Elephants in the mud.

Resilience – it’s how you get through it​

by Françoise Gallet, coach & facilitator
July, 2023 

One of my favourite things about parenting my younger children was the opportunity to be a child again — to climb into the sandpit, to splash in puddles and most especially to delve into storybooks.

Author, Michael Rosen’s ‘We’re Going on a Bear Hunt’, was a hands-down favourite.

All the squelching and squerching, swishying and swashying as well as the hilariously thrilling turnaround from bear hunt to bear chase made it a fantastic read.

But what I appreciated most was its secret message for exhausted parents.

I was reading this book at a time when the physical and mental rigours that come with rearing babies and young kids had brought slow-building health, relationship, and financial challenges to a head.

Knee-deep in my personal crisis, Rosen it seemed, had stitched into the fabric of his children’s story just the message I needed to hear: parenting is the adventure of a lifetime. But be warned, it brings unforeseen challenges. Out of a brave and beautiful day, quite suddenly: “Uh-uh! Mud! Thick oozy mud.”

And, just like Rosen’s little band of intrepid adventurers — as much as I didn’t want to go through these challenges — there was no bypassing them.

“We can’t go over it. We can’t go under it. Oh No! We’ve got to go through it!” I would chant with my kids during our bedtime reading routine.

As far as my own life was concerned, intellectually I knew the truth of this. I was knee-deep in some very thick, oozy ‘mud’.

Adversity is, after all, an inescapable fact of life. This is true for me. And for you.

At some point, as fallible human beings, we will all make mistakes, experience setbacks or loss, feel pain or emotional distress. This is simply what it means to be human.

It wasn’t that I hadn’t wrapped my head around this fact of life. I just hadn’t opened my heart to its reality.

Ignoring life's downs,
more often makes for more 'mess'

And, this it turns out, is quite typical of most humans. Although we all know intellectually that ups and downs in life are inevitable, we don’t particularly like the truth of this.

For starters, the uncertainty of this is unnerving. Why get out of bed in the morning if ‘doom’ might be around the corner?

So, we race, or drive, ourselves instead towards what we think will make us happy, convincing ourselves that if we bring enough hustle to life, we can dodge the downs, and wangle a steady stream of ups.

But in our quest to escape the inescapable pain of life, we often end up looking for happiness in ways that intensify our misery.

For starters, we inadvertently exaggerate our sense of control. Some things are utterly beyond our reach — like trying to orchestrate an ideal future in a societal system as fallible and flawed as every one of us.

And from this standpoint, we equate strength and success with winning and lose sight of the courage it takes to be fallible. To take life on life’s terms, we must risk the messiness of life with our whole being — head, heart, and hands.

This was certainly true for me at this point in my life.

So, I carried on, carrying on, in the hopes that I could somehow wangle a few ups to quickly dodge the downs. Taking a look at the bog I was in was not on the agenda.

Indeed, embracing difficulty felt so painful that while I was contemplating Rosen’s sage advice, ignoring escalating sciatic nerve pain seemed less painful than the doctor’s bills. As a strategy, it ultimately cost me more than it saved.

Though, it’s also not unusual, for us humans, to peek at the mess and then double-down, harshly blaming, or criticising ourselves in ways that amplify our distress or leave little room for learning, healing, or growth.

This is what happened when I took a good hard look at our financial difficulties. Somehow, I lost sight of the global financial downturn, or the fact that many others were struggling financially at the time.

Instead, so overwhelmed by my sense of personal failure, the accompanying humiliation cancelled out ‘asking for help’.

The result: I got more stuck.

Until there was no convincing anyone, including myself, that my hustle — habits acquired over a lifetime of operating from fear and drive impulses — were working.

Being compassionate with
our messy selves

Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t work hard. Or that we should indulge in self-pity, self-indulgence, or complacency.

The gap between what we want and reality is often the birthing place of insight. Any resulting frustration or distress with how things are, are important messengers of unmet needs.

If we can interrupt the hustle just long enough to embrace this tension, and turn tenderly towards the mess or pain, we can discover discover the lessons it has for us.

Or as Nigerian poet Ijeoma Umebinyuo puts it:

“1. You must let the pain visit.

2. You must allow it teach you.

3. You must not allow it overstay”.

Meanwhile, Carl Rogers famously wrote: “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”

But, for me, it took the kindness of friends and family to help me find the courage I needed to muster some self-awareness.

And only then, fortified by this nurture, was I finally able to fully attend to the mud I was in – the vulnerable and painful aspects of my situation.

Where, to my utter amazement, in the light of awareness, lay new opportunities never considered before.

Or as Rosen puts it:

“Squelch squerch!

Squelch squerch!

Squelch squerch!”

Learning from the compassion of others and bolstered by the courage it took to be vulnerable, I began to move through it.

Resilience is a skill:
It can be learned and cultivated

Resilience is, after all, the strength and fortitude that comes from responding skilfully to adversity.

It’s not the exhaustion and depletion that comes from being stuck in the mud, overwhelmed and frozen, desperately trying to avoid or deny the reality of hardship.

And resilience is a skill set. Which means we can take steps to cultivate and develop our capacity for resilience — long before we experience it.

It’s also a multi-faceted skill set.

It has a particular ‘shape’, which we are gleaning through research and meta-studies that explore the efficacy of different healing modalities for minds and bodies.

Compassion, connection, and awareness seem to be integral components of its ‘shape’.

They certainly were as I worked through this muddy patch.

I grew from:

  • Recognising my vulnerability, instead of pretending to myself and others that I was infallibly ‘winning at life’.
  • Seeing myself as part of a larger whole. There were aspects of this bog that I didn’t create and couldn’t avoid. I simply stepped into the 2008 global financial crisis. Paradoxically, seeing my common humanity, helped me identify the part I was playing in my personal crisis and to stop worrying about what I had no control over.
  • From this realisation of interdependence, I learnt to care for myself in new ways that included asking for help — being buffered by the compassion of others.

The arc of this story reads like a neat and simple formula.

Of course, there is much more to it.

Plus, in the throes of everyday life, it’s all much more complex and ‘messier’.

As such, I think — (though research supports me on this) — it helps to have a learning partner in developing your resilience skill set.

Resilience has an 'inner' dimension

Through our coaching and resilience training, we focus on helping you cultivate a multi-faceted set of resilience skills.

We build your sense of inner resilience — your personal mental, emotional and behaviourial strategies for meeting adversity skilfully.

And because this sense of inner resilience can be experienced very differently depending on your gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, and cultural orientation (or other variables unique to your life experience), our approach to resilience coaching and training helps you plot the ‘shape’ of resilience in a way that makes sense to you.

Our intention is to create a space of nurturance – to offer you the compassion needed to risk learning and catalyse insight.

Resilience has an 'outer' dimension

However, as a skill set, resilience doesn’t only have an inner dimension. Resilience is impacted by external factors too. 

These ‘outside’ factors also contribute to how well people can adapt to change and difficulty.

They include the availability of resources and the quality or capacity of resources. For me it was family and friends and being able to access a loan.

Plus, how people engage both – how they access and use resources.

Resilience asks us to connect

That is why our resilience trainings specifically explore and develop our skills for connecting with others.

So, we hope that you’ll engage us. Resilience asks us to connect.

When we do — and we’re met with warmth and friendliness — it’s easier to be more realistic, more accepting, kinder to ourselves.

We can courageously embrace our weakness and our strengths.

From this place of compassion, we can break the force of our habitual ways of ‘doing’ and ‘being’ in relationship to life: understanding and learning from, rather than adding to our mess. 

swirl

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Insight is the place where we prompt you with questions to catalyse your own ah-ha moments. You can try these activities before musing on the information we share in our blog. Or after.

Cultivating resilience – prompts for individuals

Contrary to popular belief, resilience is much less a trait and much more a multi-faceted skill set. Try these three varied activities below to get a sense of the different ways in which a personal sense of inner resilience can be cultivated and nurtured.

Resilience – a self-reflection

Any self-reflection is best done by:

  • Setting aside some quiet time.
  • Being curious about what you discover, as best as you’re able.
  • Being gentle with yourself, rather than harshly critical.
  • Allowing insight to emerge in its own time, rather than striving for answers and solutions.

1. Reflecting on your circle of control

We think the capacity for awareness is key to resilience. This exercise is an opportunity to gain some self-awareness.

It asks you to explore how you are approaching a setback.

And, it highlights where you might be unhelpfully exaggerating your sense of control. Or inadvertently setting yourself up for overly harsh self-blame and criticism.

Often underlying overly harsh self-blame or criticism – which undermines our sense of inner resilience – is the limiting assumption that you deserve the blame (and the shame) because you are in full control.

But we are never in control of all the causes and conditions that factor into even a single moment of our lives.

Even in this moment, a constellation of so many factors are behind us being here, offering this. And you reading this.

So, if you’d like, let’s try a more realistic appraisal of this setback or mistake and then notice what shift this might evoke.

Prompts:

If you wish, consider writing a few short paragraphs about a time when you faced a personal setback or made a mistake.

Please consider picking a setback or mistake that provokes a mild to moderate emotional response, as this exercise is best done with the guidance of a coach or as part of larger training in cultivating compassion towards our human fallibility.

After taking a few minutes to jot down what happened, use the circle image above, to work through these questions:

  1. Identify as many factors – or causes and conditions – as possible that contributed to this incident.
  2. Of all the factors, what did you have direct control over?
  3. Of all the factors, what did you only have some influence over?
  4. Of all the factors, what did you have no control over at all?
  5. With this in mind, how do you feel about your setback or mistake now?
  6. If you look at the factors that were in your control, what are you learning about how you could do things differently in the future? 

2. Soaking up the good

Psychologist, Rick Hanson is a keen advocate of teaching our brains to learn from the good. He has this to say: “Every time you take in the good, you build a little bit of neural structure. Doing this a few times a day — for months and even years — will gradually change your brain, and how you feel and act, in far-reaching ways.”

He argues this is a really important habit to cultivate because it counteracts the stronger negativity bias — the human brain’s tendency to overexaggerate the negative aspects of setback, mistake or failure and ignore or gloss over what’s going well.

Simply, we can do this by really soaking up positive experiences when we notice them — much like a sponge soaks up water — so that they become a permanent part of you.

Here are a few ideas on how:

  • When you notice feeling positive, take a few minutes to sense into the quality of this feeling in body and mind. Spend some time noticing where you feel this emotion most easily in the body. Then spend a few moments visualizing this sense moving through your whole body.
  • Practice being mindful of what ‘goes well’, the small moments of care, a joke, a smile, a warm cup of tea, even things like a refreshing breeze.
  • Keep a gratitude diary.
  • Spend some time making a list of all the things you received in a day that didn’t cost money – like a smile.

3. Connecting with a sense of purpose

When a sense of purpose guides us through life, it offers us confirmation that our actions matter and that, in some way, we can contribute positively to something greater than ourselves. 

This is powerfully motivating. 

It encourages us to learn and grow. It offers hope and fosters resilience.

But many are dogged by the myth that purpose is a singular and grand calling in life.

In reality, you can have more than one purpose. Your sense of purpose can wax and wane. It can change completely.

More importantly, you can actively cultivate your sense of purpose — creatively and intentionally — to harness the power of purpose.

Take a read of our blog on purpose and try its related Insight reflections and Practice.

 

Connecting with a felt-sense of resilience – a practice

Resilience is a multi-faceted skill set. One aspect of which is the capacity to self-regulate — to notice and navigate our inner world and to read the state of our nervous systems. 

This practice is called Grounding.

Practising it over time, helps you become more fluent with scanning the body for sensations — the visceral cues that give us indicators about the state of our nervous system.

In particular, Grounding as a practice invites you to focus your attention on sensations of support or steadiness.

Giving these sensations a bit of time and space can help support a greater sense of inner ease and steadiness.

And, becoming increasingly familiar with this practice, helps you access the benefits of Grounding in everyday life — sitting in a meeting, or in a bus or even standing in a queue at the shops.

In small micro moments, you’re cultivating a sense of being a little more centered and stable in everyday life.

So, in small, incremental ways that you have direct control over, you’re nurturing a sense of inner resilience.

Learning from the good and the bad

Life asks us to learn. Much of our learning is based on positive (adding a pleasant stimulus) and negative (removing an unpleasant stimulus) reinforcement.

So, explains psychologist Rick Hanson:, our neocortex — the part of our cerebral cortex that is most newly (neo) evolved — doesn’t just think any thoughts.

It thinks thoughts tailored to the demands of the environment. We’re wired to figure out how to maximize human pleasure and avoid future pain.

So, by default, we judge, evaluate, and label our experiences. And quite often, behind what might seem like situational nuance, are essentially three broad categories of judgement – experiences that are classified as ‘pleasant’, ‘unpleasant’, or ‘neutral’.

From an evolutionary psychological perspective, this tendency of the human mind to classify experience into pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral makes perfect sense.

We tune out of the neutral because we find it irrelevant or uninteresting.

Figuring out what is pleasant (the carrot) versus unpleasant (the stick) helps us to seek out pleasure and avoid pain/suffering.

However, while we have a drive system geared towards pleasure, from a survival point of view, we have a fear system geared towards avoiding pain.

And, ‘sticks’ carry much more urgency than ‘carrots’.

Or as Hanson describes in ‘Hardwiring Happiness The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence‘, our minds are like “Velcro for bad experiences and Teflon for good”.

This tendency makes a lot of sense if we consider our hunter-gatherer past. As a species, we survived by anticipating the worst, rather than underestimating a potential threat.

If that strange shape behind the bush wasn’t a savage animal, suffering the consequences of needless anxiety because of an imagined threat, wasn’t particularly problematic.

Meanwhile, blind optimism could well have meant death. That’s the difference between carrots and sticks, says Hanson.

“If you miss out on a carrot today, you’ll have a chance at more carrots tomorrow. But if you fail to avoid a stick today – WHAP! – no more carrots forever. Compared to carrots, sticks usually have more urgency and impact.” 

So, we’ve evolved a brain that routinely tricks us into making three mistakes: overestimating threats, underestimating opportunities, and underestimating resources (for dealing with threats and fulfilling opportunities). 

And, given that we’re talking about resilience, we wouldn’t want you to think that what we offer in our resilience training is only about how to deal with the hard knocks.

Regardless of whether you are knee-deep in mud, or not, our training is designed to help your brain learn from the good too.