These times of natural disasters and political turbulence have me thinking about resilience – what it is and what it’s not. Rather than being a personality trait, resilience is a process of positive adaptation to change, uncertainty or adversity, allowing us to generate positive new ways of being, thinking, and doing.
Resilience is Not a Trait
Resilience isn’t a fixed part of our personality, like extraversion or agreeableness. It’s a process, and one that we can all learn and strengthen. During a highly stressful period in his life, Washington Post writer Steve Petrow found his resilience strengthened through consistent practice of mindfulness meditation and writing.
Yet as much as we can do to strengthen our own resilience, we exist in a larger context of family, community and workplaces. Our own resilience both contributes to and is strengthened by the resilience – or lack of it – found in the places, groups and organizations we’re part of.
Gemma* is a child therapist working in a child advocacy center. Every work day, she hears painful stories of child sexual assault. She pours her energy into helping children and their families heal from these brutal experiences.
Gemma’s passion for and commitment to this work is strong, but she has to handle its stresses on her own, with little support from her supervisor or peers. Despite her efforts at self-care, Gemma begins to suffer signs of burnout, and wonders if she can continue in her job.
Michelle, her program director, notices some changes in Gemma’s previously excellent job performance. Thinking about this, she realizes she’s seeing this in other team members, too. She recognizes that she could be doing more to strengthen her team members’ resilience. She starts by setting up a forum with them, a safe space where they can openly discuss the stresses of working with traumatized children and their families.
Noticing that the staff members tend to let their leave time go unused, Michelle encourages them to regularly use their personal and leave time. She makes a point of doing so herself. With her staff members’ input, she adjusts caseloads and work hours to assure no one needs to routinely work more than 40 hours per week. Staff members suggest using some of their professional development budget for workshops offering useful resilience-building strategies, which Michelle acts on. A few months later, while at a conference, Michelle learns about the value of reflective supervision and decides to engage a consultant to help her institute it in her program.
Over time, these and other changes make a noticeable difference. Gemma and other staff members report feeling energized and re-committed to their work. There is greater collaboration and teamwork among them, so that no one is feeling isolated or alone in their work. Staff retention and client retention rates improve, as do treatment outcomes.
When the state requires the program to start using a difficult to learn data collection program, the staff complains and resists at first. At Michelle’s urging, they get together to tackle the problem, and come up with several creative solutions to the problems they’ve encountered with the new system. Michelle takes their recommendations seriously, and they work together to make the adjustments needed to implement this new state requirement.
Resilient organizations support resilience among their staff. Resilient staff members help create resilient organizations.
It’s a Do-It-Together Thing
Resilient people both promote and need strong networks of trust and support. Resilient communities and organizations have people who are trusting and supportive. Resilience is found and strengthened through the interactions of people with their organizations and communities (Glasgow Centre for Population Health, 2014).
Resilient people and resilient organizations have and mutually reinforce these three characteristics in one another: a staunch acceptance of reality; a deep belief that life is meaningful; and strong ability to improvise.
Rather than being a DIY project of individual skill-building and toughening up, building resilience is a DIT thing (Do It Together, a phrase coined by Jeffrey Davis of Tracking Wonder to underscore the importance of collaboration). In order to survive and thrive in the face of personal, organizational and societal challenges, we need to encourage individual and organizational ways of being, thinking and doing that strengthen trust, hope, support and creativity (GCPH, 2014).
It’s Not Like a Rubber Band
It’s common to hear that our resilience is like that of a stretched rubber band. Resilient people, the metaphor goes, bounce right back to normal after being stretched, as if nothing had ever happened. That metaphor is a great over-simplification.
This bounce-back type of resilience, also known as “status-quo resilience” is most apt when there’s a one-time situation that doesn’t much affect us or our circumstances. It describes the process of recovering from a difficult experience and returning to the still-existing previous normal (GCPH, 2014).
After losing his job as a nonprofit director, Amir was fortunate enough to find a suitable new position in under two months. There were no major changes in his circumstances, so after a period of some stress and worry, he returned to his previous normal. Not only did he survive, he’s thriving. He’s happy in his new position. All in all, his life is going well. But even so, he’s not exactly the same as he was before. *
Amir is not exactly the same as he used to be because experiences leave their mark in our brains’ neurochemistry. Our mind is a creation of our brain, and our brain is part of our body, so our entire being is affected when we encounter and adapt to adversity, even when those effects are small, subtle ones (Groopman,2004).
Our circumstances may go back to normal, but we are changed. Our way of being may shift slightly to incorporate new understandings of how rapidly our apparently stable situations can change. Our way of thinking might shift. Saving up a few months’ worth of salary might not have been a priority before, but for someone in Amir’s situation, now it is. Related to those new understandings and thoughts, our actions might change, so that we put aside a percentage of every paycheck in a savings account until we have enough money on hand to feel secure.
A good half of the art of living is resilience.
― Alain de Botton
Transformational resilience allows us to adapt and move forward in positive ways when a return to normal isn’t possible, because that normal is gone (GCPH, 2014).
During a 10-month period in my mid-forties, I got hit with one thing after another. My father’s death; my stepmother’s serious car accident, my own episode of disabling back pain; the ending of a relationship. Maybe you’ve had times like this, too.
Each of these changes on its own would have had quite an impact. Having them happen all at once was incredibly challenging. Regaining my emotional balance and physical health took time and help from others.
I adapted to my new circumstances with changes in my way of being, my attitudes and beliefs. I shifted from a “go-go-go” attitude to one that acknowledged the need for rest, renewal and recovery. My thinking shifted as I focused on what matters most in life to me, rather than allowing others’ priorities to define me. I made some related behavioral changes, including negotiating the time and support needed for undertaking a workplace initiative that was of value to my organization as well as to me, scheduling some vacation time every quarter, establishing a regular yoga practice, and saving a percentage of my money, time and energy for myself. I still think of this as “saving 10% for me,” reminding me that if I want to keep giving to others, I must give something to myself.
There was no returning to the previous normal, as that normal was damaging my health. Instead, there was a moving forward in new ways, toward a new vision for myself and my life. This was transformational resilience. I found ways to manage, understand, and make meaning of a deep-seated change (GCPH, 2014).
Resilience Can Be Learned
Life inevitably brings change. We all have times of encountering stress, loss and disruptive events. Luckily, we humans are able to adapt to unforeseen circumstances, generating new ways of being, thinking and acting. The links in this post and the resources following offer help in building resilience in ourselves and within the groups and organizations we’re part of.
*Details changed to protect privacy
Resources for Building Resilience
Previous Keys to Change Posts
Glasgow Centre for Population Health (2014). Resilience for public health: supporting transformation in people and communities.
Groopman, J. (2004). The anatomy of hope. New York: Random House.
Photo credit: Elijah Hiett