you expect to break free without a struggle? Do you expect to fly before extending and strengthening your wings? Can you see how the obstacles we face are not our enemies but our friends?
Our physical eyes weaken as we grow older, but our spiritual eyes should improve with age. What was seen as a devastating disaster in our youth, later appears as a less threatening but worrisome obstacle. As we grow in experience and wisdom, worrisome obstacles become less fearful and are reduced to difficult challenges. Later, difficult challenges are viewed as valuable lessons. And valuable lessons become wonderful opportunities. At last, we reach the point where every ‘misfortune’ is seen as a blessing in disguise. Each obstacle that comes our way is like a delicious fruit with a bitter skin. We don’t complain that we have to peel it before we can enjoy it.
Some of the factors that determine how successful we will became include our intelligence (IQ), emotional intelligence (EQ), and our adversity quotient (AQ), which measures how well we can bounce back from misfortune. Although our IQ is more or less fixed, both our EQ and AQ can be substantially improved. What are some steps we can take to increase our resilience (AQ)? Sixteen stepping stones on the Pathway to Resilience follow, but first here are instructions on how to use the list.
1. Quickly scan the 16 stepping stones.
2. Choose a step that resonates with you.
3. Ask yourself how you can apply that principle to your life.
4. After deciding how, immediately start applying that principle. If it represents a huge change in thinking, feeling, and behavior, start with baby steps, and gradually work your way up to giant steps.
5. Underline that item on your list to show that you are working on it.
6. You can work on more than one item at a time, but keep the list of projects you are working on small, preferably no more than two or three at a time. After all, you want to focus your attention, not scatter it all over the place.
7. After you grow competent in the steps you are practicing, move on by repeating the steps with another item on the list.
8. Continue until you’ve gone through the entire list. By the time you complete the list, resilience should have developed into a habit, placing you in a better position than most people.
16 Stepping Stones on the Pathway to Resilience
1. Every day we are faced with minor irritants: people cutting us off in traffic, people who want to engage in idle chatter when we are busy at work, and telemarketers trying to sell us something while we are hoping to relax at home. These small upsets are the perfect training ground for developing resilience. Training yourself to cheerfully accept the inevitable distractions will prepare you for coping with adversity. Do it not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard, for the more hard things you do, the freer you will become to follow your dreams.
2. The most important stepping stone is to adopt the right attitude, outlook, mindset. Because of its importance, I will spend more time with this step than any other.
It is our attitude that determines whether we benefit from misfortune. The same furnace that melts gold also hardens clay. With each affliction, those who have a hardened attitude grow harder, more callous, and cynical. Yet, those who willingly allow themselves to be forged, hammered, and shaped by adversity, endlessly grow into a better person, endlessly unfold into their full potential.
Cold winters, heavy downpours, and scorching heat are unavoidable. So is adversity. So, why fight it? Accepting its inevitability and resigning yourself to it — before it strikes — is the first step in overcoming it. Paraphrasing Jon Kabat Zinn, although we can’t stop the waves, we can learn to surf. Also, appreciate how much suffering has been averted by comparing yourself to those who are far worse off. If you fill your moments with thanks, you’ll have no time for moaning, whining and complaining.
The resilient are optimists. When tragedy strikes, they believe it is a temporary setback that doesn’t affect all areas of their life and it is due to outside circumstances. With an attitude like this, is it surprising that they can stand up to adversity? Compare this attitude with that of a pessimist. When disaster erupts, pessimists believe the problem will continue indefinitely, affect all areas of their life, and is their fault. No wonder they become frozen with fear and unable to cope. Resilient people are positive minded. They relish learning and coping and avoid wallowing in self-pity and blame. They don’t ask for a lighter load, but ask for a stronger back.
Adversity is an open door. It’s an invitation to grow stronger, experience life more fully, and share in the excitement of success. In a word, it is an invitation to unlock your potential. But some become so frightened by the challenge they face that they slam the door shut. Welcome adversity, for we need it to test our attitude, motivation, and self-discipline. Each challenge we face arrives to help us fine-tune our life-coping skills.
Although many business managers are unaware of AQ, they intuitively realize how important mindset is. This is borne out by a survey of several thousand top employers worldwide. They consistently choose mindset over skillset:
- When choosing between someone with a perfect skillset but poor mindset and someone with a poor skillset but good mindset, 98% chose mindset over skillset.
- And 97% believed that a person with the right mindset would develop the right skillset.
- 96% believed that over the long term mindset is more important than skillset. (Skills change but mindset rarely does.)
- In giving raises, 81% based it on mindset over skillset.
- In giving promotions, 91% based it on mindset over skillset.
- In placing a value on mindset, the employers said that a person with a winning mindset has seven times the value of a normal employee.
3. Get into the habit of setting goals, for they will develop your problem solving skills. Goals are a compass that points the way out of problems and to the road ahead.
4. Despite our best intentions and effort, our goals will sometimes become unattainable because of changing circumstances. We cannot predict the future other than to say the unexpected will happen. For this reason, it is essential to be flexible and adaptable. Although you made plans, be prepared to change them at a moment’s notice when necessary.
5. A little boy wanted to see what kind of bugs were living under the heavy stone in his yard, but, try as he may, he failed to lift the stone.
Seeing this, his father said, “Were you using all your strength?”
“Yes, I was.” said his son.
“No, you weren’t,” said his father, “you haven’t asked me to help you.”
Understanding help is available goes a long way in boosting resiliency. When needed, seek support. You may find it in friends, family, neighbors, coworkers, relatives, support groups, associations, and government agencies.
6. Transmutation of negative emotions to healthy behavior. For example, paralyzing fear can be changed to anger, which then causes one to take positive action. A good example is what happened to a friend of mine. He was hospitalized, diagnosed with terminal cancer and placed in a ward for dying patients. When he realized the doctors had given up all hope for his survival, his fear changed to anger. “How dare they decide when I will die.” he thought.
He removed the IV from his arm, got out of bed, found his clothes in the closet, dressed himself, and left the hospital with nurses running after him and pleading with him to return to bed. But my friend wouldn’t listen and boarded a bus. He didn’t have any money and the driver didn’t want to take him without him paying the fare. But my friend said, “I just left the hospital, and as you can see, I’m in terrible shape. If you refuse to take me, I’ll just lie down on the sidewalk, and when the police arrive, I will tell them your bus number and how you refused to help a gravely ill man get back home.”
As you probably guessed, the bus driver let him in the bus. After returning home, my friend rested for several weeks, refusing to die. Gradually, he lifted his spirits and started enjoying life once again. That incident took place about eight years ago. He’s now 80 years old, healthy, and goes dancing twice a week.
7. Take good care of yourself. A healthy diet, exercise, sound sleep, and recreation will keep your mind, emotions, and body capable of standing up to adversity. Don’t expect to be resilient if you neglect your health.
8. Humor is the best medicine. A sense of humor is a salve or balm that can heal our bruises. What can be more painful than to be a prisoner facing one’s executioner? Yet, here are some last words of those condemned to die. Examples of how, in the worst of times, we can choose to smile instead of frown. Before being executed by firing squad, murderer James Rogers was asked if he had any last request. “Why, yes,” he replied, “I’d like to have a bulletproof vest.” In 1966, before James French was executed by electric chair in Oklahoma, he said, “How about this for a headline in tomorrow’s paper? French fries!” Also, in 1928, before George Appel was executed by electric chair in New York, he said, “Well, gentlemen, you are about to see a baked Appel.”
9. Self-confidence. We can face challenges when we are confident in our ability to overcome them. A useful tool for developing our confidence is to reflect on what we are, have, and can do. Reflect on what you are by considering your strengths and past accomplishments. Reflect on what you have by recalling your friends, family, and role models. Reflect on what you can do by visualizing your skills and talents. Unless we reflect on all the resources at our disposal, we’re apt to forget them. Don’t!
10. Endless learning. Resilient people never outgrow their childhood, for good reason. For who are more resilient than children? Like children, the resilient are playful and eternally curious. Nothing delights them more than learning. Whether it’s experience or education, learning promises a brighter tomorrow.
11. Use the lowest point of your struggle as a fulcrum to rise above it. When you feel nothing could possibly be worse, you have nothing more to fear, so do whatever you can, for you have nothing to lose. Many alcoholics and drug addicts did not get motivated to change until they sank to the bottom. So, finding oneself in the gutter can be a blessing in disguise, for it may prove to be the way out.
12. Use the PPPPP formula:
- First, don’t Panic, for all it does is immobilize you.
- Instead, Pause.
- To escape the clutches of fear, take the time to Plan. That is, ask yourself what steps can be taken to improve the situation. Next, break down those steps into smaller tasks that are easier to carry out. Set a completion date for each task. Finally, work your plan by carrying out the action steps.
- As you do so, you will start making Progress.
- Keep building on your progress until you become Proficient.
13. Tune out your imagination, which blows everything out of proportion, and focus on the real world. Remember, the misfortunes hardest to bear are those that never happen. And our fear of harm always exceeds the harm we fear.
14. Adversity usually leads to loss of one kind or another. The greatness of our loss is determined not by what we have lost, but by our prevailing attitude, for they who despair after losing little have lost much. But those who remain courageous after losing much, lose little. After a disaster, it is not the amount of our remaining belongings that counts, but the amount of our remaining strength, courage, hope, and determination.
15. It is often desirable to change, yet we may avoid doing so unless absolutely necessary. Soften the blow when calamity strikes by recognizing it as a call for change. It is not a suggestion, but an order. It forces you to change. Welcome its loud voice, for who among us will not be strengthened by wrestling with adversity?
16. Reduce the sting of hardship by studying the words of Henry Ward Beecher (1813~1887), “Affliction comes to us all not to make us sad, but sober; not to make us sorry, but wise; not to make us despondent but by its darkness to refresh us, as the night refreshes the day; not to impoverish, but to enrich us, as the plough enriches the field; to multiply our joy, as the seed, by planting, is multiplied a thousandfold.”
So, what is the message for us? Simply this, when a catastrophe threatens, acknowledge and accept the unavoidable pain; look for the good in the situation; set goals and start taking action, no matter how modest. After doing so, we will be able to join the ranks of survivors. And like them, we will say, “Although I would never willingly go through this again, it was the one of best things that ever happened to me.” After all, like Ralph Waldo Emerson, we would have learned “We acquire the strength we have overcome.” Or, like Robert Frost, we would have realized that “Something we were withholding made us weak, until we found it was ourselves.”
Parents, if you would have your children grow up resilient, don’t rush in and try to rescue them at every opportunity. For as Adele Faber explains, “From their struggles to establish dominance over each other, siblings become tougher and more resilient. From their endless rough-housing with each other, they develop speed and agility. From their verbal sparring they learn the difference between being clever and being hurtful. From the normal irritations of living together, they learn how to assert themselves, defend themselves, and compromise. And sometimes, from their envy of each other’s special abilities they become inspired to work harder, persist and achieve.”
I call on Jo Coudert to make the final comment, “Of all the people you will know in a lifetime, you are the only one you will never leave nor lose. To the question of your life, you are the only answer. To the problems of your life, you are the only solution.”
ADVERSITY QUOTIENT: Turning Obstacles into Opportunities by Paul G. Stoltz
THE RESILIENCE FACTOR: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles by Karen Reivich and Andrew Shatte