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October 17, 2013
Resilience is the ability to “bounce back,” to encounter a setback or a trauma, a disappointment or a failure, and carry forward. It’s opposite might be helplessness, the inability to recover, to take a next step, to move past the initial trauma. Therapists are in the business of helping people find their inner resilience. A common misconception about therapy is that it “finds solutions” and “fixes problems.” Well, kind of. But it’s not like therapy tries to make trauma suddenly NOT traumatic, or make feelings of sadness GO AWAY. Rather, it aims to normalize those feelings, to help a person experience them and then move forward instead of getting locked in a struggle to push them away or change them.
So resilience is about experiencing the present, and letting go. It’s about having a “short memory,” or finding that “reset button” that wipes the slate clean and allows for future possibility. And that’s the real key to resilience — finding the ability to let past experiences remain in the past and NOT dictate what we feel is possible in the future. Bouncing back from our failures requires this — we can’t get up and try again if we hold onto the failed outcome as the only possible outcome; there would be no point.
So far, resilience sounds like a simple enough task. But what happens when a negative or traumatic outcomes KEEPS happening over and over again? That’s called, in therapeutic circles, a risk chain. Another term is “recurring trauma.” And it’s a resilience-killer! Studies have shown that recovering from isolated traumatic events is often a manageable task, but recovering from recurring trauma is a whole other matter. It’s possible, but much harder. It’s not hard to understand why: If the SAME negative outcome keeps happening over and over, at some point the ability to expect any kind of alternate outcome will fade away. It’s like the saying goes, “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”
Risk chains are insidious things. They are self-fulfilling. The more we experience the negative outcome, the more we EXPECT the negative outcome. And the more we expect the negative outcome, the less motivated we are to change the behaviors that LEAD to that negative outcome. And this makes that negative outcome all the more likely. It can become a vicious cycle. In fact, many people caught in these cycles act in ways that overtly invite negative outcomes SIMPLY because at least then they feel they have some small bit of control over the situation.
Anyone reading this who has experienced periods of uncontrollable numbers, for a few days to a few months to years, can relate. Think back to the last time your numbers were simply NOT responding to your actions in a predictable manner. It was infuriating, right? And I’d be wiling to bet that a feeling of helplessness, pessimism, and hopelessness began to set in. Before long, you began to simply expect to have repeated negative outcomes. And that zapped your motivation. You fell into that cycle. I know it’s happened to me on more than one occasion.
So what do we do about it? How do we pull ourselves, both psychologically and practically speaking, out of that risk-chain cycle and find our resilience again? To my way of thinking, the psychological solution must come first. That’s not easy, but it IS easier to address our internal thought process than it is to change physical outcomes. Above all, we need a perspective shift. The last time I was in this kind of rut, it was a documentary on the workings of the universe that got me unstuck. It got me unstuck because it reminded me how vast our universe is, and how, by comparison, thoroughly unimportant and simultaneously miraculous my life is.
So shifting our perspective to a “wider” view is important — looking past our blood glucose and seeing the whole system that is so much bigger than us. Along with that “widening” of our lens, we need to change the direction of our focus. Instead of obsessing INWARD about what’s making us unhappy, we need to focus OUTWARD on giving to the world around us. Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison standing up for civil rights. He was able to do this because his life was dedicated to something FAR bigger than himself. His energy didn’t go inward to get stuck in a risk chain and create hopelessness. His energy was focused outward, always outward in service of something much larger than the true misery of his life in a prison cell.
Of course, most of us are not Nelson Mandela. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from his example. And it doesn’t mean we have no power of our own to overcome the struggles we face in our lives. So the next time you find yourself in a loop of helplessness and negative projections, remember to widen your lens and change the direction.
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