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By Dr. Lise Deguire
Resilience seemed to be the word of 2020.
It was a tough year for everyone, with COVID, economic turmoil, and the bitter election.
Everywhere you looked, you saw articles about resilience and encouragement to be more resilient. Heck, even the SpaceX Spacecraft that launched in late fall was named Resilience. But what is resilience anyway?
In some ways, I have been studying resiliency all my life. As a four-year-old, I was burned in a devastating fire, leaving me with a wrecked face and third-degree burn scars on two-thirds of my little body. I had upwards of 50 reconstructive operations, each one excruciating, and spent much of my childhood alone in a children’s hospital. When at home, I suffered from bullying, social ostracism, and parental neglect.
My parents were loving but so dysfunctional that there were four family suicides.
Despite all this, somehow, I am successful, cheerful, and well-loved. Decades later, I am living a beautiful life as a psychologist, author, blogger, wife, mother, and devoted friend.
How did this happen? What is the mystery that we call resilience? And how can you be a more resilient person?
Resilience is the capacity to bounce back from misfortune. It is the ability to suffer devastation and to recover with strength. There are many aspects to resiliency, some of which are fixed. For example, there is a genetic component that is inborn and cannot be changed. There are also economic aspects of resiliency. Well-off people usually live in safer communities, have more resources, and have financial access to better health and mental health care, which improves their chances of recovery.
However, there are six characteristics of resiliency that we can all work on and improve in the New Year, regardless of our gene pool or the size of our bank accounts. As a psychologist, I am most interested in these six areas, because they are skills, skills that anyone can develop, with help and diligence.
I developed a mnemonic for the six areas, known as G.O.A.L.S + M.M.
G. is for Gratitude
Being grateful is a mind-set. Gratitude helps us pay attention to the aspects of our life that are positive, instead of focusing on our frustrations, which is what our minds naturally do. Even during hard times, blessings are almost always there if you stop and notice them. You can practice gratitude daily by making a point to notice what is going well in your life. Some tune into gratitude through prayer or by keeping a gratitude journal. When you focus on gratitude, you will likely notice your body relaxing, your face smiling, and your mood improving.
O. is for Optimism
By optimism, I do not mean forced cheerfulness. I think we need to be honest about our problems, and to express our concerns. Just the same, it is important to visualize some positive outcomes and to have hope for the future. Hope has impressive power. If we can’t even imagine positive scenarios, we are less likely to work to make those positive scenarios happen.
A. is for Active Coping
In the midst of crises, there is usually something a person can to do help themself. Active copers are good at figuring out small ways to help themselves feel better. Sometimes the only variable we have control over is self-care. When I work with people devastated by the loss, which is often where I start, reminding them to eat nutritious meals, and to get a little exercise. By focusing on these small but important steps, people often find they do feel a little better, giving them the strength to endure their crisis. Keep moving forward – even if in small ways.
L. is for Love
Resilient people are usually people who are loved by others. But sometimes, the family we are born into isn’t particularly loving or helpful. And sometimes, our friends and family disappoint us. One aspect of resiliency is to be able to notice the people around us who are positive and caring, and not to overly focus on those who fail us. Notice and nurture those close connections.
S. is for Social Skills
Good relationships are the most important component of a happy life. Resilient people are good at forming new relationships and keeping the ones they have. They are skilled listeners, polite and empathic. They can tolerate frustration graciously. They know when to hold their tongue, and when to politely assert themselves. Social skills, like the other components of G.O.A.L.S. + M.M., can be learned, developed, and improved. Connect with others using your best skills.
M.M. is for Meaning Making
One aspect of resilient recovery is the ability to make some meaning out of one’s suffering. It is psychologically vital to be able to look back on difficulties and to find something about the struggle that was worthwhile. Perhaps your experience taught you to be more empathic? Perhaps your trauma helped you be more generous and charitable? Perhaps, like me, you use your trauma history to connect with others who are going through difficulties. As a survivor of multiple trauma, it fills my heart to connect with others who are suffering now, to help them feel less alone, and to inspire them to keep going.
All of the skills in G.O.A.L.S. + M.M (Gratitude, Optimism, Active Coping, Love, Social Skills, and Meaning Making), are skills we can work on and develop. If you find your own best efforts are not enough, consider seeing a psychologist or therapist to help support your growth. They can help. That is the good news; resilience can be fostered and strengthened.
And wouldn’t it be great if, after this devastating year, we all emerged as stronger, hardier souls? That could be the best outcome 2020 could provide.
Reprinted with Permission
Dr. Lise Deguire is a clinical psychologist in private practice, and author of Flashback Girl: Lessons on Resilience From a Burn Survivor. For more information, please visit, www.lisedeguire.com.