How I Learned to Be Resilient Without Even Knowing It: Three Lessons

How I Learned to Be Resilient Without Even Knowing It: Three Lessons

This year, the Thanksgiving holiday was meant to be verrrry relaxing.  My golden plan was to sit back, unwind, have a few drinks, hang with the family and regroup. The plan was this holiday would relieve the stress that built up over the past several months. My father had received a Parkinson’s diagnosis.  Then my father-in-law received a diagnosis of cancer.  And then the election of Trump to the U.S. presidency put the total brakes on a campaign I had started to build with my colleagues to protect our oceans from oil spills.    I was like, “Whaaaattt the hell?!”

So, by the time Thanksgiving rolled around, I had decided I had enough.  No more bad news!

Except there is this little thing about life I keep forgetting.  Life (or-Insert-Your-Expletive) Happens.

So only a few days before Thanksgiving, my mother received the terrible news she had brain cancer.

But what surprised me the most was how I handled this most recent news.  In the past, I would fallen apart.  I would have felt shattered by the news. You might have seen me crawl into bed for maybe a week.  I would have hosted a few more sob sessions with my friends.  And I would have certainly focused mostly on how life was soooooo unfair.

But astonishingly, this time was different.  During those initial days, as we received the diagnosis and supported my mom both before and after her brain surgery, I seemed to be coping better. The news this time didn’t feel nearly as traumatic and devastating.  I was better able to look at the positive developments that we were experiencing. I was turning to what I could make out of the situation.  I was focusing on how I could be helpful.  I was more grateful than I was ungrateful.  Unlike other times when I received hard news, I wanted to see the beauty amidst the darkness.   I was thinking more about what I could hope for – not about the possibility of more bad news.

I really surprised myself.

It wasn’t until now, a few weeks after her diagnosis, that I came to the realization that I had basically become more resilient. Resilience is largely defined by how we perceive and respond to negative situations. The fundamental question is. Do we succumb or do we overcome?

The great news is that people can learn resilience.  Apparently, I was one of those people.  In fact, some people become more resilient after a traumatic event – this something called post-traumatic growth.   And being more resilient means you are more generally happy.

In my case, I believe I had learned strategies by responding to other tough events.  Through trial and error, I figured out strategies that worked and didn’t work. And on that Thanksgiving week, I simply reached for tools that I knew worked for me. So I am sharing them with you here:

  1. I did not succumb to negative thinking (most of the time): We humans have something called a negativity bias which focuses us more on what is going wrong.  But in recent years, I have learned a new skill:  to stop automatically believing the thoughts going through my head.  So for example, my brain was bombarding me with heavy thoughts like, “This will take a toll on our family” or “I will lose my mom” Or “She will suffer.” But instead of believing these thoughts, I have taken the time to question them.  This helped me stop spiraling into negative and unproductive thinking.
  1. I allowed myself to feel sadness: In 2009, my father sustained a traumatic brain injury and despite all of my tears and sadness, became only recently aware that I had not fully processed the trauma of that event.  So this time, when my mom was diagnosed with cancer, I allowed myself to feel the total impact of that diagnosis.  I basically allowed myself to feel sad and disappointed.  Allowing myself to process the grief somehow made it easier on me that week.
  1. I connected with and leaned on others: In the past, I might have reached out to friends but more with an aim to re-hash how crappy things were.   But I had learned that this wasn’t a helpful strategy.  Now, when I connect with people about what is going on, I do it in a way that empowers me or helps me feel better.  So I have found ways to connect with others so I will gain strength from that connection.

These are just a few of the resilience strategies that are known to work.  Here’s to learning how to bounce back!

Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.    

– Helen Keller


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