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Rising Through Resilience: Louise Carnachan On The Five Things You Can Do To Become More Resilient During Turbulent Times

An Interview With Savio P. Clemente

Part of resilience is finding a positive outlook regardless of circumstances, so downward spiraling conversations are shooting yourself in the foot. So is an addiction to negatively spinning news cycles. My advice: find other things to talk about and do.

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 Louise Carnachan.

Louise Carnachan is an organizational development consultant and leadership coach who specializes in practical approaches to stress, communication, and leadership issues. The author of Work Jerks: How to Cope with Difficult Bosses and Colleagues (June 2022), she also writes a workplace advice blog www.louisecarnachan.com. She coaches and writes from a suburb of Portland, Oregon.

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?

Thank you so much for having me!

Looking back, I realize every career plan I had derailed thanks to recessions. The first time was right out of college when the job I counted on disappeared. Instead, I used my psychology degree while waitressing at a train-themed restaurant where I sent beer and food around on model trains. There were actual derailments, notably when a French dip fell onto a patron’s expensive coat. Fortunately, I got into the University of Washington’s School of Social Work the next year.

I wanted that degree because a Master of Social Work would allow me to be a therapist. My concentration was behavior and cognitive behavior therapy. But once I had the degree, my expected job evaporated thanks to an economic downturn. Luckily, I was hired where I’d done my internship to be an instructor and consultant. I kept my waitressing shoes just in case.

As it turned out, that job switch set the direction for the rest of my career. I never became a therapist. Instead, I went to a talented multi-disciplinary team where my job morphed into teaching and coaching communication and collaboration for special education teams in public schools and institutions. When the grants and my job ended, it was a shock to find not all teams were like mine. I grieved it for years.

Next, I worked in a hospital education department and taught communication and management skills. I fell in love with middle managers who have such a difficult role. I learned how to design and facilitate retreats and got a deeper view of organizational issues and the complexities of decisions at the executive level. My social work training, which views the systems individuals exist in, really paid off.

I hit the glass ceiling about nine years in. I became an independent consultant and within a year, another consultant and I won a contract to design and teach a leadership course for a large public agency.

The 2008 recession came twenty-three years into my business. I’d been through many financial ups and downs but when my business didn’t bounce back by mid-2010, it was apparent I needed employment. I couldn’t imagine who would hire a woman in her late middle years. Computers weren’t on our desks when I’d left my last employer in 1986, so I didn’t know anything about networked systems. One of my clients, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, took a gamble on me and offered me a job. My department provided training and organizational development services to both Hutch and our sister organization, the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. It was a delight to once again have a team to bounce ideas around. One of the many blessings of working with these two extraordinary institutions was that I coached a number of people.

Three years ago, I left to begin a writing career although I retain a small group of coaching clients.

Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

The dynamics of human interaction don’t vary much from setting to setting — although every company believes theirs are unique. One workplace that truly was different was a jail health clinic. Guards in a control room directed the elevator, which made timing to your destination unpredictable. I would go through many doors, also operated by unseen guards who opened, closed, and locked them. The staff couldn’t just walk away for a fifteen-minute break because they didn’t know how long it would take to get back.

The lesson for me was how much a stressful physical work environment can impact everything else, including communication. My blood pressure soared each time I went there, so I can only imagine the toll it took on those who were working or incarcerated there.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

My professional socialization runs deep, and as a result, I believe in fostering independence rather than dependence. My mission has been to help my clients — then get out of the way. That’s not the path to the most money, but it’s the only way that seems ethical.

Clients deserve a good match in their coach or consultant, so I make a referral if I’m not that person. Additionally, clients benefit from hearing other voices. I’m not offended if they move on. I’ve helped clients “graduate” when I feel I’ve shared what I have to offer.

I remember an undergraduate psychology professor who spoke to the ethics of keeping people in psychotherapy for years. His message was, if someone is spending thousands of dollars on therapy, you have to ask if yourself if they’d be happier buying a boat. Point noted. The value must be there for the client.

A few years ago, a “graduated” group asked if I’d return. It’s been a joy to witness their development over time, which is the advantage of long-term coaching relationships. However, it’s up to me to assure the focus is on growth and that we don’t settle into a comfortable but stagnant pattern.

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?

I actually have three. My father was an entrepreneur and highly enthusiastic about working for himself. As an actuary, he didn’t understand why I needed experience before I launched a solo practice. After nine years, I called to tell him I’d quit my job to be my own boss. He was so happy and proud. About 20 minutes after we’d hung up, he called back to ask if he’d pushed me into it. That made me laugh — yes, but that’d been true for years.

My second call out is to Sharon Winn, an organizational development consultant I met when I was working at the hospital. She did strategic planning and retreats for the administration and Board, a field where we typically saw male consultants. Sharon generously shared her expertise and insights. I owe my first mentor and role model a debt of gratitude.

The third person is my dear friend, Sue Hennessy. We were in grad school together but from the minute we took off our yellow master’s hoods, our careers veered in different directions. She became an amazing executive leader and has provided me with counsel on many occasions.

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?

Resilient people “live to see another day.” It’s not that they aren’t profoundly affected by difficult periods, but they don’t remain down. They learn, adapt, and continue to have a zeal for life.

Courage is often likened to resilience. In your opinion how is courage both similar and different to resilience?

An individual can be both courageous and resilient. Courage is when someone takes action to benefit others even when it could result in this person’s physical or psychological harm. The person involved frequently thinks they did nothing extraordinary, but witnesses call it bravery or courageousness.

Resilience is the ability to come through troubled times and thrive. It can fluctuate as a result of circumstances. Unless you know someone’s backstory, you don’t know much about their resilience.

When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?

My father’s best friend was married to a Viennese woman, Rosalie Langstein. She was eighteen when the Nazis invaded Austria. I wish I knew more of her story, but what I do know is that she came from a wealthy Jewish family and attended university at a young age. She was in one of the infamous camps; the number tattoo on her inner arm was still visible many years later.

Rosalie had every reason to be bitter, angry, or defeated after experiencing the absolute worst of humanity. Yet the picture I retain of her is as a genial, laughing woman who was charming and kind.

Some people come through atrocities and find joy again, while others retreat into despair. I think of immigrants who flee terrible circumstances and start over in a new country without knowing the language, customs, or laws. They set up businesses, find jobs, raise kids, contribute to their communities, and often send money back home. To me, these are incredibly resilient and courageous people.

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?

I grew up in the Mad Men era when so much was off the table for girls no one had to say it was impossible. There were women who didn’t conform to the traditional roles, but they weren’t in my environment. Female role models on television were either compliant wives and comforting mothers, or they were fun, devious wives pulling the wool over their husbands’ eyes like I Love Lucy. Ironically, the real-life Lucille Ball was a savvy businesswoman who succeeded in the man’s world of Hollywood. Single career women weren’t visible until after my formative years had passed. From my own experience, I understand why representation is so important. Few of us can envision what we’ve never seen.

Girls of my time were steered toward being nurses, teachers, or secretaries. I was a beneficiary of the second wave of feminism during college, so while women were still supposed to keep an eye out for an M.R.S., it is no longer unusual for women to be unmarried into their early twenties or seek graduate degrees. We believed we were carving a path different from our mothers’ generation. In some ways we did, but progress has been disappointingly slow.

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?

I had a particularly prosperous 2007, sold my home in Seattle, and moved to beautiful Orcas Island in the San Juan Islands off Washington state. I traveled to the mainland to work several days a month then returned to that idyllic setting. When the economy spiraled downward, I wasn’t worried because I’d ridden out other economic blips and I had a nest egg. But I got worried when my peers’ work picked up again and mine didn’t, and my savings account was rapidly dwindling. My income had dropped by two-thirds and remained there. I remember lying in bed wishing for a regular job rather than having to make it up every day.

By then I’d developed a serious health issue and had inadequate health insurance. I was put on a medication that produced depression, but I didn’t know what was wrong. I couldn’t think straight and, uncharacteristically, I didn’t care. My financial situation was dire and I was out of ideas. I thought it might be okay if I died. At the urging of a friend, I saw my doctor who told me depression was a well-documented side-effect of the medication. Within days of tapering off the drug, I felt the fog lifting from my brain. After a few months, I looked for a job and a few months after that I landed a good one. However, it required another move.

The paycheck and health insurance were wonderful, but the health issues persisted and so did the financial hole I’d dug. No one wanted to rent or buy my island house. Now I was paying for a place where I didn’t live and renting in the city. I lived in a 400-square foot apartment over a flower shop that left their lights on 24/7, which overheated my under-the-freeway abode. Breathing toxins and debris from tire tread gave me bronchitis three times in nine months, and I had to move again.

Slowly, I crawled out of that mess. Eighteen months into the job, I sold the island house at a loss and said goodbye to the mortgage. Over time I paid off credit cards and the money friends had loaned. Eventually, my body was functioning as designed.

It’s a period of my life I wouldn’t choose to repeat. However, if it did happen again, I know I would come out the other side of it — because I’ve done it 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?

I was the only child of divorced parents in the days when divorce was uncommon. Being from what was called “a broken home,” I learned early in life to count on myself, my first lesson in resilience. Being in business for myself was the next big lesson. The third came in my mid-thirties when I started improvisational theater classes.

Improv was not easy for me. My heart pounded each time I got up in front of class, which seemed odd because I was frequently in front of groups without angst. The difference, of course, was that in my work I knew what I was talking about. With improv, I had no clue what was coming next.

Taking away the security blanket of my rational mind was incredibly difficult because I wanted to appear smart. It’s astonishing how many ways the ego tries to keep you safe and in charge, looking good. If you’re an improvisor you’re going to look like an idiot — repeatedly. You can have moments of brilliance, however, it’s a form that’s never perfected because it changes moment to moment.

You might wonder why I continued. For those who haven’t experienced it, it’s hard to convey just how exhilarating it is to create a story with others and have a scene soar. Once my focus was off myself and on everyone else, which is where it was supposed to be, I was no longer terrified. You’re there to add what’s needed, step up and lead if required, support or get out of the way if someone else is driving. There’s a constant honing of communication skills, particularly listening and observing. I had the teamwork I’d longed for since leaving my first job.

I’ve used improv exercises with client groups because there’s nothing better for leveling the playing field. Your title won’t make you any better but your communication skills will. It delights me that Alan Alda applies improv training at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University.

Of course, when a scene goes into the toilet it’s dreadful for the players and the audience. You’ve got to be resilient because there’s no time for the luxury of self-recrimination or blame. You’re right back on stage, so you shake it off and stay in the moment. Then there’s the critique you get from audience and fellow improvisers. This is not a form for the overly sensitive, but it is a wonderful way to build resilience — and play.

I’ve recommended improv classes to a number of clients, particularly those struggling with perfectionism. Maybe two people have taken me up on it.

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.

I’ve talked about the value of improvisation in building resilience, and I hope some of your readers will try it out. But here are some other tips.

1. Keep your up reserves by maintaining healthy habits — most of the time.

The flip side of resilience is stress, which is exactly when we lose behaviors that support physical, mental, and emotional resilience. Everyone knows the basics: sleep, decent food, and movement. We can get away with skimping on one or two for a while, particularly when young — but you can’t run on empty.

We’re a sleep-deprived nation, with plenty of studies to show how we pay with chronic health conditions, depression, and anxiety. It’s worth making sleep a priority because it boosts your resilience. Sleep hygiene tips are easy to find online.

Eating well is particularly problematic when you’re under duress. People either don’t eat or they eat comfort foods that don’t fuel the body. If you’re like me, it’s hard to tune out the siren song of sugar and high fat carbs. For those who forget to eat or get nauseous, make a point of scheduling meals and eat whatever your stomach will tolerate that’s healthful.

Most of us don’t get enough movement at work and not everyone has the resources to go to a gym. Scientific evidence shows that walking in nature, even for short amounts of time, is in itself healing. You’ve probably experienced the boost exercise can give, so try to get some movement in each day.

Life has a way of piling on and sometimes your reserves just get low. These days there’s the pandemic, then add relationships, children, aging parents, health challenges, a death, divorce, a move…you get the picture. Any one of these things is taxing, but when you have too many happening at once, there’s an impact. I’ve been the queen of denial about my own stress, thinking I was immune. Well, my body knew I wasn’t. If your well is dry, it may be time to take a day or more to regroup. Seek help from a licensed therapist if your stamina is taking hits. Many health plans include counseling in their benefits. Please be good to yourself.

2. Learn stress management skills that enhance resilience.

Dr. Suzanne Kobasa conducted early research with mid-managers going through massive layoffs. She found important differences between those who thrived and those who didn’t and called those traits the “Hardy Personality.” The traits are captured in the Three C’s: commitment, control, and challenge. Control is about having a sense of dominion over one’s life instead of feeling at the mercy of fate. Commitment means having a perspective larger than oneself. Challenge is the ability to perceive a setback as something to overcome, not a catastrophe.

Kobasa provides tools for those of us who weren’t graced with a three C’s personality. I’ve lived by this recommendation for what to do when things go haywire. Ask, “What could have gone worse?” My go-to's are: I didn’t faint or throw up in public, and no one died. Fortunately, these have remained true.

3. Consciously choose to watch, listen to, and engage in that which is uplifting.

We’re bombarded with news, stories, and conversations that take us down. For example, at work, it’s enticing to join in “ain’t it awful” because that means we’re part of the group, it’s what we have in common. I’ve been there and done that. However, you can get so wrapped up in the negative you no longer see the positive, which is ultimately unsatisfying and depressing.

Part of resilience is finding a positive outlook regardless of circumstances, so downward spiraling conversations are shooting yourself in the foot. So is an addiction to negatively spinning news cycles. My advice: find other things to talk about and do.

4. If you’re highly empathetic, take extra safeguards.

Your superpower of feeling others’ pain is a double-edged sword. It makes you terrific at reading people and relating to them, a highly valuable trait in jobs where you interact with patients or customers. The downside is taking on baggage that’s not yours. If you go home feeling emotionally exhausted each day, you’re giving too much.

Protect from overwhelm by creating boundaries. Visualize a shower washing away distress and watch it flow down the drain. Or visualize someone’s emotions hitting your invisible shield so they don’t reach you. Acknowledge someone’s hurt, anger, or suffering — just don’t dive into the hole with them.

Try engaging in healthy compartmentalization. This is delaying emotional responses for a period of time until you can think and take action in the moment. Those working in emergency situations have to master this. If you can visualize easily, imagine bundling the upsetting emotions and putting them in a box. Close the lid and place it to the side or send it into space. Or you can do this physically by making a “later” box to store words written on paper that represent the difficult issue or emotion. Put the box on a shelf or somewhere out of sight.

If visualizing or writing isn’t your thing, notice upsetting thoughts as they go through your head, and say to yourself, “Yes, I’ll deal with you later.” Then refocus on what needs to be done. Repeat this each time your mind wanders back to distressing thoughts.

Compartmentalization is used to delay your reactions, not make them permanently disappear. Bottling up difficult emotions over time leads to other problems. Smaller stuff will fade away but the bigger stuff should be dealt with when you have the bandwidth, help, or support. Therapists, support groups, journaling, time with family and friends are all good choices.

5. Allow yourself (and your kids) to get out there and potentially fail by doing things that are challenging and uncomfortable.

If resilience is strengthened with practice, the implication is that the older we get, the more practice we’ve had thanks to the school of hard knocks. As we age, however, there’s a tendency to stick with what’s comfortable: we don’t risk, we don’t learn, we don’t practice resilience. This is why it’s important to nudge ourselves outside our comfort zones.

For the young, each disappointment is big because it’s a first. Naturally parents want to shield their children, but it’s a disservice if they don’t learn from peer conflicts, negative feedback, or see others rewarded for excelling. I’m concerned that helicopter parenting and an “everybody gets a trophy” culture don’t help kids build the resilience they need when they join the workforce.

I met with younger workers who were emotionally unprepared for work. They craved frequent praise and felt abandoned if the boss wasn’t available. They were bitterly disappointed when told they didn’t meet the criteria for promotion. Emotional displays over corrective feedback confounded their managers who didn’t have the time or patience to support these workers the way they wanted.

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. :-)

That’s quite a compliment!

There are two things I wish I’d learned earlier. The first is to not take things so personally. Most people are far too concerned with themselves to be focused on anyone else. If they intend to be mean, then it’s good to remember that it’s hurting people who hurt others.

The second thing is to actively seek the good more often than focusing on the bad. It’s possible we’re biased toward fear based on our evolution, but there’s no need to catastrophize everything. If you pay more attention to what makes you happy or content, you’ll feel better and it’s a lot easier to roll with whatever comes along. The old adage “the only thing you can control is your attitude” is very true.

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 :-)

I’d love to chat with Brené Brown! She’s someone I greatly admire for her research, her own vulnerability, her humor, and her excellent storytelling. Plus, she’s a fellow social worker. I was fortunate enough to hear her speak at an event, and I’m a huge fan.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

I write an online blog about stress, resilience, leadership, and communication at work. It can be found on my website, LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/louise-carnachan, or Face Book, https://www.facebook.com/lacarnachan.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

I’m honored to have been asked. Thank you!

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