How to become more resilient and resourceful
Sometimes suddenly. Sometimes slowly.
Some changes can fling your life into chaos, leave you floundering in indecision, spark anger, or bury you in fear.
Other changes can make you euphoric, joyful, contented, excited, or just plain happy.
Whether welcome or not, change pushes you out of your comfort zone and into strange, new territory. There is no escape.
You may go boldly or go kicking and screaming.
Either way, you will go through the change because the only way out is through.
“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.” Lao Tzu
Your ability to cope with change is a measure of your resilience. The good news: Resilience is like a muscle. You can strengthen it.
What Does It Mean to Be Resilient?
In the late 1970s, Susan Kobasa, Ph.D., researched coping skills and stress. She concluded that three main elements contribute to resilience: challenge, commitment, and control.
Challenge is the ability to see change as an opportunity for growth and development. This is a characteristic of people who have a growth mindset as defined by Carol Dweck, Ph.D. They view events as temporary rather than permanent.
Resilient people are committed to their work and life priorities and goals. This commitment motivates them to keep moving forward regardless of what’s in front of them. Change is merely something to move past. They view the future positively.
When you are resilient, you identify what you can control and focus on that instead of what you can’t control. This makes you more resourceful and gives you more flexibility in handling change.
Strengthening Your Resilience
Consider Schrödinger’s Cat
I first learned about Schrödinger’s cat in high school physics. Physicist Erwin Schrödinger proposed a thought experiment in the 1930s in response to another physicist’s theories. (You don’t need to know a lot of physics to follow this. Trust me.)
A cat is placed in a box with a vial of poison. The box is sealed. The vial will open at some time and kill the cat. However, as long as the box is sealed, you have no way of knowing if the cat is alive or dead, so you can think of the cat as both alive and dead at the same time.
What does the cat in the box have to do with change?
When you are confronted with change, you have no way of knowing what’s on the other side without navigating the change.The cat is in the box.
The change could result in something good — kitty is alive — or something bad — poor kitty.
Your attitude about the nature of the change determines your feelings, your mood, and your behavior, which are either resourceful or not. The choice is yours.
If you assume the change will be bad, you will be worried, frustrated, angry, afraid — a whole boatload of negative feelings. Your mood sinks, and your behavior follows. You have fewer resources for navigating the change process.
On the other hand, if you view the change as good, the opposite happens. Everything goes up, and you have more resources.
What’s Your Mood Temperature?
Think of your moods on a thermometer. Positive feelings and moods are above zero; negative feelings are below zero. Zero is neutral.
If your feelings and mood are below zero when confronted with a change, the goal is to move up the scale to at least zero. At zero, you are open and curious, but judgement-free.
The cat could be alive or dead; you don’t know, and you’re not going to assume either way. You’re in a wait-and-see and do-what-you-can mode.
What if you just can’t find anything good about a change? What if there are no good feelings and even moving to neutral is beyond your ability?
Often changes that come from loss or painful events fall into this category. There’s nothing good about them. They blindside you and knock you out cold.
What do you do?
First you grieve the loss and feel what you feel, in whatever way works for you, for however long it takes. At some point, you start healing, and one day you are able to pick yourself up and start moving. Then you can use the mood thermometer to find your way up again.
Here’s how you pull yourself up the mood thermometer.
- Manage your stress. Any change — good and bad — is stressful, and self-care is critical Get enough sleep, exercise, eat well, stay hydrated, meditate, and take care of yourself. You need to reinforce your mental, spiritual, and physical resources as much as possible.
- Listen to your self-talk. If you find yourself being pessimistic, engaging in negative messaging, or falling into all-or-nothing thinking. Stop and regroup. Remember, if you don’t know the outcome, you want to remain curious about it, not judgmental.
- Avoid assuming the worst. Your brain will want to send you down the-worst-thing-that-can-happen path. Refuse to go there. It’s a dead-end. Focus on what you can control.
- Get help. When change seems insurmountable, you can’t navigate it alone. This is when family and friends can come to the rescue. Rely on them to support you. Sometimes professional help may be needed for you to move into a more resourceful state.
- Just breathe. If you can’t do anything else, if you are locked in loss, just breathe and pay attention to your breathing. Don’t give into thinking, let go of self-talk. Just breathe until you feel more in control. Try it. It works.
“My barn having burnt down, I can now see the moon.” Mizuta Masahide, 17th century Japanese poet and samurai
7 Ways to Build Your Resilience Muscle
In 1955, psychologists Emmy Werner and Ruth Smith began a landmark study that followed children born on Kauai, HI, that year to age 40. The research revealed several common factors that made the difference between their ability to face life with resilience or not. The findings provide a strategy for strengthening your resilience muscle.
1. Become a better problem solver and learn how to plan alternatives.
2. Build emotional support and strong interpersonal relationships.
3. Believe that you have control over your life and responses.
4. Learn new skills to help you be more resourceful and self-confident.
5. Have good social skills, so you can call on others for information and resources.
6. Cultivate emotional intelligence.
7. Look for and act on opportunities that may arise from change.
Where do you need to build more resilience? Look over these strategies and choose one to work on.
“Don’t judge me by my success, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.” Nelson Mandela
Kobasa, Suzanne C. “Personality and Resistance to Illness,” American Journal of Community Psychology, Volume 7, Issue 4, 1979
Werner, E. E. and Smith, R. S. (2001) Journeys from Childhood to Midlife: Risk, Resilience, and Recovery by Emmy E. Werner and Ruth S. Smith. New York, NY: Cornell University Press.