Rising Through Resilience: Dr Surina Mazzola On The Five Things You Can Do To Become More Resilient During Turbulent Times
An Interview With Savio P. Clemente
Identify the next peak. The beautiful thing about climbing a mountain is it takes you to a place where you gain a new perspective and can see what peaks remain ahead. True resilience is never satiated, it’s only redirected and channeled into contribution and transformation. Pick the next peak, identify the next mountain to climb and leave your losses behind, carry your victories forward with you.
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. Surina Mazzola.
With nearly two decades of experience, Dr. Surina Mazzola has utilized her expertise in psychology to construct an innovative model of therapy that goes far beyond symptom relief. The creation of a contemporary model of mental healthcare, one that strives to help each individual and family reach their full potential, has been Dr. Mazzola’s professional mission. Leading and training teams of therapists to produce and replicate highly customized strength-based, solution-focused treatment plans and empirically validated care continues to fuel her passion in the field.
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?
To begin with, I’m a clinical psychologist, the founder of the Family Development Collective, a mama of two, and an author and content creator of two courses: Bloom: Falling in Love with your ADHD Child and Teen Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) with a Twist. My career in psychology began at a juvenile research institute, then progressed to working with foster care youth in the field of community mental health. This was a realm that felt very natural to me as I come from a collectivist culture. I was raised by immigrant parents within a multigenerational household, so utilizing the village to support the individual has always informed my lense. My work with foster children allowed me to deeply and authentically connect with children, their parents, and their social workers to strengthen the system as a whole. As I shifted into working in a healthcare conglomerate, I was impressed by the commitment to cutting-edge intervention and empirically-validated tools behind treatment plans. However, I was disheartened to see the overall lack of love, warmth and authentic connection. My goal became to fill this gap by blending the best of both realms while also focusing on growing the research around treatment efficacy. Currently, I am training my staff throughout my clinics on “Mazzola Methods” and collaborating with foster care agencies in Southern California to ensure that all people, regardless of demographic, have access to strength-based, solution-focused care that is steeped in a loving, systems approach.
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?
Early in my career, I worked with children who had suffered severe abuse and trauma. I was so eager to utilize my newfound interventions and my burgeoning academic skillset to support these children in overcoming their adversities while building their resilience. In my first few sessions with a little boy, I found myself ready to go with planned out activities and interventions, ready to begin the process of transformation. He, however, sat under a table and avoided me completely. Sessions went on like this, me overly enthusiastic, him avoidant and disengaged. One day, out of sheer desperation, I crawled under the table with him, barefoot and just sat. He scooted toward me, took off his shoes and socks, and as we wove our toes in and out of the loops in the shag carpet, I noticed the constellation of cigarette burns on the soles of his bare feet. I had assumed that because I was ready to start providing therapy, he would be ready to receive my help. I failed to understand the importance of starting only where he was ready to start. In seeing those cigarette burns, I realized that he was doing what he needed to do for self-preservation. The adults that were tasked for caring for him had been the ones to hurt him the most. Why would he think I’d be any different? Since the initial interaction with that little boy, I have always prioritized building a therapeutic alliance. I always begin where the client is ready to meet me. I ensure that their treatment plan is focused on what they need and are ready to receive as opposed to what I feel passionate about imparting.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Our company was built on the foundation of coming together as a village, as an extended family for one another and for our clients. We stay connected with our clients in between sessions and are integrated into their lives. This has allowed our clinicians the honor of being woven into the most intimate moments of our client’s lives. We’ve been there for the celebrations (Bar Mitzvahs and graduations) and together, we’ve mourned losses of immediate family members.
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 parents have been a huge source of support and inspiration throughout my life. They came from incredibly modest means in villages in India where basic resources like water and electricity were not available. They instilled in me that through hard work and perseverance, almost anything can be achieved. My mother became a physician during a time in India where women from her background were often not educated to that level. My father leveraged what little he had in order to build a company of his own. Each step of the way it seemed as if the odds were piled against them with adversities in acculturation, language barriers, lack of financial and familial support, yet they were able to achieve extraordinary things.
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?
I define resilience as the ability to endure through adversity. I believe that grit, humility, and purpose are the fundamental characteristics of resilient people. Grit gives us the ability to withstand discomfort. Humility allows us to remember that everyone has their own obstacles to overcome, that our burden is no less or no greater than others. Purpose is what allows us to stay driven because we have something beyond ourselves to contribute to.
Courage is often likened to resilience. In your opinion how is courage both similar and different to resilience?
In my opinion, one is the means to the other. Courage is what it takes to start the journey, but courage alone is not enough to maintain us during the trials and tribulations of the journey. Courage is what you need to start, resilience is what you need to carry on.
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
Viktor Frankl, despite enduring the most traumatic and horrific of historical experiences during the Holocaust, was able to go on and contribute meaningful and transformative elements to the field of psychology. After his experiences, those of which are meant to break a person down, he emerged with a gratitude for life and turned that gratitude for life into a contribution for all of humanity.
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?
Throughout my life, there have been many people who have told me about the impossibilities around what I strive to achieve. The most prominent of all those voices happens to be my own. I think of the greatest things that could give me passion or purpose, the most absurd, the most impossible, the most magical and I strive to make those my reality. When I get to the point of tripping on the absurdity of the situation, of coming up against adversity, I remind myself of what my immigrant parents were able to overcome. I push myself to strive to reach the impossible, because only then, do I have a shot of getting anywhere near greatness.
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?
When you open your own business, you know the rates of failure stacked against you. You can either give into that fear, or recommit to the original idea, passion and purpose that lead you there in the first place. There are definitely moments where it seems easiest to give in. One of the most challenging things I have experienced in my career as an entrepreneur is staff retention. I’ve hired employees who have worked for a number of months with me then decided that they can do it better, leaving to be a competitor, while underestimating the time and commitment that I’ve invested in getting to where I am. It can be a real struggle to re-invent yourself when you feel like you don’t have much to work with and much of it has been taken but that’s what resilience is. I have found that each time my company has endured major hardships, my leadership team and I have been able to creatively and compassionately reconstruct, building something foundationally stronger than what existed before.
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?
Oh yes. In first grade, I was at recess playing house with a group of other kids, and I wanted to play the big sister. There was one girl that had everyone roll their sleeves up and put their arms in the middle of the circle to match skin tones. She said that I could play the babysitter or the housekeeper because everyone in the family had to have the same skin tone and mine was too dark. Growing up a minority in the suburbs of the Midwest teaches you a lot about ways to endure — which translates to resilience. Coming from a place where you’re not accepted, but can be rejected because of traits inherent to who you are and things outside of your control wasn’t easy. It made me who I am today.
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.
- Find your purpose. In order for resiliency to be sustained you have to find a purpose bigger than yourself that you can contribute to. This provides a motivation to keep you going when things get tough. I was lucky enough to grow up in a multigenerational household where every member of the family was committed to the greater good of the family as a whole. They inspire this step.
- Build distress tolerance. We have to get into the habit of learning how to tolerate distress. If we only live in a way that is easy or comfortable, we cease to have the opportunity to overcome and navigate distress. Early on, I started incorporating daily habits or requirements into my routine; things that push me beyond my comfort zone (ex. learning foreign language, conquering distraction in order to achieve meditation, or holding a plank through shaking arms). A daily practice in engaging in uncomfortable or challenging activities facilitates the development of distress tolerance.
- Unleash the courage. It takes a lot of courage to initiate the journey of resilience. If you know you’re doing something where you could find obstacles, you have to prepare yourself. You have to have confidence and courage to know that there are times that are going to be hard and times that it’s going to hurt but you have to know it’s going to be ok. Without courage you can’t access the path to start the journey.
- Reflect on successes. It’s so easy to lose sight of how far we’ve come when we are looking at how far we still have to go. By deliberately pausing to reflect on success, we are able to cultivate the endurance to continue forward and propel ourselves down the path of achievement.
- Identify the next peak. The beautiful thing about climbing a mountain is it takes you to a place where you gain a new perspective and can see what peaks remain ahead. True resilience is never satiated, it’s only redirected and channeled into contribution and transformation. Pick the next peak, identify the next mountain to climb and leave your losses behind, carry your victories forward with you.
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. :-)
Hope and direction should be instilled in and aimed at the most vulnerable. If I could inspire a movement, it would be mentorship focusing on the youth, while connecting people. Shifting the lense from individualism to collectivism: from me to we. If one is focused on “me”, it can be a detrimental spiral into anxiety and depression when things aren’t going just right. If people are focused on the “we”, they experience real, authentic joy. People need purpose and guidance to help reach their potential. It would be amazing if every healthy, well-adjusted human was able to support, inspire, and mentor someone vulnerable or helpless due to age or external circumstance. This mentorship, coming from people who have achieved success in any realm of their life, spending time with those who may not have access to the ingredients required for such success would be a movement I could get behind.
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 :-)
Takaharu Tezuka. He was able to utilize architecture to reconceptualize the entire experience of learning. He created a space that in and of itself facilitated in vivo learning. Every part of the building and every point of the space creates a learning opportunity. Instead of being boxed in, silenced or controlled, children are given autonomy and independence. The architecture increases the children’s internal motivation to interact with their environment. If more children could have this type of learning experience, we would see the rates of attention issues, hyperactivity and anxiety decrease significantly in elementary-aged children. If more learning environments were inspired by this architecture, they would increase children’s levels of cooperation, collaboration, self-esteem, and confidence to take risks.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
My work can be followed on www.drsurinamazzola.com, www.familydevelopment.com, or on Instagram @drsurinamazzola.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!