I first became fascinated with the ideas of resilience and hardiness while attending one of my university courses, Health Psychology. My university years are behind me now but I see today how this class made an indelible mark on my life.
We studied such topics as change behavior, locus of control, resourcefulness, boundaries, resilience, and hardiness, just to name a few. Each of these aspects was interwoven into the fabric of health in such a way that by the end of the course we had a workable template to use to help ourselves and others make changes towards Optimal Health.
Resilience vs Hardiness
Before I go further let me outline the difference between resilience and hardiness. Wikipedia explains it best, “Resilience simply describes the tendency to bounce back quickly from adversity, to remain strong under stress. Hardiness is an individual, psychological quality that contributes to and helps to explain resilience”. Most references list the two terms as synonymous. For this discussion, I prefer to use the term hardiness.
Because I suffered a traumatic childhood I had ‘adversity’ galore.
As the class delved deeper into these topics, it became clear to me anyone who lacked hardiness was doomed. Without the ability to withstand the difficulties of life, most would crumble under the pressure.
I decided I would not be one of the doomed
I went to work learning to become hardy
I could see my upbringing could have devastating consequences in my life over the coming years. I could already see some of the negative side-effects. As I learned in class, adversity in childhood was linked to a variety of health concerns in adulthood but I could combat this by understanding and applying certain learned behaviors. I could learn to become hardy, and this class gave me guideposts to follow. These guideposts helped form a template for hardiness which is outlined below.
Hardiness requires an internal locus of control.
This is the individual’s belief system in which they presume they have power over events in their lives. They make things happen, things don’t happen to them. They don’t believe in luck but instead believe in action. In other words, they believe themselves to be survivors and not victims.
Hardy people make wise and informed decisions.
They are self-aware, resourceful, patient and optimistic. They seldom act without thinking things through thoroughly. They gather facts and data about themselves, their environment and others, and formulate the most beneficial way to move forward.
People who are hardy seek self-improvement.
They know when they need help and have no problem asking for it. They have a strong commitment to self-care and invest in their well being.
The hardy understand and respect boundaries in themselves and others.
They pay attention to circumstances and consider their impact on them. They are responsive and mindful of their own emotions and those of others. They are emotionally intelligent.
Hardy people embrace adversity and see it as an opportunity for change.
They accept reality and don’t avoid suffering. They lean into adversity and learn as they work through the grief. They often come out the other side of adversity stronger than before.
The hardy foster strong social bonds.
They know the importance of having strong social connections. They engage in group activities regularly. They seek relationship and connection.
My first step was to seek help
Upon graduation, I went right to work finding a therapist.
If I was to learn to be hardy, I knew I had to work this out with a professional. Someone who could help me side-step the land mines strewn along my path. It took a year or so to find the right person but I finally settled in with a Registered Psychologist who I will call Dr. M.
I didn’t foresee us having a 20-year-long relationship.
I still see Dr. M for counseling, though she will be retiring next year (that’s another story). Dr. M worked with me over the years to sort through the fall out from my childhood. She helped me understand who I was and showed me how to separate me from my trauma. She taught me the science behind my unhealthy coping mechanisms. She helped me feel normal. Here are some of the things we focused on.
My way of coping worked perfectly for me as a child. It kept me alive. However it no longer worked for me as an adult.
As a child, I learned anger was bad so I suppressed.
As a young adult, I would get angry and shut down whenever I felt threatened. Because I learned young to disregard my feelings, as an adult whenever I felt misunderstood, unappreciated, taken advantage of, or insignificant I would close up shop and flee. Hang up the phone, slam and lock the door, quit the job, end the relationship, whatever it took for me to feel safe. As a child, this was my safe place. I touched no one and no one touched me. However, as an adult, it felt more like a tomb.
My childhood taught me to stay quiet and keep busy.
My emotional needs were seldom met as a child so I learned to ask for and expect nothing from others. I learned to meet my own needs for acceptance and approval. I did this by excelling in everything I did. I was on the honor roll in high school and college. I completed my university degree in under 3 years. I held esteemed positions and titles.
I filled the gaps in my soul with praise and accolades from others.
This kept me afloat for some time however it was a poor substitute for self-worth. I often felt like a feather in the wind, being tossed this way and that by the whims of others.
In childhood, I became numb to suffering.
My suffering in childhood was relentless. My home environment was volatile, unpredictable, unstable and emotionally burdensome. I carried the weight of my mother's addiction and mental illness because I thought it was my fault. No one ever told me otherwise. I pushed my suffering to the sidelines while I watched my mother suffer tremendously, never feeling I could help.
Needless to say as an adult when I got a whiff of suffering I closed the window.
I had constructed a protective barrier between me and suffering. With my nose to the grindstone, I would pick up my pieces and keep pushing on. My grief was never addressed therefore my suffering stayed stuck in my past.
One can only keep wolves at bay for so long though.
I was self-aware from a young age.
Through my work with Dr. M, I realized I brought a few hardiness qualities into my adulthood. For as long as I can remember I’ve always paid close attention to how my actions impacted others. I’m also very resourceful. I believe, in part, these were learned behaviors developed out of necessity. Dr. M helped me hone these skills and use them for my benefit as an adult.
I was also naturally optimistic. I could see the light at the end of tunnel despite not always being able to reach it.
Dr. M worked with me over the years and helped me acknowledge my repressed anger, and give it voice as I worked through expressing/releasing it in healthy ways.
As layer upon layer of anger bubbled to the surface and melted away I became more and more free.
With anger no longer blanketing me I experienced my full range of emotions more clearly. This helped me connect more deeply with others.
I learned boundaries. I needed them if I wanted healthy relationships.
Developing boundaries was a gradual process that went hand in hand with learning my self-worth. As I grew stronger in my understanding of who I was and what I stood for, I was better able to explain it to others. I grew to respect myself and others. With patience, over time I mended past relationships and forge healthy new ones.
A few years after I graduated university I lost my mother unexpectedly.
I was new into learning and practicing hardiness so I wasn’t at all prepared for my mother's death. You could say my pieces went flying but that would be an understatement. To help me sort through the mess I attended a Grief Recovery group offered by our local Hospice.
This group was a life saver for me.
The group consisted of two consecutive sessions, each 12 weeks long. I attended both sessions. In these meetings, we addressed all aspects of grief in a safe and comfortable environment.
The group had been established 15 years earlier by a pastor who noticed a gap in this area. Our culture shuns suffering because it make us uncomfortable.
Weekly we met as a group of 15 or so people, each whom had lost a loved one in the past. We worked through an aspect of our grief as we shared our stories, honored our loved ones, resolved stuck areas, and shed many many tears together. We experienced how unresolved grief had negatively affected all aspects of our lives up until then.
I shone a light on my unresolved grief. In time the burden that shrouded me for years lifted away.
I was still a lightweight in the grief management department. I felt free of the burden for almost a decade when I faced the most difficult challenge ever. Over the next four years, I lost 3 of my 5 siblings. Each died of a terminal illness. As their deaths were anticipated, I had time to share with them before they died.
This is where I learned to suffer…and to love.
My baby sister received her terminal diagnoses first. She lived for 3 years before she succumbed to her disease. Because of what I learned about grief in the past, and because I practiced hardiness skills for years by now, I fully engage with my sister while she actively died. I spent almost every weekend with her. We talked and laughed and cried together. We expressed our regrets and gave our forgiveness. We suffered and healed together. Her death was a blessing by the end, and she went in peace knowing all was well with us. I miss her terribly.
My brother died the same year, my sister in January and he in December. I spent time with my brother during his illness too, and we forged a strong bond of mutual respect and love before he passed on. My oldest sister died 3 years later. Her death was the hardest to recover from for many reasons. I’m still working through it all.
I attended Grief Recovery again recently to help work through these losses.
What tied everything together for me over the years was my faith.
I had formed a strong faith community right around the time my mother died. I attended church regularly and developed a close and intimate relationship with God. It was there I learned my true worth and potential. I was there I sought support when I felt alone and scared. It was there I was strengthened in my resolve to keep going despite the pain and difficulty. It was there I never felt alone.
I am still a work in progress.
So have I learned to be hardy? You better believe I have. Looking back over the years I see I was heading down a road that could have lead to my early death, maybe similar to my siblings. You see no one else in my family sought the help I did, even though we all experienced the same traumatic childhood. Each one of them remained oblivious to the dysfunction. They lived in denial. I don’t think they learned to be hardy people.
What have I learned that makes me hardy?
I’ve learned to control my emotions and actions, and to use both to positively impact my life and others. I’ve learned to embrace suffering. I know only through suffering can I truly love and be loved. I now know what I believe and what I stand for. I’ve learned to respect myself and others by setting and acknowledging boundaries. I’ve learned to manage conflict by not running away from difficult situations or people. I’ve learned the need for strong social supports and I have established meaningful connections in my life.
I guess you could say I’ve learned to be hardy.