Kate James is a successful coach, meditation teacher, speaker and writer. Here she shares the secrets behind resilience and how you can harness its power.
The following is an excerpt from her new book – Build Resilience Free Yourself From Fear.
What is resilience?
Resilience is a type of mental fortitude. It can simply mean having the ability to say ‘no’ to a request or demand without feeling guilty. It might mean embracing vulnerability, or choosing to adapt to change instead of rejecting it. Or it could be having the courage to pursue the life of your dreams.
Resilience lives in the small moments as well as the big. It’s in standing your ground when you feel you’ve been taken advantage of. It’s in feeling equipped to receive negative feedback at work without dwelling on it too much. It’s in the ability to accept responsibility for something, and then having the courage to address it or apologise for it.
Outlining a clear definition of resilience is a helpful place to start when figuring out why you want to improve on it. What does resilience mean to you? Is it an openness to change? A willingness to be vulnerable? The courage to try something new and unknown?
Or is it grit and gumption? Is it going into battle knowing full well you’ll come out with scars? Is it failing and feeling okay about it – good, even?
Start by defining resilience for yourself.
What it isn’t
It’s easy to mistake resilience for stoicism, indifference or resolute doggedness. It’s often misrepresented in sayings like ‘tough as nails’ or ‘like a brick wall’ – concepts that suggest immunity or invincibility. It’s important to be clear on what resilience is, but it’s equally important to be clear on what it isn’t.
A resilient person isn’t someone who shrugs things off. A resilient person isn’t someone who marches through life with a stiff upper lip. Resilience is not disconnection or a rejection of accountability, and it’s certainly not hiding from emotion.
Instead, a resilient person is someone who is resourceful and reflective. They know their best asset is their support network. They identify and address their limits and boundaries. They embrace risk-taking and emotional exposure.
Resilient people don’t endure challenges. They don’t avoid disappointment. They’re proactive, they cope, and then they bounce back, better than before.
Resilience is an incredible thing – a source of enormous comfort and confidence – but it isn’t a trait that is easily or instantly achievable, and building it is not normally something you can manage alone.
If you’re someone who balks at opening up to people, or fears showing weakness, it might be worthwhile to reflect on why you feel this way. Perhaps there are traumas in your past that are obstructing you and your ability to connect with those around you. In this case, seek one-on-one support.
In order to be clear about what you’re trying to achieve, dedicate some time to jotting down your thoughts on what you believe the opposite of resilience to be.
It’s common to feel fenced-in at work or bored with your industry. You might feel staved for professional growth or stagnated in a role. There are positive risks you can take to enhance your overall professional confidence and fulfilment. These ideas involve stepping outside your comfort zone and taking the lead in new ways.
- Pitch an idea at a meeting
- Volunteer to represent your workplace at a conference
- Be more assertive and stand your ground
- Claim credit for your ideas and efforts
- When the time is right, ask for a raise
- Seek professional development opportunities
If you feel you have already honed your confidence at work but still feel unhappy in your role, the problem might be stress related. Workplace stress can significantly impact on your health and overall wellbeing but there are steps you can take to address these issues and improve your working life.
- Open a dialogue with your HR manager
- Suggest programs and initiatives to combat stress and responsibility overload
- Report behaviour you find troubling or inappropriate
If you feel you have a calling outside your current profession, dedicate some time to exploring it. It’s never too late to completely change direction!
- Re-train by returning to higher education – start by researching universities and the courses they offer
- Take the steps to open your own business – start by attending a small business seminar and researching the industry
- If you have creative potential, pursue it seriously – enrol in night classes and trust your support network to give you constructive feedback
We all fear rejection and exclusion in our personal lives. Despite the innate desire we have to protect ourselves from it, personal vulnerability is one way to engage in risk-taking in which the stakes are relatively low and easy to recover from.
Personal risk-taking is an excellent way to test the boundaries of your resilience. Many people struggle when it comes to seeking connection. When we take the plunge and reach out, however, the results are often pleasantly surprising. After all, we’re all human. We all crave strong friendships, positive feedback, regular validation and affection when we can get it.
People often shy away from organising social events out of fear that only a handful of people will turn up. If you struggle with social anxiety and the fear of rejection then give this a try: when your birthday comes around, organise a celebration at your home or a venue and invite a few reliable friends. Just two or three. Do it again the next year and invite a few more. Take this calculated risk and use it to learn about yourself and the people in your life.
Depending on what you’re seeking in terms of strengthening your own personal resilience, consider giving these risks a go.
- If you’re single and interested in a relationship, set up a dating profile or take action to become more socially active.
- Say yes to meeting up with someone you’ve connected with online. Scarier still, encourage your friends to set you up with someone they know. Providing you do this in a public place with your own safety in mind, what’s the worst that could happen?
- Initiate a brand new friendship. Ask a colleague to have a drink after work, or strike up a conversation with someone in your community who you wouldn’t ordinarily speak to. Follow through when you agree to catch up again.
- Try opening up a conversation with a friend who has wronged you or who is a source of negativity in your life.
- Challenge yourself to the bravery of standing up to someone who brings you down. Organise your thoughts before speaking to them and do it with empathy and compassion in mind.
Our lives are more interconnected now than ever before. We have a direct and immediate link to each other via our phones and devices and a more passive, constant view into each other’s lives through social media.
Ask yourself how you feel before and after using social media, when viewing the lives of friends, family and acquaintances. Several studies on the effects of social media have shown that people feel worse after viewing these platforms, and this is often because social media follows a show-reel format; it’s a ‘best of’. People typically don’t relay the small moments of sadness or frustration over social media, but instead announce their moments of success: a promotion, a move, travel, an engagement, the birth of a child etc.
It’s crucial to remember that for every wonderful moment, each and every person probably has at least ten low points they don’t advertise.
Attempt to reframe your challenging moments into something universal, despite the evidence suggesting otherwise.
- I am not the only person fighting with my partner. It just seems like it.
- I am not the only person overcoming illness. Everyone has to at some point.
- I am not the only person dealing with anxiety. It’s just not spoken about as much.
- I was not the only person who made a mistake at work today. It just feels that way.
- I’m not the only person who hasn’t gone on an overseas holiday this year. I’m one among many people who are too busy.
- I’m not the only one with a less-than-perfect body. It’s only the people who look like models who post photos of themselves.
- I’m not the only person spending a weekend on my own. I really do enjoy time alone and it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with me.
Offer yourself some comfort by acknowledging that most of our sensitivities and insecurities are universal. Be certain that you’re in abundant company, even if you never know it for sure.
The Inner Critic is something we develop at a young age to avoid unpleasant feelings like embarrassment, shame or inadequacy. It’s the voice in our head telling us not to do something because we aren’t good enough, smart enough, talented enough, popular enough etc. We do this in the interest of self-preservation. If we criticise ourselves first, it won’t feel so bad when we have to hear it from others.
Often our Inner Critics gives voice to unreasonable fears, to help us avoid things that, in reality, never come to pass. Particularly in adulthood, it’s rare that we’ll be openly laughed at for trying something new. Of course, that doesn’t mean the voice disappears.
When we hear about the pesky Inner Critic, tips on how to silence it often follow. However, the Inner Critic will continue to be with us whether we like it or not, so it helps if we can learn to accept it and continue regardless.
Train yourself to see your Inner Critic in the room, in the car with you, by your side during your moments of creativity and courage. Familiarise yourself with its presence and acknowledge it often.
When trying something new, let those detracting thoughts in, but don’t let them stay too long. Acknowledge their existence but also acknowledge that you can carry on despite them.
Find the positives
The ability to find positive outcomes from negative situations is an ideal way to speed up recovery time. Unfortunately, not everything in life can be dealt with in terms of trial and error and ‘friendly failing’. Sometimes we experience more significant instances of grief and tragedy.
In her book Option B, Sheryl Sandberg recounts the devastation of her husband’s sudden death. One of Sandberg’s most effective coping mechanisms was in telling herself how much worse things might have been. Her husband’s fatal heart attack could have come when he was driving their two children to school, but it didn’t, and in that Sandberg finds gratitude and strength. She appreciates how grief enabled her relationship with her children to deepen, and the ways in which they’ve adapted and grown.
You may not be able to do this right away, but in the wake of a difficult loss or hardship, practise resilience by attempting to find a possible positive – however small – to hold on to.
Consider these reframed negatives:
- Losing a parent has strengthened my bond with my siblings.
- Recovering from an injury has allowed me to see what a strong support network I have.
- Losing my job has given me the opportunity to re-evaluate what I really want from my career.
- Finding out that my partner was cheating on me made me realise we had lost our connection with one another. If this ever happens in a future relationship, I’ll address the situation openly rather than ignoring it.
- Suffering from depression has given me a different perspective on life and those who battle with mental illness.
Gently making room for positive outcomes in the face of extreme difficulty will go a long way toward your recovery, and to your happiness overall.
Be Kind To Yourself
In the midst of all these tips, it might be a good time to set aside your goals and fears and remind yourself that you’re only human. Resilience can’t be mastered in a day, or even in a few months. It’s a slow climb and, like anything, you must allow yourself a margin for error. You might be experiencing difficulty letting go of perfectionism, or struggling with the concept of embracing error with open arms. You might be failing at failing.
You don’t have to exercise resilience everyday. To offer yourself some respite, try the following:
- Spend time with a friend or family member who doesn’t challenge you, who only offers comfort and understanding.
- Take the time to do something you’re good at (great, even!) to give yourself a day off from having to bounce back.
- If it feels good, allow yourself to worry or indulge in something that brings you stress or sadness. Sometimes, all we need is an outlet for the negative emotions deep within us, so we may feel temporarily unburdened.
Make the time to give yourself a break when chipping away at self-doubt and fear, especially when you’re trying new things. If something really isn’t working for you, be sure to tell yourself it’s okay to step away. It’s not the end of the world to realise something isn’t for you, or that you need a little time off before you can tackle it once more.
No one can detract from your self-worth unless you give them permission and few people can build it the way you can. Your self-worth doesn’t exist unless you acknowledge that it does. The people in your life know you’re valuable and worthy, but self-worth relies on the fact that you know you deserve to exist as the flawed, layered, intricate individual you are.
When we think of the things that make us worthwhile, we tend to focus on what we do, rather than who we are. Attempt to separate your successes and failures from yourself by jotting down the ways in which you have inherent value and worth. Things that fall outside of career or personal achievements, like:
I enhance the lives of my friends.
I bring pride and joy to my family.
I make those around me laugh.
I offer love and compassion to my partner.
I administer care and guidance to my children.
I am supportive and responsive to my colleagues.
I contribute positively to my community.
Think kindly about yourself and others. Give compliments and positive affirmations to those around you and practise doing the same for yourself.
Your quirks and points of difference make you the person you are. In a perfect world we would all practise gratitude for the little things that make us individuals, the traits and qualities that set us apart. Instead, we tend to believe our imperfections should be hidden away or apologised for. We often fail to make a connection between the things we appreciate so much in others and the things we lament in ourselves.
When you’re in the company of people who bring you pleasure and joy, reflect on what it is about their company you enjoy. Sometimes we struggle to relate to those who seem outwardly perfect. We appreciate people who mess up, tell funny stories, laugh at themselves and openly discuss their mistakes and moments of clumsiness.
We love imperfect people because they give us permission to be ourselves.
Take that value and learn to apply it to yourself. You are interesting, layered, comforting and fun because of your imperfections, not despite them. Being imperfect is, without doubt, a very good thing.
Offer to Others
Along the way, extend kindness and generosity to others and offer to support them in their own moments of trial and error. As you continue to develop your hard-earned capacity for resilience, share your outlook and skills. Promote empathy and reach out when and where possible. Administer comfort and reassurance to those who need a little extra boost as they chase after their own goals.
Knowing exactly how to go about this can be tricky. We often fall back on sympathy or overly simplistic encouragement when someone we love is describing challenges and setbacks.
We tend to say things like ‘You’ll be fine’ or ‘Don’t worry’ when attempting to ease a loved one, but often these platitudes come across as empty to those working through real struggle. When someone is experiencing failure and disappointment, they really just want to know that the person across from them is tuning in to their emotions and standing by their side.
Consider empathetic responses which promote resilience and demonstrate support.
‘I’m here for you.’
‘When you’re ready to give it another shot, I’ll support you.’
‘I’m glad you’re trusting me with this.’
‘We’ll get through it together.’
You Are Enough
Understanding the power of positive reinforcement is one thing, but putting it into frequent practice is another. For many of us, the prospect of standing in front of the mirror and vocalising praise can feel slightly foolish or immodest.
Push through the resistance that comes with saying encouraging statements to yourself and do it as frequently as possibly. Put aside five minutes after you brush your teeth in the morning, or before you jump in the shower at night to reaffirm your great qualities and strengths.
If you’re someone who struggles with this, there’s a manageable all-encompassing alternative. You don’t even need to say it aloud. Just think it quietly and think it often.
‘I am enough, just as I am.’
In taking risks and putting your faith in trial and error, it’s imperative to tell yourself that you are enough; enough to fall down and get back up; enough to forgive and to apologise; enough to reach out to your support network and enough to know your own self-worth.
Before you take risks and try new things, take a moment to tell yourself ‘I am enough.’ Approach your challenge head on and think ‘I’ll give this a try. I’ll put aside my fear and doubt, and I’ll try. I may fail but I know I’ll bounce back.’
Kate James is a successful coach, meditation teacher, speaker and writer. Kate helps her clients discover their values and innate strengths and guides them toward purposeful, meaningful lives. She is the author of Change How You Think & Be Happier Now, Be Mindful and Simplify Your Life, Believe in Yourself and Do What You Love and The Mindfulness Journal.