By: Lindy Welsby, BA (Econ.), ACPC,PCC, Leadership Coach and President ofLinke Leadership
As a professional coach and leadership consultant, I often see examples of high/low resilience in the workplace, but was struck by a recent situation of a client of mine.
‘Adele’, a general surgeon, was set to move to a new city to start a new role in an expanding department. Full of excitement and vigor, she was making her plans for the big move. Her energy was stimulated too by this new setting and environment as not only is she a surgeon, but an artist. Adele’s painting and photography are her relaxation and renewal piece to a day’s work.
Shortly before the move Adele was told by her ophthalmologist that soon she would no longer be able to continue working – it was discovered that she has a degenerative eye condition, with a prognosis of failing eyesight.
“Oh, I was frozen in shock”, Adele said. “I was numb with indecision.” What happened next showed me that when one turns to support networks, considers the future with a mindset of possibilities and determination one can get through anything.
Resiliencymay be innate and yet, it is also a ‘skill’ that can be developed and practiced. At the heart of resilience is a belief in oneself. Resilient people do not let adversity define them. Highly resilient people are flexible, adapt to new circumstances quickly, and thrive in constant change. Most important, they expect to bounce back and feel confident that they will.
While people might not control the larger problem, they can control their reactions to it — whether to give up or find a new path. This is where Adele excelled.
Here are the four principles which helped Adele manage and adapt.
Open up to Optimism
Barbara Fredrickson, PhD, the author of Positivity (Crown Archetype, 2009) says “In our research program, we found that the daily repertoire of emotions of people who are highly resilient is remarkably different from those who are not.”
Resilient people have an ability to experience both negative and positive emotions even in difficult or painful situations, she says. They grieve losses and withstand frustrations, but they also find potential or value in most challenges. When not-so-resilient people face difficulties, Fredrickson notes, all of their emotions turn negative. If things are good, they feel good, but if things are bad, they feel rotten.
Resilient people tend to find some silver lining in even the worst of circumstances. While they certainly see and acknowledge the bad, Fredrickson says, “they’ll find a way to also see the good. They’ll say, ‘Well at least I didn’t have this other problem.’” They let sadness and loss sit side by side with more positive feelings, not ignoring negative emotions.
Does this well-balanced emotional response come naturally to you? If not, you can change that, says Fredrickson. But it will mean challenging your reflexive thoughts, and negative self-talk. “Thinking patterns trigger emotional patterns,” she explains. To change emotional patterns, sometimes what we need to do is restrain our negative thinking and stoke our positive thinking.
One way to do this is by first noticing and appreciating those positive experiences whenever and wherever they occur. I suggest keeping a journal.
For Adele, she took the attitude that at least she had time to prepare for what might be the inevitable complete loss of eye sight.
Move from Judger to Learner
While it might sound cliché, the more you can consider challenges as opportunities to learn, grow and develop, the more resilient you are likely to be. Resilient people can look at the problem and say, ‘What’s the solution to that? What is this trying to teach me?’ These questions also help to build confidence for the future – ‘I have done this before’ approach to challenges.
One strategy for fostering a learner mindset is to use “question thinking”, a method of problem solving developed by psychotherapist and executive coach Marilee Adams, PhD. Question thinking encourages people to approach challenges and situations with “Learner Questions” — neutral, nonjudgmental questions such as ‘What is useful here?’ or ‘What are my available choices?’ — as opposed to ‘Judger Questions’ like ‘What’s wrong?’ or ‘Who’s to blame?’ or ‘Why me?’
Learner questions are empowering, and they encourage more spacious thinking. They also improve how you relate to others, and create engaging relations – another essential component of resilience. Adele used this situation to really reflect on what her choices were – not to be stuck in the mud of the loss. And she does have choices; she just had to be open to them.
Share your Heart
Being of service to others is a potent way of fuelling resilience. Studies have shown that serotonin (the neurotransmitter associated with feelings of happiness and well-being) is used more efficiently by people who have just engaged in an act of kindness.
There is a cumulative effect to continued acts of kindness and the serotonin boosts that accompany them. You can fill up your well of resiliency when you consistently add to it. When times get difficult, you can draw upon this well.
When misfortune happens, acknowledging the things that are going right in your life can help put things perspective. Start a gratitude journal. Another client of mine told me of their family practice of not only saying what they are grateful for as they gather for dinner, but they also each write it down in their individual journal. Even their 8 year old has started.
Notice what is already positive in your life that you may have started taking for granted. We often respond emotionally to dramatic changes but many good things like a roof over your head, a career you enjoy, wonderful friends and family are stable. They sometimes fade into the background. Deliberately draw your attention to these things.
According to Fredrickson, when you take stock of how things might have been otherwise, instead of just how they are, you’re using strategic positive thinking to increase gratitude, which then builds resiliency.
Look after Yourself
Good physical health, including a regular routine of healthy habits is foundational to both mental and emotional resilience. Daily habits count: When you’re caught up on sleep, eating well and keeping stress levels low, you’ll be less fragile and less likely to fall into unhealthy patterns following a setback or tragedy.
And, conversely, our physical health depends on our mental and emotional well-being. One of the best ways to nurture that, says Carol Orsborn, PhD, author ofThe Art of Resilience: 100 Paths to Wisdom and Strength in an Uncertain World (Three Rivers Press, 1997), is to take regular mental breaks: “It could be something as formal as a regular meditation practice,” she says, “or it could simply be letting yourself daydream.”
Mental breaks and relaxation also help keep stress chemicals at bay, reducing the likelihood of feeling, or becoming, overwhelmed and reactive.
There are two other self-care strategies that help nurture resilience: Spending time outdoors and surrounding yourself with people you enjoy. Research suggests that spending just 20 minutes outside leads to “more expansive and open thinking,” writes Fredrickson. Other studies have shown that time in nature helps combat anxiety and depression, improves immunity, and lowers levels of inflammatory chemicals in the body.
Studies have shown that strong social connections increase our resilience in the face of illness. One study of nearly 3,000 nurses with breast cancer found that those with 10 or more friends were four times more likely to survive the disease than the nurses without close friends.
Adele? She has made plans to move to a city where she has a strong network of friends and where her two sons live. Despite her deteriorating sight, she has kept up with her daily trips to the gym and is gratefully utilizing the support offered by friends and family. She planned on retiring in the next five years, but is looking at the positives of an early retirement.