It's a new year, and there's a lot of talk about making changes, such as being more organized or getting better grades. But what about the changes that we don't seek? The events and circumstances that change our lives forever that we never would have included as part of a New Year's goal. Whether we experience a smaller-scale change that we don't expect, such as a friend moving away or not getting that grade we had hoped for or that promotion at work, or a large scale change such as the tragic loss of a loved one or the break up of a relationship, unplanned changes can be devastating and take a toll on us emotionally.
Since there is often no way to prepare for change, how do we cope with it, accept it, and heal from it? Is there a way to rise from it, stronger and more confident? Can we mourn loss and still move forward to experience peace, acceptance and joy?
Yes, all of this is possible, and it happens as the result of resilience. This isn't a brand new word or concept. In fact, it has recently been a popular topic in mental health. Resilience is defined as "the ability to recover quickly from difficulty." But my favorite Google definition of resilience is "the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity." The reason that I like this definition is that it illustrates the concept of bouncing back from adversity. We can visualize something like a fabric, springing back into shape after being pulled, against its will, in different directions. As humans, we can also become resilient. But depending on the amount of the adversity we experience, how long we suffer, and how many protective and positive characteristics we have in place, we may be more or less resilient in situations that we face throughout life.
Each of us can become more resilient, and parents can help their children build resilience early on in life. It's not as simple as one, two, three. It doesn't happen overnight. Becoming resilient requires us to think about how our thoughts, emotions, actions, and choices are affected by the unexpected challenges we endure. How do we respond when change is thrust upon us?
TEMPORARY VS. PERMANENT PERSPECTIVE
If we see the trials as permanently affecting our life and well-being, it is harder to see hope and possibilities. It also becomes harder to look past the trial to brighter days. In the midst of pain, anxiety and stress, it may be difficult to believe that situations are temporary. In some cases, the pain of loss can last for years. But that doesn't mean that we have to be stuck in it. We can be in pain and still remember that the intensity of our suffering will lessen, in time.
FOCUSING ON POSITIVES AND GIVING THANKS
Even in times of darkness in turmoil, we can usually find a couple of things to recognize as positive and to give thanks. For instance, if we have not succeeded at work or school, or a friendship/relationship has been lost, we may be able to give thanks for good physical health, other friends and relationships that are important to us, or an opportunity that comes our way. Recognizing positive aspects in our lives in the midst of tryout reminds us that good things happen, and allows us to continue being hopeful.
BELIEF IN SELF AND OTHERS
Even in times of uncertainty, when our confidence may be lower, it's important to remember that we have the capacity to be strong. Human beings can and do face incredible hardship, retain their strength, and often come out of trials stronger than they could ever imagine. But the messages that we tell ourselves play a key role in determining what we believe and how we feel. So, if you find yourself doubting your ability and making a lot of negative self statements, such as "things will never get better," or "I don't think I can take this anymore," then it will be hard to understand the alternatives of optimism and hope. We also must believe that others will come alongside us and support us, even though they may not completely understand our situation. Sometimes people do not fully express their love and support for us. But that doesn't mean that they do not care or will not be there for us in times of need
UNDERSTANDING AND EMPATHIZING WITH OTHERS
I believe this is one of the areas of building resilience that does not receive as much attention as it should. Although each of us can experience tremendous pain, suffering, and challenges, it is important not to forget that we are not the only one who is suffering. Not only is it critical to remember that we are not alone, but it is just as critical to be intentional about expressing compassion toward others who may be suffering just as much, if not more, than we are. Why is this so crucial, and what does it have to do with resilience? Knowing and understanding the pain of others gives us perspective. Suffering is part of the human condition. When we suffer, we are not singled out, we are not being put through circumstances that others do not endure. Empathy and compassion allow us to be proactive in caring about others, and gives us a sense of self-worth and confidence. It prevents us from becoming self absorbed and self focused, which often leads to only looking inward to our own pain.
There is scientific evidence to suggest that depression can be worsened by intense self focus. But people who look outward, attempt to care for and serve others, and even think about the pain of others overcome depression more easily.
HOW CAN PARENTS HELP CHILDREN BECOME RESILIENT?
This is tricky, because many parents today think first and foremost about nurturing and protecting their children. There is much emphasis on telling children they can do anything and be anything. Believe it or not, we want to be careful in the messages that we give to children in this regard. While it is obviously important to nurture and love children, and to build their self-confidence, it is also important to build strength and resilience. We don't want children to become fragile at the first disappointment, but rather we want them to be able to deal with disappointment and loss with grace, integrity, and a sense of confident humility. This starts by modeling for children what we want them to become. If we demonstrate that our disappointments and losses result in negativity and depression, our children will learn that these things are to be feared and avoided. But if we teach them that disappointment, loss, and tragedy are unfortunately parts of the human existence, then we can show them how to endure pain and suffering while remembering that hope, opportunity, and joy are also part of our human experience.
In addition to modeling behaviors we want children to emulate, we also need to talk directly to children about life's challenges and trials. We don't need to wait until something bad happens to talk to them about how to overcome challenges and be stronger. We also want to make sure that we don't communicate to our youth that they should only focus on strength, while putting mourning and grief aside. We want children to understand that they can experience a range of emotions, express sadness and pain, and still get through life's trials grace, dignity and strength.
There are no guarantees in this world of constant happiness, freedom from sorrow and pain, and perfect outcomes to all of our endeavors. Each of us is a work in progress that is continuously being refined through our challenges and trials. The best way to approach life is to equip ourselves with tools to cope, surround ourselves with love and support, recognize when we are in pain and seek healing, and to keep moving forward.