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Resilience – How you ‘doing?

bronze statue of suited man with face mask

Like so many of our fellow global citizens, we recently settled in to watch the last U.S. presidential debate. The experience caused me to again reflect on the year we are living, a strange and extremely challenging year like no other in my lifetime, for sure.

Recognizing that the number and “piling-on” of huge occurrences hitting us at once is unprecedented; pandemic, economic upheaval, the acceleration of poverty for even more of our population and resultant dramatic increased reliance on basic needs support, societal injustice and respondent social unrest, cultural polarization and associated challenges to our ways of life, climatic and weather driven tragedies destroying homes and livelihoods, safety and stability of the country, and of course a presidential election… it’s no wonder that our stress levels are high and many of us are carrying a significant, and potentially unprecedented amount of anxiety.

Any one of these things is historical in its impact; together, it all challenges one’s resiliency.

Building Toward Resiliency

Times like these require us all to draw upon as much resilience as we can muster. Hard as it may be, we need to find ways to cope with the present and ongoing uncertainty, adapt to new circumstances, bounce back quickly from unexpected setbacks, be able to find threads of joy, love and support from those we cherish, explore gratitude to nourish ourselves, and extend acceptance, understanding, empathy and compassion to others.

Since this is far-far easier said than done, I felt it might be helpful to take a more in-depth look at the components, or building-blocks of human resilience; this prompted me to undertake an exploration of some expert literature and perspective. My research uncovered a significant amount of alignment among the behavioral health community and organization effectiveness consulting world around certain behaviors, activities and mindsets that behavioral experts believe lead to increased resilience, ability to cope and serve.

If we can all focus energy on cultivating the components of resilience within ourselves, we’ll have an easier time navigating the changes that are yet to come, and importantly, will remain healthy and able to be in service to others.

The Role of Optimism – It Gets Better

A key component of our resilience is fostering positivity within our own thought cycles. Hard as it may sound at first, the ability to disrupt our own negative attitudes and thoughts is remarkably helpful in navigating crises. The ability to always have hope is important. Those who struggle to release pessimistic patterns of thought and behavior may become caught in rumination traps, self-blaming, deflecting or laying blame instead of finding productive ways to move forward. Of course, cultivating optimism doesn’t mean ignoring reality, red flags or becoming an intolerable “Pollyanna”. In fact, it’s important to acknowledge the validity of negative emotions and allow oneself to grieve for losses. However, if we can muster confidence in ourselves, others, and in a hopeful vision of the future, embrace positivity, accepting that life includes both losses and wins, understand that setbacks are merely temporary, and release the need for perfection allowing that plans do change, we can better handle adversity. These aspects of optimism shorten loss recovery time, enable less worry about areas we can’t control, and ease the way to charting the path to a positive next chapter.

Physical health and self-care buffers psychological stress

Although the type of resilience we’re discussing is primarily psychological, I was not surprised to learn that it encompasses a strong component of physical self-care and wellbeing. Sleeping and eating well, incorporating regular exercise, finding time to meditate or engage in other relaxation techniques all contribute to our ability to rebuild and rebound. Researchers have connected self-care activities to an overall sense of agency and importance: making sure that every day feels meaningful, and contributes to a sense of accomplishment or contribution. Sydney Ey, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Oregon Health & Science University developed a resilience building plan worksheet that includes a section on physical hardiness, indicating that caring for our bodies and our minds are key components of building overall resilience.

Relationships and Connection – Share the Weight

Nurturing close relationships and looking to loved ones for help and emotional support can be crucial to developing personal adaptability and strength. Being resilient doesn’t mean “going it alone” regardless of the circumstances! Knowing that one can reach out to people you trust and ask them to share your burdens, and in turn take meaning in sharing theirs, makes it far easier to navigate a time of struggle. Multiple studies have shown that feeling less alone helps us overcome fear, negativity, and stress, all of which lead to increased resilience. Knowing this, we might consider spending time and energy tending to our family (even on virtual platforms), friends and other supportive relationships; they will help cope with our worst stressors, add meaning and connection in helping others, and emerge stronger from tough challenges.

Knowing our Priorities - Grounding

It can be harder to recover from disruption or to cope with stress and anxiety if we’ve lost sight of our “north star”. Challenges like those many of us are facing can cause us to question our beliefs and the priorities that drive us. When unsure of our guiding principles and desires, choosing the next right action can feel downright impossible.

Grounding ourselves in what’s really important to us, our values, and how we want to live our lives provides the foundation, and shores-up our ability to be resilient in the face of challenge, even tragedy. The decisions we make are guided by clearly defined values, helping us to know more readily what to do, and deepens our ability to react to unexpected setbacks; our values help define our motivations, prioritize our possible pathways, and pursue our goals toward outcomes aligning with our optimism.

Focus on what we can control - let go of what we can’t

The innate decisiveness of “grounding” is linked to understanding which aspects of our lives are under our control. It becomes far easier to take well thought-out, concrete actions—even in the face of adversity—when we know what we can impact and what we must release. Doing this abates stress and anxiety, which are often triggered by unproductive striving to impact and control things beyond our control. We also - and this is particularly salient as the US Presidential election is upon us – must understand that once we have done all that we can possibly do, it’s out of our hands; try to take solace and comfort in having strived for an optimistic and values-aligned outcome, done our part, and hope that the collective consciousness will see to what is best.

Grounding in our values, taking hopeful action toward our desired ends, identifying what we can and cannot control, equips us to make thoughtful action plans and pursue them, keeping anxiety levels in check. As many a wise coach has said, “leave it all on the field” and take comfort that you’ve done all you could…and as a Great Depression-era wise woman of great faith, my mom, consistently said about hard times “this too shall pass”.

Fallibility – Humility and Acceptance

Practicing humility and proactive self-compassion is essential to leading a resilient existence. We will make mistakes; seeking to approach life with curiosity and to honestly understand and accept what went wrong is another building-block experts express. Instead of judging and scolding ourselves, consider what can be done differently next time (this is a hopeful, optimistic, grounded, realistic posture). Perhaps apply your curiosity and bring in outside perspectives to complement your own. There’s tremendous confidence and hope found in knowing what went wrong and resolving to address it. Regaining control and feeling a sense of control, even if a situation is painful in the moment helps us respond with resilience.

I hope that sharing these building-blocks is helpful as we continue to navigate the present and position ourselves through uncertainty for a healthy, optimistic and bright future. Maybe you, as I am, are asking yourself: How am I doing?


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A PDF copy of this article is available for download here.



Project Prioritization 200313Mike Humphries is President & CEO of Waldron, a Seattle-headquartered, multi-market Leadership Development, Board Governance Consulting and Career Management Firm. Waldron is the partner strategic leaders choose when their brands are on the line. The Firm helps attract, engage, inspire, support and develop effective leaders and Boards. Mike actively coaches select senior executives, counsels and facilitates boards on governance effectiveness, succession, board and CEO performance. Pursuant to Waldron’s Social Good mission and B-Corp impact, Mike actively supports many organizations with missions aligned with social justice, housing, health, poverty alleviation, development, conservation, the environment, and education.