Rising Through Resilience: Dr Noelle Nelson On The Five Things You Can Do To Become More Resilient During Turbulent Times
An Interview With Savio P. Clemente
Develop your anchors — Anchors are those activities and communities that hold purpose and meaning for you. I call them “anchors” because they are literally what anchor you to life. Among my anchors were my “framily,” friends who are so close they became my family. My church and church community were also anchors, not only because of my many friendships there but also because of the sheer physical activity of going to church every Sunday whether I felt like it or not. Singing in the choir whether I felt like it or not. Mercifully, this was pre-pandemic when we attended church in person.
Resilience has been described as the ability to withstand adversity and bounce back from difficult life events. Times are not easy now. How do we develop greater resilience to withstand the challenges that keep being thrown at us? In this interview series, we are talking to mental health experts, authors, resilience experts, coaches, and business leaders who can talk about how we can develop greater resilience to improve our lives.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Noelle Nelson.
Dr. Noelle Nelson is a California-based psychologist, consultant and speaker who is passionate about personal growth and happiness. She’s authored over a dozen books including Phoenix Rising — Surviving Catastrophic Loss: Fires, Floods, Hurricanes and Tornadoes, Amazon. In it, she explores the trauma of losing everything in a disaster — the photos and memorabilia of a lifetime — how to survive the immediate aftermath and how to find the strength to start a new chapter in life. Nelson writes from experience — her home was destroyed in the 2018 Woolsey fire in Southern California.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory?
I am an introvert. A genuine, died in the wool, introvert. Which now is an acceptable personality trait, but when I was growing up, it wasn’t. I was the class nerd (aka geek), because to boot, I’d been skipped a grade, so I was a year younger than everyone else. And due no doubt to the very strict upbringing by my French mother, I also got better grades than everyone else. Add to this my habit of avoiding all sports by hiding somewhere on the school grounds and reading to my heart’s content. The “in group” would poke fun at me, but other than that, would have nothing to do with me. Which didn’t bother my introvert self one whit.
What my classmates didn’t realize, of course, was that although I wasn’t one of “them,” I observed them attentively, critically, quasi-clinically, and from that, developed the skills that later would serve me so well; as a clinical psychologist, trial consultant, author and screenwriter. Such are the vagaries of childhood.
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
My career, or “careers” more accurately, has developed over the years through a series of twists and turns, few of them predictable, all of them fascinating. One of my first jobs (after the usual beginner jobs of sales clerk and receptionist) was as executive assistant to one “Miss Bluebell,” a wonderful woman who recruited, trained, rehearsed and provided the world with many of its stellar chorus dancers, in such renowned facilities as the Lido in Paris, France, the Stardust in Las Vegas, the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, and others in far-flung Tokyo and Barcelona.
I worked in Paris, Miss Bluebell’s home base. The Lido was transitioning to a computer-based stage-lighting system (this tells you how long ago it was!), and the lighting designer was an Englishman, with tremendous talent, but virtually no French. Who would assist the great man in his work?
Miss Bluebell announced, without consulting me, “Noelle can do it!” “Noelle” didn’t know lighting, certainly not computers, and was terrified. Nonetheless, I assisted the designer, learned an awful lot about stage lighting, to where I later became the assistant stage manager who ran light cues.
“Noelle can do it!” became the leitmotif of my many different professional endeavors. Various mentors, teachers and others would arbitrarily decide that I could undertake something, and despite my protestations, would insist until I would reluctantly agree, which always turned out to be something truly wonderful. “Noelle can do it!” was how I ended up becoming an acting coach, conducting my first seminar for lawyers, and how I was poked into writing my first book, among other adventures.
What I learned is that life is an unfolding story, not a single set-in-stone chapter. I finally stopped resisting the “Noelle can do it” syndrome, and learned that if life offered me a new opportunity, I should graciously accept it and do my best, no matter how impossible it might seem. Which is the basis of my success, and certainly of my fulfillment.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
As a trial consultant, I have developed my own unique ways of preparing witnesses for deposition and trial, recruiting (with the help of staff) and conducting focus groups pre-trial, and assessing who might be the most sympathetic juror for a given case. As well as revising opening statements and other such.
It is these techniques that make my work stand out because they have proven to be of significant benefit to the attorneys I work with, which in turn leads them to consult with me over and over again.
All of my work is “privileged and confidential,” so I am not free to share a story, much as I would like to.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
My mother. Although a naturalized American citizen, who loved our country dearly, my mother was French to her very core. Parisian, actually. She was exacting, highly critical, whip-smart and expected perfection from her two daughters. Dad, whom I adored, went along with her every decision. He was known to say to gardeners and others, “Whatever the lady wants.”
For example, I vividly remember getting an “A-“ grade in some high school class, and my mother, livid, waving the report card in my face: “What is this? An “A-“? Why not an “A”? Or an “A+”?!” It was useless to tell mother that it was the only minus on the report card, the rest were all “As” — standard fare for a nerd. Or that “A+” did not exist in our school system. She was furious. I had disappointed her, and that was unacceptable.
If my mother had merely insisted on perfection, I would not have grown up to be the happy successful camper that I am. My mother also instilled in me the profound conviction that I could be anything I wanted to be. Which in that era was rare. Girls were expected to become nurses or secretaries, not physicians or CEOs. But my mother stated that I could be President of the United States, if that’s what I wanted. She meant it, and I believed her.
She didn’t just talk her support, she demonstrated it. When at eight or nine years old, I expressed an interest in biology. My mother promptly bought the best kid’s microscope available, and allowed me to litter her otherwise pristine dinette table with bits of mud, grass, dirty water, dead insects, and anything else I could fit on a slide. Without a word of complaint.
A year or so later, I decided I wanted to be a symphony conductor. Without hesitation, my mother found someone among her friends who knew someone in one of the Hollywood studio music departments, who was able to obtain a used conductor’s baton from the famed composer/conductor Alfred Newman. Just so I could stand in our living room, waving the baton with great glee, to hours of classical music. The fact that I never pursued either vocation bothered my mother not at all. She was teaching me, in her inimitable way, that I really could be whatever I wanted. An incredibly valuable lesson.
Without my mother’s unwavering support, I would not have had the internal fortitude to be the solo professional I have always been. A successful acting coach, clinical psychologist and trial consultant. I would never have withstood the rejection first-time authors (even published authors) receive, much less the rejection screenwriters receive.
I would never have undertaken competitive ballroom dancing at 70 years young.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?
A Japanese proverb states: “Fall down seven times, get up eight.” To my way of thinking, that is a perfect way to define resilience. Resilient people are those individuals who refuse to let life’s bumps and hurdles get the best of them. Resilient people have what I think of as the “MacGyver” mindset; “Gotta be a way!” Like the MacGyver TV character, resilient people find a way to change course, to re-think a situation, to paper-clip, duct-tape and somehow engineer their way beyond a crisis. Resilient people tend not only to “get up eight,” but to get up on that eighth time better, stronger, and happier than before they fell down. Metaphorically or otherwise.
Courage is often likened to resilience. In your opinion how is courage both similar and different to resilience?
Courage comes from the French word for heart; coeur. Courage, to me, is the ability or willingness to “take heart,” to commit fully to whatever life demands of us. It is not to be fearless, but rather to not let fear stop us.
Courage, I think, is a character trait one often develops before the need for resilience makes itself known. Courage informs resilience. Resilient people are at their core courageous, as they commit fully to whatever they must do to resolve a situation. Simply put, you couldn’t get up on that “eighth time” if you weren’t able to commit fully to what it takes to do so.
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
When I researched my book “Happy Healthy. . . Dead: Why What You Think You Know About Aging is Wrong and How to Get It Right,” I kept coming across people in their 70s, 80s, 90s, even 100s, who were happy, healthy and thriving. It distressed me that our society so often ignores these vibrant, courageous individuals who prove just how terrific those later years can be. Thus the birth of the Facebook page, “Meet The Amazings” in 2016.
Since then, I have had the privilege of celebrating over 500 amazing seniors who are all prime examples of resilience.
For example, Ida Keeling, who at 103 was celebrated by Whoopi Goldberg on “The View,” for breaking the record for the 60-meter dash. This after having become — at the tender age of 100 — the first woman in history of her years to complete a 100-meter, with a time of 1:17.33. That in and of itself is astonishing. But consider that Ida took up running at 67, to help her out of feeling depressed over life’s blows: her two sons were murdered in 1978 and 1980, respectively, and her husband when he was only 42. Ida got up more than once after those horrific events, demonstrating her resilience, and continued running competitively long after the events, which shows how fully she committed was to the sport, and to her own well-being. A courageous woman, indeed.
Or how about Joao Carlos Martins, considered one of the world’s most accomplished classical pianists, in particular with his interpretation of Bach, who had an unfortunate series of accidents, degenerative disease, surgeries, and traumatic injury to his hands. With only partial use of his hands, for many years, Joao could only conduct, and finally that too looked increasingly impossible. However, with the help of a friend who developed for Joao a specially configured pair of bionic gloves, Joao has been able to return to his beloved piano, at 80 years young, playing with all 10 fingers, for the first time in two decades.
Joao’s resilience was demonstrated through his continual adaptation to his deteriorating hands; from piano playing to conducting to accepting the challenge of playing with bionically assisted hands. No matter how horrifically his hands were impaired, Joao stayed true to his musicianship, always finding a way to engage with it. And yes, that took full heart-felt commitment also, thus courage.
Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us?
More than once. Many times, actually. But one that stands out is how my first book, “A Winning Case: How to Use Persuasive Communication Techniques for Successful Trial Work,” got published 30 years ago. I had never written a book before, never even published so much as a short story, and had somehow missed the creative writing classes in high school and college. I was told repeatedly, by well-meaning friends and others, that there was no chance I would get published. Plus, I’d only been a trial consultant for about three years at that point, so I was still largely unknown professionally. It was clearly impossible.
Nonetheless, I boldly sent my manuscript to as many publishers as I thought might have an interest in a legal topic. Rejection letters came, right on cue, one after another. Thirty-five of them to be exact. I’d been an actor and was still an acting coach at the time, so rejection was part and parcel of life. I wasn’t going to let something as mundane as rejection stop me.
And then, the magic happened! I received a phone call from a very prestigious publisher, Prentice-Hall. The gist of the conversation was “You can’t write worth spit. But we like your idea, so we are going to assign you an editor, and if you can come up with a decent Chapter One in the next few months, we will consider publishing you.”
I was in heaven. I endured with joy the red slash marks through the manuscript and the multitudinous critical comments because it meant I had a chance! Impossible, here we come. I wrote, and rewrote, and learned, and learned some more, and eventually the impossible became — possible.
Over 15 published books later, as well as chapters in two “Chicken Soup for the Soul” books, I credit that phenomenal editor at Prentice-Hall for whatever writing skills I now lay claim to.
Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?
In November of 2018, my home and everything in it were utterly, completely destroyed during the Woolsey fire that devastated Southern California. It was my dream home, where I spent 18 glorious years. The house was not literally a tear-down when I purchased it, but close. It required a lot of fixing up, starting with a new roof, replacing multiple shattered windows, installing girders under the sinking living room. The list goes on. I undertook the work with joy, doing as much as I could myself over a period of 10 years, for the house had what I craved. It was set one mile up a hill, 2.2 miles inland, with a 180-degree view of the ocean, and nothing but state park between my home and the beach. An introvert’s dream.
So when the fire took it all overnight, I was not only in shock but without, well, everything. Not just the photos and memorabilia of my 71 years, but the basics of existence: t-shirts, socks, pots and pans, towels, a bed, q-tips, literally everything. All that remained were the car I evacuated in with my two dogs, my laptop, and a small box of my mother’s jewelry, more sentimental than valuable.
But what I discovered through the experience, was that although I had nothing, as in “no thing,” I had everything. I had the love of my friends, my “framily,” I had the unending support of my ballroom community, my ballet community, my church, the lawyers I worked with, and the amazing, astonishing support of perfect strangers. Those I came to think of as strangers who are perfect.
Which is how I came out of the experience stronger and better than ever. How my resilience, tested and honed over the years, came to the fore. How it enabled me to, in a sense, “pay it forward,” with my book “Phoenix Rising: Surviving Catastrophic Loss — Fires, Floods, Hurricanes and Tornadoes.”
How have you cultivated resilience throughout your life? Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?
I did not cultivate resilience so much as I developed it, first unknowingly, through childhood, and then purposefully, throughout my life.
My parents didn’t accept complaining or whining. Dad, a WWII U.S. vet, didn’t see the point. My mother simply refused it. For example, I started taking weekly piano lessons at age six. By the time I was eight or nine, I was to practice one hour after school, every day. Sometimes I would get bored or daydream and my hands would drift off the keys. After a few minutes of silence, I would hear my mother call out from another room, “I don’t hear you practicing!” I would whine, “My hands are cold!” She’d reply, “Go to the bathroom and run some hot water over them.” That was how mother approached any whining, complaining, or self-pity. She’d ignore the whine, and poke me into proactive problem-solving.
It wasn’t until much later in life that I realized what a gift she’d given me. Not complaining and looking for solutions became a habit, a way of dealing with life’s challenges. One that has stood me in good stead, because although I certainly have moments of self-pity and whining, they tend to be short-lived. What I now know to be my resilience kicks in fairly quickly, and off I go, into the land of “Gotta be a way” into something better.
Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.
1. Develop an optimistic mindset.
An optimistic mindset is usually described as “seeing the glass half-full” rather than half-empty. Same half, different perspective. “Half-full” is a hopeful and confident attitude about life. Why does developing such a mindset matter?
Simply put, optimists thrive. Extensive research has shown that optimists consistently tend to do better, be healthier, live longer, and recover from setbacks more quickly than pessimists. They are truly resilient.
You don’t have to be born an optimist to become one. I certainly wasn’t. But you can practice seeing the world through an optimist’s eyes until you get good at it. Working with “The Optimists Creed” is a great way to start.
2. Appreciate what is.
It can be really difficult to appreciate anything when in crisis mode. But finding something to appreciate about your present awful situation is critical to resilience. It doesn’t mean if you have cancer you should appreciate the cancer! Hardly. That would be cruel. But you can appreciate that you have, for example, a family or friends who care, medical treatments and personnel who are available, or a faith that sustains you.
The more you appreciate in your ordinary life, the easier it is to engage the awesome power of appreciation when things get wonky. For months after the fire, when I didn’t know where I would live next, how I’d be able to care for my dogs, how I could continue to pay a mortgage on a burnt-out home as well as afford rent, I would repeat to myself “Safe, warm and dry.” I could appreciate that. For right then, in the moment, as long as I and my dogs were “safe, warm and dry,” all was well.
3. Everything is different now.
We humans don’t like change. We usually resist it with all our might, and yet change is inevitable. When big change sweeps your world out from under you, it’s beyond challenging.
To this day, almost three years after the fire, I still have to remind myself from time to time, that “everything is different now.” To not look for that first picture of my baby sister, a cherished family heirloom, gifts from friends, the whatever, lost in the fire. Not even in my mind. To release the past and accept this different present and what will be an even more different future.
Resilience is only possible when you release your hold on what was, and step fully into what is, however different it may be. You can teach yourself how to release the past, for example, by practicing letting go of small slights and hurts more quickly. By letting go of beliefs or opinions that no longer serve you. So that when something major occurs, you’re already primed to accept whatever change will be to your benefit.
4. Develop your anchors.
Anchors are those activities and communities that hold purpose and meaning for you. I call them “anchors” because they are literally what anchor you to life. Among my anchors were my “framily,” friends who are so close they became my family. My church and church community were also anchors, not only because of my many friendships there but also because of the sheer physical activity of going to church every Sunday whether I felt like it or not. Singing in the choir whether I felt like it or not. Mercifully, this was pre-pandemic when we attended church in person.
Competitive ballroom dancing provided me with both an activity I delight in, but also a community that supported me through the consequences of the fire. As did my ballet classes.
Your anchors may be very different. You may have family that gives your life purpose and meaning. Or a garden you cherish, a book club community, your tennis partners, your gym community, your fellow volunteers at the local pet shelter, for example. All of these and many more are anchors.
Virtually anything that gives your life purpose and meaning can be an anchor, as long as it is something that you engage in regularly, that you devote time and loving attention to. The more you value and appreciate your anchors when life is “normal,” the more fully they can sustain you when life goes off your preferred rails. The more resilient you will be.
5. Be flexible.
Just because you always did something one way, doesn’t mean it’s the only possible way. Resilient people are open to doing things any number of different ways. “Whatever works” is their watchword.
I always used a dishwasher in my previous home. Actually, all my life, starting with my parents’ dishwasher. But when I hotel-hopped the first couple of weeks after the fire and then lived in a temporary rental, I realized it was actually quicker and easier to wash the few dishes I generated by hand. By the time I moved into what was to become my new “permanent” home, I figured that I didn’t need a dishwasher. I live alone; there just weren’t that many dishes.
I realized too, that I’d been getting along just fine without a TV. My laptop and the internet provided me with plenty of entertainment, so much to the consternation of the occasional visitor to my home “You don’t have a TV!” I live quite nicely without one.
Now neither of these “flexibilities” might suit you. That’s fine. The point isn’t the value of a dishwasher and TV-less existence, it’s the importance of being flexible. Of allowing for a different way of doing things to be OK by you. Not a less desirable way, but simply a different way, that but for your changed circumstances, you might never have considered.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Appreciation. I have come to believe that appreciation is one of the most powerful forces on our planet. It is the recognition that life is a gift, and that ours is to appreciate its every moment, every encounter, every being. And that, as Mother Teresa famously stated, “There is more hunger for love and appreciation in this world than for bread.”
I would love to inspire a movement that supports and furthers the active practice of appreciation in our daily lives. Why? Well, when you appreciate, you think about the value something has for you, what it means to you. When something has meaning for you, when it matters to you, you can’t help but be grateful for it; gratitude follows naturally on the heels of appreciation. When you value and are grateful for someone or something, you naturally respect that person or thing, want their well-being, and would do nothing to harm them.
I believe appreciating ourselves and others is the foundation for so many of our ideals: personal health and well-being, world peace, gender, racial, ethnic and social equality, prosperity and more.
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them :-)
Oprah Winfrey. Because I can think of no one still living who has demonstrated resilience and courage as consistently and profoundly. By her life, her work, and her personality, she exemplifies compassion with strength, appreciation with commitment.
It would be a singular honor to engage in conversation with such an inspiring individual.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Facebook: @MeetTheAmazings, @Dr.NoelleNelson
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!