A 30-year-old New Yorker recently learned she couldn’t have children, due to a medical condition. After a short period of mourning and soul-searching, she and her husband began the adoption process. But more than a year later, the crib they purchased is still empty. One birth mother lied to them, the woman says. At least two others changed their minds.
Every morning this woman has two choices: “Crawl under the covers and stay there,” as she puts it, or “get out of bed and get on with my life,” which includes investigating different parenting options. The fact that most days she’s able to make the more active, positive choice means, ultimately, that she is resilient.
Resilience is the process of responding positively to adversity. Having it doesn’t make us invulnerable, but it does allow us to work, live, and love despite emotional pain. (Think of those toy Weebles that wobble back up regardless of how many times they’re knocked over.)
This combination of emotional strength and flexibility–sounds like yoga, doesn’t it?–gives us power in even the most tragic circumstances. But it also improves the quality of our day-to-day lives. When we’re stuck on hold, sparring with a spouse, or cleaning baby poop off our arms, resilience takes the edge off, allowing us to sleep better, get more done, be a better mother or wife, and simply have more fun. “Resilient people get through life with more enthusiasm, vigor, and energy,” says Rosalind Dorlen, a clinical psychologist in Summit, New Jersey.
We can’t control what happens to us–whether we can have children or whether our husband takes off during his midlife crisis–but we can learn to control our reactions. Psychologists tell us our resilience isn’t just doled out in some genetic lottery; it’s a psychological skill we can improve, strengthening our emotional armor. Here, some concrete ways to handle four common misfortunes with greater resilience.
Turn off your cell phone, call in sick, and get ready to cry. Friends and family may try to take your mind off the breakup, but resilient people face their problems directly.
In this case, it means some old-fashioned (but limited) wallowing is called for. Devote 3 days to playing your ex’s CDs, reading his old love letters, looking at his pictures, and even wearing his T-shirts and cologne, says Karen Sherman, a psychologist in New York and author of Marriage Magic! Find It, Keep It, Make It Last. By tuning all your senses to your ex right now, you’ll take yourself on an emotional journey (albeit a painful one) that will help inoculate you against unexpected meltdowns in the future. “What happens very often,” she says, “is we try to distract ourselves from the relationship, and then 2 weeks later, we hear a song on the radio that sets off all our emotions.”
Next, get practical. You’ll want to make two lists. First, write down all the fantasies and expectations you had for the relationship, then all the situations in which it failed and you were let down. Stick the list in your purse, Dr. Sherman says. Whenever you start dialing his phone number, take out the list. By staying focused on the reality of the relationship, you’ll prevent your emotions from leading you back into it.
Flexibility is another resilient trait, and your second list both taps into that and strengthens it. Write down what needs that person met–for example, they were a companion, they helped with your finances, or they cheered you up. Reviewing it, figure out where to get what you need somewhere else, suggests Robyn Landow, a clinical psychologist in New York. Who in your support group of family and friends can fill those gaps? “There isn’t going to be one person who can do all of those things,” Dr. Landow says, “but maybe this person can do three or four, and this other person does 10 or 15 of them already.”
Losing Your Job
That pink slip set off an emotional minefield of anger, stress, fear, and embarrassment. Express those feelings–by venting to a friend, for example–and get over them, says Al Siebert, psychologist and author of The Resiliency Advantage: Master Change, Thrive Under Pressure, and Bounce Back from Setbacks.
You can also write out a list of all the ways you were horribly wronged at that last job, then shred it. “Research shows us that the most resilient people focus quickly on problem solving,” Dr. Siebert says. Jump into action as soon as possible–looking for another job, practicing selling yourself with friends and family, taking care of tasks your work didn’t leave you time to do–and you may find that both your feelings and the situation have changed.
Optimistic people tend to be more resilient, and that quality can be boosted as well. As you begin searching for a new job, try this visualization exercise from Dr. Dorlen: Play out the potential disaster scenario you’ve been anxious about in your mind one more time–but rewrite it with a happy ending. Imagine, say, the big job interview beginning with a lively, easygoing discussion between you and your potential employer and ending with her offering you the job. Forcing yourself to see–and feel–that this positive outcome is a real possibility will actually help no matter which way the chips fall.
When adversity involves your worst fears–the health and well-being of yourself and loved ones–it helps to make connections with people facing a similar crisis. One of Dr. Landow’s patients, a mother of a child with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, discovered she could tell other members of an online support group what she couldn’t always acknowledge to her spouse or friends: that her child sometimes frustrated or angered her. By talking to others who were dealing with those same feelings, she came to see her own thoughts as normal, which lessened the sting. “Part of being resilient,” Dr. Landow says, “is realizing you’re not always going to be cheerful in the face of this [problem].”
Next, look for ways to make progress. Whether the issue is your child’s health or your own, setting small, attainable goals and achieving them will help you move forward even when life is pushing you back, Dr. Dorlen says. Movement generates energy–a vital component in a recovery process that is more of a marathon than a sprint. One example of a micro goal: Just get through tomorrow’s chemo treatment. Achieving that will give you the momentum to set another goal, and so on. “People draw strength from their own courage,” Dr. Dorlen says.
What many of us don’t realize, though, is that when you set that goal is important. If you’re a morning person, it isn’t wise to tackle the exercise at night. When working against our biorhythm, we’re especially vulnerable to “kitchen-sinking”–throwing all of our concerns into one unmanageable bucket. “Being overwhelmed is the enemy of good resilience skills,” Dr. Dorlen says.
Losing a Loved One
At age 50, Minnesotan Kathy Marshall got the resilience test of her life when her husband died suddenly.
A while later she found she had locked herself out of the house. Sitting in her driveway, a torrent of thoughts came into her mind, one crashing full speed into the next: “I guess I can break the bathroom window … That was a tough training day today, maybe I should quit my job … Ever since Bill died my life is going down the tubes … I’ll never have a date again in my life.”
Just like the news blurbs that scroll nonstop across CNN, our minds are constantly pumping out thoughts–60,000 a day, in fact. Especially in an experience as drastic as Marshall’s, they can overwhelm us; she likens her mental state in the driveway that day to being caught in “a thought tornado.” However, when we learn how our minds operate and that we can trust the tornado to pass, our natural resilience surfaces, Marshall found. When a particularly scary thought emerges, instead of trying to change or analyze it, recognize that it isn’t permanent or real. As meditators come to realize, it’s just a thought: We can latch onto it, and the stress it kicks up, or watch it float away.
How do we do that? Find safer ground by taking some conscious breaths, moving into an impromptu Downward Dog or, in Marshall’s case, simply turning the car around and taking herself out to dinner. Not only did she get back into the house, but she continued working, taking care of her children, and is currently in another relationship. Today Marshall is the executive director of the National Resilience Resource Center at the University of Minnesota (www.cce.umn.edu/nrrc), which runs resilience workshops for individuals and community agencies.
Remind yourself that humans are hardwired to get through life’s twists and turns–you have the capacity to be resilient–and that how you feel now isn’t indicative of how you’ll feel in a few hours, weeks, or years. And realize that as tragic, unpredictable, or just plain annoying as reality can be, we’re unable to alter it. With resilience, as Dr. Dorlen says: “It’s the attitude toward that reality that changes. And when you do that, you begin to feel enormously better.”
Resilient Kids: How Parents Can Help
Johnny gets cut from the team, while Sally gets the cold shoulder from her first best friend. How you teach your kids to cope with these pint-size crises may actually influence how they handle adversity as an adult. “Name any adolescent or adult problem–smoking, drugs, violence–they’re all ways of making yourself feel better when you’re stressed or feeling bad,” says Kenneth R. Ginsburg, M.D., a pediatrician and author of A Parent’s Guide to Building Resilience in Children and Teens: Giving Your Child Roots and Wings. “But if you have a repertoire of positive coping strategies, you won’t necessarily turn to the quick easy fix.” Below, a few ways to give your kids a head start on resilience.
Build Confidence: When your child stumbles, remind him of his past successes. If, for example, he blew his SATs, remind him of how he aced the AP Math test. However, avoid saying things like, “I know you can do better because you’re special.” That just piles on the anxiety, Dr. Ginsburg says. “Kids who are showered with praise that isn’t directly connected to something they’ve done well feel like they’re supposed to be great every moment of the day.”
Model positive behavior: After a bad day at work, do you immediately call your best friend to bemoan your boss’s incessant nitpicking? Don’t be surprised if your child is listening. Save the kvetching sessions for after bedtime and pull out your yoga mat instead. Show your child that when times are tough, “mommy takes care of herself,” Dr. Ginsburg says.
Involve grandparents: Research suggests that as people get older, they also get more resilient. Allow your kids to tap into that wisdom by talking to their grandparents about hard times they’ve faced and overcome.
Let them take their bumps: Sure, we’d all like to insulate our children from problems, but jumping in won’t help them figure things out for themselves. So if your 13-year-old gets cut from the team, encourage a meeting with the coach to discuss the improvements needed to make the team next year. Says Ken Merrell, professor of school psychology at the University of Oregon and director of The Oregon Resiliency Project: “The experience of dealing with adversity, along with guidance from parents, is how the child will learn resilience.”