Rising Through Resilience: Frank Anderson On The Five Things You Can Do To Become More Resilient During Turbulent Times
An Interview With Savio P. Clemente
People who possess courage have the capacity to tackle all that comes their way. They’re not dominated by fear or driven by shame. They are not worried or preoccupied about getting hurt or abandoned or dominated by someone. People with courage possess the confidence and ability to move through whatever shows up in their life. Resilience, on the other hand, is active when someone is faced with a challenge. People rise to the occasion, they stand up and withstand the hardship. Resilience is about enduring intense feelings, working through hard times, and getting to the other side of an obstacle. Even though courage and resilience have slight differences, they often go together and are commonly connected to each other.
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 Frank Anderson, MD.
Dr. Anderson completed his residency in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and is the author of Transcending Trauma: Healing Complex PTSD with Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy. He is a senior trainer for the IFS Institute, a supervisor for the Trauma Research Foundation, and advisor for the International Association of Trauma Professionals (IATP). He teaches workshops throughout the world integrating neuroscience knowledge with IFS for the treatment of trauma and dissociation. https://www.frankandersonmd.com/
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 grew up in a family of healthcare professionals and was fascinated by the workings of the human body. I always loved children and therefore wanted to become a pediatrician but thought I should become a pharmacist just like my father. I ultimately chose psychiatry after I was profoundly affected by a close family member who developed significant mental health-related issues.
During my residency in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, I noticed that many of my clients who struggled with psychiatric problems had also experienced significant trauma in their lives. The pain I witnessed in others activated something deep within me. It compelled me to enter therapy where I quickly connected to my own trauma history.
Becoming the psychiatrist at the Trauma Center in Boston under the direction of Bessel van der Kolk enabled me to grow professionally while simultaneously helping me and my clients heal. I was fortunate enough to meet Dick Schwartz, the founder of Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy and my career focus instantly came into full alignment. I’ve always loved teaching and began to integrate my knowledge of neuroscience and trauma treatment with IFS.
After the release of my second book Transcending Trauma: Healing Complex PTSD with Internal Family Systems Therapy, I felt motivated to share this message with the world that moving beyond and recovering from trauma is possible. I believe that trauma blocks love and connection and in turn, love and connection heals trauma.
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?
I saw a client, I’ll call Tony, twice per week for over a decade. He was a gentle, mild manned person and I really enjoyed working with him. One day, he had come in for a session and seemed particularly unsettled and uncharacteristically distracted. I spent most of the session trying to sort out what was causing his current distress. In retrospect, I probably came across a bit probing and intellectual at times. Toward the end of the session in a shockingly rageful tone, he said, “Would you just shut the fuck up, Frank!” I was totally taken aback in that moment. I was in shock and temporarily frozen, feeling like my body was cemented to the back of my chair.
Much to my surprise, this moment turned out to be an unsolvable impasse in his treatment. After six months of trying to resolve the breach, which included several outside consultations, we agreed to end our working relationship. What I learned from this, mostly through my personal therapy, was that my own trauma history got activated in that moment. Parts of me showed up in response to Tony’s strong reaction that blocked access to my authentic self. I heard, “It’s not OK to be treated like this.” “I was yelled at as a kid and I’m not going to take it anymore.” This realization was helpful for me both personally as well as professionally. After healing the part of me that was verbally abused as a child, I no longer get triggered when a client loses it or yells at me during a session. I’m now able to tolerate intense emotions and can hold the space for them when they get angry or upset. I’m able to remain open and curious about what’s underlying their big reaction without taking it personally or getting activated by it. I can also speak up and take care of myself when someone treats me poorly in my life. I no longer respond from a place of fear, but more from a place of calm power.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
My company is me. It represents my passion, my personality, and my message to the world. I’m fortunate to be able to work for myself and grateful that I have a few likeminded individuals who are passionate about making a difference in the world. What a gift to help people heal from their traumatic pasts while doing work that brings so much joy and meaning into my life.
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?
Dick Schwartz is someone whom I have a great deal of gratitude for. He is the founder of the Internal Family Systems model of therapy and has brought forth an amazing method to help people connect to their authentic self and compassionately release of the pain and trauma they carry. He saw something special in me and recognized my innate gifts and natural talents. His support is always gentle and open-hearted, and I never feel pressured or controlled by him, which is healing for me in the context of my history.
I will never forget the moment we decided to work together. We had both finished presenting a workshop at a conference and I approached him to see if he wanted to sit down and talk for a bit, which was atypical of me. He replied yes, and we began discussing our mutual goals and aspirations of helping the world heal from trauma. Then, spontaneously, I began to feel a strange tingling energy move throughout my body and out of the blue, he said, “Do you feel that Frank?” I was shocked and said “Yes. I did.” “He then told me he was asking for someone to help him with his mission and believed his request had been granted in that moment. We have been working together ever since. I am eternally grateful to him, to that moment, and for our relationship.
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 capacity to tolerate difficult or painful emotions while simultaneously embodying the capacity to withstand and work through adversity. I believe resilience originates from three different domains: temperament, attachment, and desire.
There are certain individuals who experience something traumatic and can somehow overcome it. They have something extra within them: an internal drive, and natural capacity to overcome difficult circumstances, even when the odds are stacked against them. They are born with this, and it’s connected to their temperament.
It’s widely known that the capacity to bounce back from adversity is related to the level of safety and security established with the primary caregiver during the first two years of life. Research shows that early bonding experiences or healthy attachment patterns influence a child’s ability to form healthy relationships and supports their ability to successfully move though difficult moments in life.
Finally, one’s willingness to work through their challenges builds resilience. Some people face adversity head on and have a natural desire to better themselves, compared to those who tend to deny it, suppress it, or push their problems away. The traits and characteristics of resilience are multifaceted and usually include a combination of nature (what we are born with) and nurture (what we develop through our relationships and life experiences).
Courage is often likened to resilience. In your opinion how is courage both similar and different to resilience?
For me, courage is more forward facing while resilience is more oriented to the present moment.
People who possess courage have the capacity to tackle all that comes their way. They’re not dominated by fear or driven by shame. They are not worried or preoccupied about getting hurt or abandoned or dominated by someone. People with courage possess the confidence and ability to move through whatever shows up in their life.
Resilience, on the other hand, is active when someone is faced with a challenge. People rise to the occasion, they stand up and withstand the hardship. Resilience is about enduring intense feelings, working through hard times, and getting to the other side of an obstacle. Even though courage and resilience have slight differences, they often go together and are commonly connected to each other.
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
This may come across as a bit narcissistic, however I do think of myself as someone who is resilient. I grew up with a significant trauma history and I developed a defensive structure that protected me from the pain and sorrow that was buried deep within. I don’t give myself credit for the tenacity I inherently possessed to survive my trauma. I believe I am one of those people who was born with that capacity. I also had people in my life who really loved me. I remember reading the book Soul Murder in my residency program in psychiatry by Leonard Shengold, and thinking to myself, “That didn’t happen to me.” “My abuser never got the best of me.” I’ve always been driven to better myself, to reach for the top, and to not let anyone or anything get in my way.
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?
My mother was one of those people who believed in me. She would repeatedly say, “Frankie, you can do whatever you want to do in life.” Little did I know what an enormous impact that simple statement would have on me. I remember the first time it consciously showed up for me. I was 32 years old and driving to one of the hospitals I regularly worked at during my residency. The realization that I was gay suddenly came over me in that moment like a title wave. It was so powerful, I had to pull over and stop driving so I wouldn’t get into an accident. I had grown up in a conservative family the Midwest in the early 60’s, so being gay or coming out was not an option for me. A flood of statements infiltrated my mind. “Gay is a sickness.” “Who would ever choose that lifestyle?” “Gay goes against God.” “Gay people can’t have children.” I was riddled with a myriad of negative voices, most of which I heard growing up.
When I did eventually develop the courage to come out to my family, one of the first things that came out of my mother’s mouth was, “You know this means you can’t have kids now.” I remember spontaneously blurting out, “Of course I can have kids Mom, I can do whatever I want to do in my life.”
Fast-forward to today, my mother loves her two grandchildren more than life itself. However, I don’t think she ever could have imagined that the statement she repeated to me growing up would someday backfire in the most beautiful way. It helped her son believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that he could do whatever he wanted to do in life, which included getting married having kids as a gay man.
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?
The greatest setback in my life was also the worst moment of my life and not surprisingly, was also the one I learned the most from. I was traveling across the country to give a 2-day workshop on trauma. When the plane landed, I turned on my cellphone and a series of text messages instantly popped up. He is in emergency room… We don’t know what happened… He drank some alcohol…He might have tried to kill himself…. I was hysterical and in shock at the same time. I tried to call my husband, but he wasn’t answering his phone. A flight attendant noticed my distress and instantly jumped in to help. She said, “Stay on this plane, it’s a red-eye and it’s heading right back to Boston. I’ll have the land crew keep your luggage on the plane.” Thank goodness for kind people in this world! I flew back home, on what felt like the longest flight of my life, and when it landed, I found out that my son was groggy, he had slept through the night, but he would be OK.
It certainly changed things for me and my family. We did a lot of soul searching and made a lot of changes in our lives. I truly believe that each moment is an opportunity, and we can choose to suppress it, repeat it, or learn and grow from it. With this moment, I chose the latter. I can honestly say I’m a lot less critical. I express my love a lot more. And I set more limits and say no a lot more too. Our family is not perfect, but it’s much better because of this tragedy.
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 believe that there are two ways to cultivate resilience throughout life. One is to stay present during adversity, learn from it, and get to the other side of it. The other is to clear the past traumas that have been suppressed and not fully healed.
Getting into medical school was a long and arduous process for me. I stayed present through many difficult moments and was able to emerge stronger and more resilient because of it. I frequently studied when my friends went out to party. I retook the medical school entrance exams three times to improve my scores. I went to a reading specialist to make sure my reading comprehension was good. I applied to a PhD program in Biochemistry as a backup plan after I got rejected from my first three medical schools. And finally, I got accepted off a waiting list 20 days before medical school started. I certainly entered a stronger more resilient person.
I also have spent most of my adult life in therapy. I’m constantly trying to better myself and clear the blocks I’ve accumulated. A favorite quote from my new book is, “Trauma blocks love, and love heals trauma.” I believe this to be true and have personally experienced it. Trauma activates an internal cascade of reactions that blocks love, connection, and creativity; and in turn, love has the power to transcend our trauma, heal our pain, and reconnect us to our self, our source, and each other.
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.
Here are five steps I endorse and have demonstrated throughout this article, that I believe help people to become more resilient.
- Form a connection with someone who believes in you.
- Practice being with uncertainty and difficult emotions.
- Recognize there is something to learn from every challenging moment.
- We are willing to heal the traumas that block you.
- Believe in something larger than yourself.
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. :-)
My mission is to heal trauma and bring more love, compassion, and unity to the world. I’m committed to this movement and want to create a network of like-minded people to join me on this journey. I truly believe it’s possible and has personally experienced the power and benefits of healing trauma in my life.
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 :-)
For years I have envisioned myself sitting with Oprah Winfrey under the famous oak tree in her back yard. I can see us having a conversation about the importance of mental and emotional health and the benefits of healing trauma.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
The best way to follow me is through my website. FrankAndersonMD.com
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!