5 steps to developing resilience

Jinny
8 min readMay 22, 2024

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Life will push us and yank us around all the time. What seemed stable and solid just yesterday, whether it was our work, relationships, health or even the ground we stand on, can be upended in the blink of an eye. We are left with the debris of our erstwhile lives, and a shattered confidence in our ability to move on from this.

In times like this, well-meaning platitudes don’t necessarily launch us out of our hopelessness and despair. Strong relationships and support networks can, and do help. An unexpected kiss from your little one, or, a supportive note from a friend, remind us of love and solidarity that we may have temporarily lost sight of.

Ultimately, however, we have to contend with ourselves. We need to dig deeper into our inner reserves, and rely on something inside of us that we can’t quite put a finger on, but know that it exists. Jungian psychology calls this deeper knowing the Self (not to be confused with the small self). Other spiritualities and wisdom traditions may recognise this Self as the Buddha nature, the Divine, Tao, Brahman, God, Consciousness and so on. This inner wellspring provides us with hope and resilience when our small self is feeling lost and unmoored.

As a psychotherapist, I see hopelessness and despair in my consulting room all the time. I see my clients struggle, making every effort to climb out of this pit. Truly, no one comes to therapy if they didn’t know about something inside them that bears hope for their suffering. This source however, has probably dried up temporarily, and needs some water and nourishment — some gentle, caring support — from within and without. As my clients start to acquire some level of mastery in the ideas and skills outlined in this article, I bear witness to the growing level of confidence they start to feel in themselves. Through a deeper self-understanding, they find themselves rebounding from adversity and stress, and moving towards a future, perhaps, as yet unimagined.

The list below is not an exhaustive one. As you’re reading it, you might push back and/or add other points that make sense to you. The idea of writing an article like this is to get one to start thinking, feeling and sensing what it evokes in one, leaving space for integrating your own truth and wisdom.

This work is best done with the help of a skilled therapist, coach, mentor, guide or in relationship with another trusted person who can companion you in your journey of developing greater awareness. It can be enhanced by meditation, breathwork, movement, dance, plant medicine or other modalities that may be helpful in connecting with one’s mind, body and spirit.

So, let’s get the ball rolling…

“If you want to awaken all of humanity, then awaken all of yourself. If you want to eliminate the suffering in the world, then eliminate all that is dark and negative in yourself. Truly, the greatest gift you have to give is that of your own self-transformation.”

Lao Tzu

1. Developing greater mindfulness

Imagine a world in which your attention is fully present to what is arising in your field of awareness, moment by moment. You are no longer exerting a herculean amount of energy into controlling, restricting, restraining or forcing experience to fit a desired outcome. These different ways in which we try to manage our experience, consciously or unconsciously, is a way of protecting us from that which does not conform with (or is, indeed, antithetical to) our worldview, including how we see ourselves.

Training our attention to become more present to our experience as it is occurring now can, at first, feel challenging. It asks of us to turn our attention away from a pleasant fantasy or daydream to re-directing it to, perhaps, an unpleasant experience. However, as we start strengthening our mindfulness muscle, we find ourselves living life in techni-colour. Tasks that previously felt dull and mundane now acquire a richness and detail that infuse our lives with greater joy and meaning. We are also more able to shift our attention from thoughts that do not serve us to becoming more present, in our bodies, for example. We start becoming more insightful in the various habitual, self-defeating ways in which our mind reacts to impermanent, rapidly changing experience.

According to Tibetan Buddhism, the deepest levels of realisation are predicated on the two wings of wisdom and compassion. As we start becoming more aware of situations which throw us off-centre in some way, there is greater spaciousness to bring compassion and warmth to our experiencing. Whether it’s through laying our hands on the part of the body that needs some attention, speaking with a friend or a loved one, saying a prayer or participating in an activity that soothes our nervous system, we are now engaging both the wings simultaneously.

2. Recognising our inner critic

The most important dialogue we can have, is the one with ourselves. As we begin this journey of self-awareness, we start noticing how we talk to ourselves. We start becoming aware of this constantly chattering voice inside our heads. Depending on our early environments, the tone of this voice can vary widely. Some of us who had highly critical early or neglectful caregivers, might have an inner voice that feels blaming, punishing and cruel. For example, getting late for work one morning, this voice might sound like: ‘you stupid person, you should have woken up when the alarm went off the first time’; struggling to say something to a stranger in a social gathering, the voice may add insult to injury with a torrent of self-shaming, finger wagging insults. Would we talk to our friends, or even a stranger, that way?

The ‘inner critic’, as this inner voice is popularly known, is a person’s inner moral police, hypervigilant to mistakes and failure. Look out for those ‘should’ laden inner messages: ‘you should have known better’, ‘you should have done better’, ‘you should be better’ and so on. Contrary to what one believes about its effectiveness as a tool for self-development and growth, this negative inner voice only keeps us locked in a state of anxiety and fear.

I find Kristin Neff’s work on self-compassion the most effective antidote here. Neff and colleagues speak of three essential components to self-compassion: treating oneself with kindness (as you would a friend), rather than with harsh judgement; seeing oneself as part of a larger humanity, rather than an isolated individual, and in that, recognising that life is imperfect and so are we; and last, but not least, cultivating mindfulness where we are able to allow ourselves to ‘be’ with painful feelings as they are, rather than suppressing or overidentifying with them. The invitation here is to look out for opportunities in our day-to-day lives to practice greater self-compassion.

3. Navigating our personal boundaries

Do you find yourself saying yes when you actually mean no?

Do you find yourself thinking about or prioritising other people’s needs, often at the expense of your own?

Do you feel resistant to asking for help, such that you’d rather take on more than your fair share of work?

The behaviours above signal a lack of effective boundaries, negatively impacting one’s energy and time such that they can leave a person feeling resentful, exhausted, and unable to care for themselves. We need boundaries because ‘healthy boundaries are key to living a fulfilled, empowered and self-directed life’, according to expert Terry Cole whose book Boundary Boss is a must read for anyone and everyone.

‘Boundaries’ is a dirty word in some cultures. I get it. I come from one such culture. Until I started acknowledging and asserting my own boundaries, I harboured a false dilemma that they separated us from each other. My own resistance, albeit understandable, came from an imagined or real loss of relationships, a withdrawal of love from those who didn’t appreciate my boundaries.

Fast forward a few years, what did I learn? I have learned that it was critical for me to understand my own limits or what I was comfortable with at the physical, emotional, psychological, energetic levels.

Until I started learning about my own limits, I could not, with any confidence, say no to others. Once I started developing a more realistic understanding of what I could or could not do (or, would or would not do), whether it was to do with the demands on my time or energy, saying no started becoming a lot easier. As a bonus, it allowed others to be able to say no as well, bringing a much-welcomed directness in the relationship. I believe implementing healthy boundaries is an act of kindness and compassion to ourselves and others.

4. Knowing and integrating our ‘shadow’

We’ve heard this word thrown around so much in mainstream and social media. We may have some sense of it, and still find it hard to grok how it applies to our lives. One of the best ways to recognise one’s shadow is to notice situations that get a rise out of you. This is different for everybody. But look out for situations where you feel triggered in some way, when you experience a surge of anger, jealousy, hatred or other powerful emotions. When you witness unfairness or somebody acting selfish, greedy, racist, manipulative or lazy; talking over or down to somebody, acting sneaky, stealing something, shining in some way, hogging a conversation, or any myriad number of ways that get your back up.

These situations give us a clue to undesirable feelings or emotions that we may not be ready to own in ourselves. We readily project them on to others, as doing so restores a state of internal balance. It doesn’t mean that the other person is not angry or greedy or hateful in that moment — they probably provide us a viable ‘hook’ for our triggers. However, instead of taking a beat to see how we’ve been triggered, we slam these uncomfortable feelings on to the other person as it’s easier to put them onto others than to reckon with the possibility that these qualities exist in us too.

Integrating one’s shadow is a fancy way of saying that we start locating the same qualities that we abhor in others in ourselves. Once we are able to start noticing that, we might be more forgiving when we see it in others. We don’t have to condone bad behaviours, but can we make some space for the fact that being human means being messy and flawed.

5. Developing a relationship with our body

As children, many of us had to deal with challenging early environments by coming up with creative solutions: being quiet or retreating to our rooms when an emotionally unpredictable parent walked through the door, people pleasing to get our needs for attention and love met, working really hard in school to get praise, putting up great acts of self-sufficiency to detract negative attention and so on. The list is almost as long as the number of situations we have felt powerless in. The adaptive strategies that we adopted, as our best efforts to take care of ourselves, meant that we were often in sustained states of hyper-vigilance, our nervous systems primed for the slightest sign of threat.

Unconsciously or consciously, we ended up privileging our minds over our immediate, embodied experience in order to find some measure of safety. Most of us continue carrying this vague sense of threat to this day, long after the events that made us feel powerless have passed. Additionally, modern society with its overemphasis on productivity and growth celebrates a doing rather than a being mindset.

The medicine prescribed here, is to shift the focus of attention back to the body, gently and courageously, so one can slowly start coming back into the present moment. When anxious thoughts take hold, instead of continuing the ruminative cycle, the invitation is to bring the attention back to one’s breath, following its gentle in and out movement. If following the breath feels challenging, one could tune into the surrounding sounds, or feel the soles of one’s feet on the ground, the smell of something pleasant, or a myriad of other ways to come back into the body. This is a lifelong practice, and like any practice, it gets easier and more rewarding with time.

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Jinny
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A psychotherapist and mother, who lives in London, UK.