A hallmark of the last handful of days in the year; the days between Christmas and New Year’s Day, is the fervor with which people reflect on the events that have defined the past year. There are news broadcasts, blog posts, and podcast episodes dedicated to counting down any number of best-, worst-, top-whatever number of memorable moments from the past year. Then, with the same intensity, people begin to lay out their plans, hopes, and dreams for the new year; a year brimming with possibilities.
It’s an all too familiar cycle. For some, that cycle generates the momentum that will propel them to reach new heights in their personal and professional pursuits. But for others, it’s just another cycle that causes them to spin in circles, gaining no ground. And if they’re not careful, they’ll even be further from their goals than before.
This year, in particular, I’ve seen more than the usual share of folks who were ready to be done with the year 2019. Reading their posts on social media, it’s as if they’d had about all they could take from the last year of the decade. For some, 2019 was quite a contender, who delivered some devastating blows, hits below the belt, and even a few KO’s.
As I read the memories recounted, I could almost feel the pain experienced. My thoughts circled back to what has become a central theme in my work, and my life—resilience. I started thinking, why is it that some people tend to weather the storms of life better than others, and what is it that makes some humans more likely to bounce back from adversity, than others. That bounce-back is something we call resilience. It’s the ability to return to original form after being pressed, stretched or compressed.
It’s not like you can look at a person and tell whether they’re resilient, or not. The conundrum with assessing a person’s potential to demonstrate resilience lies in the fact that unless you’ve been faced with adversity, unless you’ve experienced trauma, unless you’ve had hard times in life, you can’t possibly know exactly how resilient you’ll be.
Mike Tyson said it best. “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
For me, that punch happened when I was pushing 30, with no college education, underemployed, uninsured, and raising a child on my own. I decided to go back to school to finish my degree, to give myself a fighting chance at making a better life for myself and my daughter. I had to take an entrance exam before I could register for classes at the college—and failed it. The first step on my path toward success resulted in failure. I was devastated!
For you, it may have been the loss of a loved one who was your rock or your anchor in life. Maybe it was an illness that ravaged your body, or the traumatic experience you endured. Whatever it is, or was—it hurt. A real punch in the mouth that sent you to your knees, unsure of what to do next.
One thing we know about resilience is that it can be built. And it can be taught. Here are three things that can help you recover from the mouth-punch and return to your original form. It may take some time—but you will return to your original form.
First, adjust the frame in which you view the things that happen in your life. Often when something bad happens to us, we relive the event over and over in our heads. We ruminate and rehash, falling into anger and self-pity. Instead, change the frame in which you see the negative event.
For me, failing that entrance exam sent me into a negative thought pattern. The more I thought about my failure, the louder that voice in my head got.
“How stupid am I?”
“Why did I think things could be different for me?”
“There’s no point in continuing.”
But then I changed the frame and decided to look at the situation differently. This failure was actually a setup for success. I had more time to prepare and was able to get access to resources that would prove to be beneficial later on in my journey.
Did the punch still hurt? Yes. Did adjusting the frame help me to see the situation differently? Yes. You can do the same. In losing a loved one, you may have an opportunity to honor their legacy going forward. Losing a job may open doors for a better one or allow you to focus on other responsibilities in that season. Adjust the frame.
Second, forgive. Forgive yourself and forgive others. This one can be hard. Sometimes it takes time for people to get to a place where they can truly forgive. Especially if they’ve experienced hurt or trauma at the hands of someone else, or if they feel guilt or responsibility for something negative.
Forgiveness starts with acknowledging what happened, realizing how it’s affecting your life, and making a commitment to forgive. That doesn’t mean you let the offender off the hook, but instead, you relieve yourself of the pressure to harbor anger toward them. I had to forgive myself for choices I’d made earlier in life, that led me to the place of desperation I found myself in. The guilt and shame were so heavy. I finally gave myself permission and freedom to move on. What about you? Who do you need to forgive?
Third, be flexible. Did you know that one of the primary reasons that some types of trees snap and break in severe storms is actually because of the strength and rigidity they possess? While other types of trees, even if they’re taller, can fare better because their trunks are flexible? Change is inevitable, and when we’re inflexible and rigid, we’re much more likely to break under pressure.
When I finally made it into college, I had a plan to finish in 3 years. That was super-aggressive, and now that I look back, very unrealistic. If I had tried to force myself to fit that plan, I would inevitably have failed and cracked under the weight of the pressure—even though it was self-imposed. I had to decide that I would be willing to adjust, as needed. Are you holding fast to unrealistic expectations, or refusing to budge when the winds of pressure are encouraging you to bend?
Practice being flexible. Practice forgiving. Practice adjusting the frame of your negative situations. This practice is where the resilience muscle is built.