We are not born with more or less resilience than anyone else. Resilience is an acquired skill. Like any skill, it can be learnt and maintained as long as you remember to flex your resilient muscle. Here are my top tips to building resilience.
Allow yourself to feel sadness/anger/pain/grief/confusion
Yep. You read that right. Allow yourself to feel everything that you feel. No matter how shitty it is. Resilience isn’t about masking your pain and pretending everything is fine, when it isn’t. You’re a human, not a robot. It’s healthy to feel these things (if you didn’t I’d be concerned). What matters isn’t how you feel in that difficult moment, it’s how you overcome it. That’s resilience.
Picture this: an ocean’s wave approaching the shore. It’s a steep wave, one that hasn’t crested into a breaker. Imagine a flock of seagulls floating on the water, with the wave looming towards them. These gulls don’t fly away. They simply ride up the ascending slope and drift back down the wave’s curved spine. That’s what you can learn to do with your worries, anxieties and fears. Emotions are wave-like – they ebb and flow. They accumulate, eventually reach a peak, and then drift away. Sometimes they’re a tsunami, other times a mere bump. Either way, negative emotions don’t last forever, even though it often feels like they will. You gotta learn to ride the waves.
Practice self-care & know yourself
In my last post, I spoke about the importance of looking after ourselves for ourselves. This means eating healthily, exercising, getting a good night’s sleep and understanding what your body needs. In essence, resilience is about how you recharge, not how you endure. This includes paying attention to the peaks and valleys of your energy levels. For example, I know I’m most productive at work in the morning, before the rest of the crew arrives. I also know that I need to take breaks every 60-120 minutes to refocus. Since I’m a massive introvert, I get easily drained from being around people. I need a lot of time to reflect and be myself. Once I’m recharged, I know I can endure.
However, practicing self-care extends beyond physicality. It also involves knowing your learning style, your strengths and weaknesses, and most importantly your boundaries. To quote Dolly Parton, “I know who I am. I know what I can and can’t do. I know what I will and won’t do.” For example, there are things I won’t do for health reasons. Most of the time they’re simple things but their potential consequences are not worth the risk for me. As a result, I’ve created internal boundaries on what I can and can’t do, and what I will and won’t do. Remember, you don’t have to accept the things you’re not okay with.
Know yourself. Allow people to push you out of your comfort zone but don’t let them push you out of your boundaries. Remember – only you know you.
Find your tribe
You don’t do things or go through difficult times alone. No one does anything alone. Resilient people know how to reach out for help, and tend to surround themselves with other resilient people. I’ve been so blessed to be raised by an incredibly resilient family and have had the support of amazing friends and amazing strangers. There’s an old saying that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I don’t believe that. I think the things that “kill” you make you angry and sad, hard and numb. Strength comes from good things – your family, your friends…the kindness of people.
The people who stand by you are your strong.
Similarly to mindfulness, decentering is about responding rather than reacting to a difficult situation or person. It is scientifically possible, with little effort, to literally switch the neural networks in the brain. Decentering is not denying or supressing the fact we feel stressed, confused or overwhelmed. Rather, it is the ability to pause and view the experience from a neutral standpoint (like an outsider looking in), before attempting to solve the problem. Decentering fosters mental agility, by focusing on the observational part of our thinking, not our own inner voice that is narrating our own version of events. Decentering activates the thinking side of our brains, rather than the emotional side. No matter how “emotional” you are, it is quite possible and easy to decenter, if you stop and pause before rushing headfirst into a reaction.
Whenever I’m scared, confused, sad, angry or happy, I write. The draws of my wardrobe are occupied with more journals than clothes, and I’ve written so many words on my laptop that I could probably produce ten novels (if they were coherent). Creative expression is a coping mechanism for me – a way of better understanding myself, others and the world around me.
I believe art is a window. It allows us to travel to places where we’re fearless in our emotions because it shows us we’re never alone in them. Our longings are universal longings, and our emotions are universal emotions. Art captures this and tells others, “hey, I’m here and I know what you’re going through.”
Writing has been my salvation. I don’t think I would have gotten through the difficult moments in my life without it.
Sisu, the second wind
Sisu is a Finnish term that dates back hundreds of years, and is integral to Finland’s culture and national identity. My mother is Finnish and the term Sisu has always resonated with me, not only because of its cultural ties but because of its meaning. There is no equivalent English translation for Sisu. It is often defined as extraordinary determination, courage, indomitable spirit, tenacity, willpower and resoluteness in the face of extreme adversity. It’s an action mindset which enables individuals to reach beyond their present limitations, take action against all odds and transform barriers into frontiers. However, this definition doesn’t really encompass the true meaning of Sisu. Sisu begins when perseverance ends. Sisu is what you rely on when you have nothing left.
To me, Sisu is the second wind.
In a situational problem, Sisu is often seen when marathon runners are physically and mentally exhausted; when they can’t go any further but somehow continue on. Sisu is when you push yourself beyond what you normally do…when you are spent and have nothing left.
You often experience Sisu when you hit rock-bottom. There was a period in my life where I found it impossible to imagine surviving, let alone living; finishing school, going to university, falling in love, travelling the world, getting a job – all these things seemed impossible to me. This is me at rock-bottom. This is when Sisu came.
Sisu isn’t just perseverance, grit or optimism. It isn’t a thought in your head telling you everything is going to be okay. Sisu is when you decide to run into the storm clouds, even though there may never be a silver lining.
Since there is no English translation, Sisu is difficult to explain. You can only feel it. You’re probably wondering how Sisu relates to resilience? Sisu puts you on the path to resilience. Resilience is a process, whereas Sisu is an action mindset. Sisu is a choice. An enigmatic verb. An action. When you use Sisu, you are essentially taking steps to achieve outcomes. Sisu is important because your response to a difficult situation translates into other parts of your life, and in the long-run this ultimately leads to resilience.
Resilient people are the greatest failures. This is because failing fabulously (aka learning from failures) cultivates resilience. Rather than making excuses for failures, resilient people learn from each mistake. They identify ideas and life lessons from each failed opportunity, and view failure as an essential part of self-growth. Resilient people embrace and celebrate failures. To be blunt, if you don’t stumble, fall down and fail, are you even trying hard enough? I can honestly say I’m decently happy in my life right now. I have fought like a little ninja for that happiness, and I have failed majestically for my little pieces of success. What is happiness without sadness, and success without failure?
Nothing. Nothing at all.
So fail fabulously folks!
Cultivate compassion, emanate empathy
If you want to develop resilience, you need to develop empathy.
I believe in this so much that it’s actually my number one tip to building resilience. The stronger you become, the gentler you’ll be. That’s why the most resilient people are often the most empathetic.
Empathy and resilience are about the little things…like saying hello to your colleagues in the morning. These little things don’t take much effort but they can mean the world to someone. In fact, the most important thing you can do for others is to encourage and inspire meaningful growth. A sincere and positive impact will last a lifetime, even if the relationship does not.
It’s also worth noting that receiving and appreciating kindness is just as important as offering it up. This is because gratitude is an important part of resiliency. Kindness and resilience are boomerangs.
You have to give and receive, in kind.
Pump up your positivity, with 3:1
This doesn’t mean you have to think the world is full of rainbows and butterflies. In fact, realistic optimism is about acknowledging negativity, kicking it off centre-stage and allowing it to sit side by side with your other feelings. One of the most helpful pieces of advice I’ve ever received is the 3:1 ratio. A writer once told me he used this ratio when giving constructive criticism to aspiring authors. So, for every negative thing he had to say to them, he’d give them three positive things. I love the 3:1 ratio and use it a lot. It’s an empowering way to motivate and inspire people, whilst simultaneously allowing room for improvement and further action.
Whenever, I provide written feedback I often transform 3:1 into what I call the ‘traffic light approach.’ For example, when I review someone’s work, I use traffic-light coloured dot points. Green dots points for all the things I love about the person’s work; the ideas that we can build on. Orange points for questions and clarification (the things I haven’t fully understood/or the reasoning behind why something is done a certain way), and red points for the red flags (the things I don’t think will work). When I do this, I always ensure green and orange outweigh red. I do this because I know what it’s like to go to work and hear constant criticism. The reality is, if you give someone too many red lights, they’re going to come to a grinding halt. They’re not going to be inspired and motivated to produce further ideas or to undertake the work you give them. If you want to empower people and push them forward, you gotta give them the green lights. You gotta encourage them to go! Whenever I work with people (regardless of their position), I use the 3:1 or the traffic light approach because I understand and have witnessed the power of its positivity in relation to someone’s performance.
The 3:1 ratio is also important for self-growth. Use it on yourself! Whenever you’re sad about something, list three things you’re grateful, happy or excited about. Many studies have found that 3:1 is the tipping point that predicts whether people languish or flourish under difficult circumstances. This means that for every heart-wrenching emotional experience you endure, you have to experience at least three heartfelt positive emotional experiences that will uplift you again.
Shine the spotlight on your silver linings
In order to apply the 3:1 ratio effectively, you need to shine the spotlight on your silver linings. The ability to search for silver linings is the core of emotional resilience. Silver linings can be found in any circumstance, though you may not see them straight away. Throughout my childhood and adolescence, I lost the majority of my vision. There have been many silver linings to this experience. For example: I can memorise and learn things pretty quickly; I’m a great listener; my empathy and imagination has increased; I know a lot about the human eye and can understand/speak medical jargon; not knowing what level of sight I’d have each day when I woke up has enhanced my flexibility and adaptability; I have great creative problem solving skills (e.g. I may not be able to do something that conventional way because of my disability, but I can do it this way instead); and I always win pin the tail on the donkey.
This list is by no means exhaustive. In fact, all the best moments of my life have come from the worst moments of my life.
Silver linings are always there. You just have to search for them.
Hang on to humour
Ever had one of those moments when you’re crying so much that you start laughing? Or when something terrible has happened, and all you can do is smile and laugh? Whenever you experience a catastrophic life event, there’s a thin line between tragedy and comedy. I tend to yo-yo between them (how Shakespearean). Either way, you gotta hang on to humour. Bill Cosby once said that “once you find laughter, no matter how painful your situation might be, you can survive it.” This is because when we laugh, our bodies release endorphins and dopamine, which are nature’s feel-good chemicals. By releasing these chemicals, we can better cope with stress and find hope in the darkest of circumstances. Whenever you laugh in the face of adversity, you are essentially saying “I am bigger than this…and I won’t let this scare me.”
Face your fears, take chances & have hope
Everyone is afraid. I am, you are, everyone is. Resilient people willingly face and move past their fears in order to get where they want to be. I often get asked “how are you not afraid?” The simple answer is, I am. I have never stopped being afraid of things. I’m just not going to let fear stop me. Once you’ve decided to keep moving forward, despite your fears, it often feels like a barricade has crumbled and your path is cleared.
Anytime we step into the unknown we’re taking a risk and fuelling our resilience. What if you don’t like the unknown when you get there? Then you’ll find a way to change it or move past it. You will – because that’s the sort of resilient person you are. That’s how I justified all the terrifying decisions I’ve made in my life. If I made the wrong choice…well…I’ll get over it (eventually)…and I would be proud of myself for taking the chance…for trying everything possible…for being brave enough to never give up.
And what if the unknown turns out to be more amazing than I could ever imagine it to be? There’s only once way to find out isn’t there? You gotta face your fears, take chances and have hope.
P.S My unknowns were more amazing than I could ever imagine them to be.
Apply the tomorrow rule
Resilient people look to the future. This doesn’t mean ignoring your past and your presence. No. In fact, looking back on your past is a great way of fuelling resilience. It allows you to remember times in which you needed resilience, so you can effectively utilise it again. Your past can be a marvellous getaway but you mustn’t make a home there. Resilience is about your tomorrows, not your yesterdays.
When I was 16, I was at my lowest point (having lost most of my eyesight, then my mobility from spinal surgery all in the same month). Despite how depressed I was, I knew who I wanted to be (and it wasn’t a person who sat around in bed feeling sorry for herself). So a week after my spinal surgery, I went back to school. I barely lasted an hour because of the pain. So I went home and told myself I’d try again tomorrow. Tomorrow came and I lasted one hour and five minutes. Then two hours. Three, four, five, six hours…until my tomorrows bled into weeks and the weeks bled into years. I merely focused on improving 1% (or sometimes 0.25%) every day. It never felt like much…but you know what? Small improvements compound over time. The choices you make today will affect your tomorrows.
One day you’re going to realise that 0.25% has made you everything you are.
My mind was in a dark and terrible place but I kept telling myself it’ll be better tomorrow. I’ll try again tomorrow.
I call this my tomorrow rule. And I held onto it like a lifeline.
Whenever I wanted to give up, resilience was the little voice saying:
Go on. Try again.