What would you do if… in five years you: survived cancer, lost a parent, spent 14 months watching your spouse die from metastatic pancreatic and liver cancer, lost six beloved pets (two of whom suffered from bone cancer, including a limb amputation for one who passed away just weeks before your spouse), cleaned out an entire house and moved, changed careers, surrendered a job you loved and struggled to find a new job? And what if people told you that was all “just life?” How would you respond?
While the events of the last five years were not “just life,” many times I simply have wanted to lie down – and stay down. For some reason, I kept getting back up. I now know that reason is a state of mind called “resilience.”
Merriam-Webster defines “resilience” as the ability to recover from or adjust to misfortune or change. It is the ability to adapt successfully in the face of stress and adversity (Wu, 2013, 1).
Resilient people do not crumble when facing adversity. They respond in healthy ways instead of resorting to alcohol, overeating or social withdrawal (Brooks, 2003, 1).
My resilience comes from time, experience and a few simple principles:
1. Be Resilient (Not Blindly Positive)
Being resilient is different from being positive or optimistic. Remarks like “You can do it” or “I’m gonna’ beat this thing” are fine for firing someone up, but they ignore the hard realities. They are like a cheerleader stepping in when the team needs the coach.
Resilience is not “bouncing back” because you never go back to the way you were before the setback. Resilience is a quiet stretching, adapting…and growing.
Tugade and Fredrickson (2004) found that resilient people use positive emotions to rebound from, and find positive meaning in, stressful encounters (1).
They do not ignore the difficult realities and become blindly optimistic. They find meaning in even difficult situations and keep moving ahead.
Loss, disappointment, mistakes and sidesteps in life are not failures. They may present setbacks, but they also offer new opportunities. Learn from the setbacks. Good things come of even the darkest situations.
Tip: Accept the bad with the good. Adapt your thinking and your actions to whatever hardship stands before you.
2. Be Deliberate
I never truly understood the phrase “Choose to be happy” until I faced down my own cancer. When I found the lump, I prayed, “Please let me handle whatever it ends up being with grace and humor, and may good come of it somewhere even if it’s too late for me.”
Wallowing was not an option. I wanted to be happy – not sad, stressed and miserable. I wanted to make life easier for my husband and those around me. I did not want to cultivate misery and pessimism.
I often ask myself who and how I want to be. Then I work to be that person. Many years ago, I lingered on and marked a passage from Gone With the Wind, in which Scarlett’s grandmother said of her, “You don’t make a fuss about things that can’t be helped even if they are disagreeable.
You take your fences cleanly like a good hunter.” I wanted to take my fences cleanly. I still do.
Sometimes we have to make ourselves choose to be happy over simply giving in to anger, sadness, or frustration. Resilient people strategically elicit positive emotions through humor, relaxation and optimistic thinking (Tugade and Fredrickson, 2004, 2). They are deliberate in their choice.
Tip: Next time you are faced with difficulties, know that you can help it. You can choose to be happy or miserable. Only you can. Choose to be happy.
3. Consider Each Day a Clean Slate
Throughout David’s treatment and suffering, my first words every day were, “Please make me better than I was yesterday.” Saying that out loud helped me realize that each day was a new start with new possibilities.
I had to remind myself that “this, too, shall pass.” Realizing that the suffering was not forever and that it was only my present helped me keep things in perspective.
I refused to let that time or the suffering define me. It will always be a part of me. It is not all of me.
Tip: Keep your setback(s) in perspective. Think of each one as a moment – not your whole life.
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4. Find a Strong Support Network
A strong social support network is associated with “hardiness and flourishing in the face of major adverse life events” Wu (2013, 6). Social networking has never been easy for me. I always preferred the quality of friends over quantity. I never dreamed I would find both.
I have been blessed with the most loving, generous and caring church family. They took care of us with warm meals, rides to treatment, prayers, BBQ fundraisers and quiet, steady friendships. Family, friends and many a stranger offered support in countless ways.
Tip: Reach out to others. Let others reach out to you. Meet them in the middle. You will be comforted by the blessings that will come.
5. Look Beyond Yourself
During significant traumas and suffering, it can be difficult to look beyond ourselves. When we pull up and become aware of others, we realize that we are not alone and that we can make a difference in even small gestures. We forget our own woes and realize that many others have it worse than we do.
The simple act of doing for others without expecting a thing in return is completely liberating. Something as simple as volunteering or buying someone’s lunch in the drive-thru can go a long way toward improving someone else’s day.
On my worst days, it was the simple, sweet presence of my dogs that got me out of bed and into my day. They rely on me for their every need. I could not let them down. So up I got – even when it was the last thing I wanted to do.
Tip: Stay aware of others and their needs. Make eye contact and smile at others. Take care of your pets.
6. Lighten Your Load
To many people, organizing and de-cluttering are dreaded chores. I love both. I clean closets and/or organize papers when I am overwhelmed. It somehow helps me re-focus and re-calibrate my thinking.
A huge weight lifts when I see the clean and organized results – like a fresh mini start.
I tend just to go until I drop and check things off of my list. On my worst days after David passed away, I would feel so overwhelmed, I would simply feed and let the dogs out – and go back to bed.
I had to make and tackle one goal each day and do it – just one. Then I gradually added more as I felt able to do so.
Tip: Tackle one task each day (not your whole to-do list of phone calls, errands, and chores). Then build up to adding more tasks when you feel up to it.
7. Count Your Blessings
The school where I worked during David’s ordeal was a wonderful place. Even amid the brutal suffering going on at home, my little people would brighten my heart and make me smile – every single day.
We started each class with “Eyeballs…and Smiles” (my call-sign to get their attention) and “Good Things” – when we each would tell something good that happened to us since the last time we met.
Sometimes, it came down to seeing a pretty sunrise or having a warm breakfast, but for those few minutes, we celebrated all good things. Thanks to my little people and all their good things and smiles, my heart grew bigger during the most difficult time of my life.
As a child, I used to counter negative thoughts with positive ones. I don’t know when or why I started doing that, but it always seemed to help pull me out the mire of negativity and stress.
Changing the way I viewed a situation always helped me cope with it and overcome it. That re-framing (or finding the “silver lining”) is one trait of resilience (Wu, 2013, 6).
Tip: Every situation has an upside. Find it. Think on the good things that may come of even a dark situation instead of the painful parts of life. Create a “Gift List” of the positives about yourself and in your life.
8. Give Yourself Room and Time
I am excellent at finding a way to blame myself for just about anything. Even amid the traumas in my life, I found a way to beat myself up. Some days were so overwhelming and sad that I simply sat on the floor and cried.
I felt guilty for feeling tired of waking up to tend to one of our Great Danes as he suffered from his bone cancer and leg amputation. I felt guilty for selling our family home. Everything hurt. I craved relief and release.
It is normal to experience a wide range of feelings when facing adversity and suffering. We are only human. Allow yourself room and time to feel what you feel – when you feel it.
Anger, sadness, frustration are acceptable responses. Let yourself feel them. However, do not churn on them or let them consume you or define you. Feel them – then let them go.
Tip: Let yourself be human. Take a mental health day (or two). Get out of the house – walk, exercise. Eat well. Ask yourself, “What would I tell someone else in my situation?” Then tell yourself that very thing. Be kind to yourself.
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9. Ask Yourself What Makes You Happy
Resilient people use positive emotions to rebound from, and find positive meaning in, stressful encounters (Tugade and Fredrickson, 2004, 1). Usually, in the middle of stressful situations or adversity, my happiness is not the first thing that comes to my mind.
Yet it is only when I ask myself what makes me happy that I discover what I need to cope with the stressful moments. It helps me isolate stress and remind myself that good things are still happening around – and to – me. Only then can I adapt and make a positive change.
Finding humor in difficult times seems equally unrealistic. Yet it extends a lifeline for pulling oneself out of the potential mire. Time and again we see evidence that humor is a form of “active coping” which contributes to resilience and to attracting social support (Wu, 2013, 7). I know it works.
Despite being bald and in menopause at 42, I realized that it is acceptable to laugh in spite of (never at) even a situation as difficult as cancer. I even hung a Tiki Bar sign on my chemo pole. It had little “open” and “closed” tabs which I would flip to “closed” when I took a nap. It even drew smiles and chuckles from other patients.
Tip: Ask yourself, “What makes me smile? What lights my fire?” Laugh and smile every day. Find the humor. It is a lifeline. Latch onto it.
10. Surrender Control
Hearing things like “It’s cancer” quickly makes one realize how little we humans actually control in this world. I found it oddly liberating when I heard the words. I was relieved. I finally knew what I was facing, and I was ready to get to work.
Life’s adversities have taught me that acceptance is not an admission of failure. It is a mark of resilience. Only when we accept what we are given to face can we truly deal with it.
Repeatedly denying it, fighting the facts, or anticipating a particular outcome only prolongs the suffering. When we accept, we become still – if even for a moment. Then we can roll with whatever comes – and adapt, overcome and grow beyond it.
Tip: Accept that you cannot control what happens to you or around you. All you can control is your response to it. Decide to be better and to rise above a negative response to your current setback(s).
Life throws us many curves – sometimes fast, furious and all at once; some as a trickle. We all get a turn at bat. It is difficult to resist the temptation to throw up our hands, scream, “Why me?!” and give up.
Simply accepting the curve balls for what they are is the first step toward stripping power away from the adversity. Developing empathy and thinking about what you would do in other people’s shoes develops your own awareness and resilience. Start thinking about how you would react if… – and grow from there.
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