Elements of resilience

Elements of resilience

Can resilience be learned? The good news is that it can be, and it is not too difficult.

After sharing selected stories of climbing and surviving expeditions to some of the highest peaks in the world, and a life-threatening nerve disorder which left my permanently disabled in both of my lower legs, I often get asked how I developed this resilience to bounce back.

Note – they ask the ‘how’ question – and that’s simple to understand. We get inspired or lifted by stories of people around the world who have survived some incredible setback; and most of these stories are missing a key part. Can resilience be learned? The good news is that it can, and it isn’t too difficult.

After my own catastrophe, I began a lifelong quest to learn as much about resilience as I could from people a lot smarter than me. If you are familiar with Martin Seligman’s extensive clinical research at the University of Pennsylvania into this area and his books, you’ll figure out that the good news is that resilience can be learned. One key thing that kept arising in the research I was doing was that it didn’t matter what happened to someone. Over time, most well-adjusted individuals; when faced with a big ‘dip’ in their resilience from a disaster would bounce back to their usual ‘set point’ – an imaginary line on a diagram representing the basic level of daily resilience exhibited by ordinary people. But would that dip be like a broad ”V” – with the steep descent into despair or hopelessness and gradual return to the set point? Or would it be a spiky “V” with a rapid bounce back?

Seligman’s research touched me in many ways, and one key takeaway was that our ability to interpret ‘bad’ and ‘good’ events is central to our mental resilience in coping with the things that life throws at us in general. Individuals that interpreted setbacks as temporary, not all-encompassing and not wholly their fault appeared to do much better at coping. Those that saw setbacks and disasters as permanent, pervading their whole life and personality tended to do less well. It’s how we interpret the events that aid or hinder how we recover.

More, when writer Alan Deutschman was doing similar research into the recovery rate of heart-attack victims, he also noticed that hospitals like the University of California, San Francisco had much better outcomes than others in this area. When people encountering setbacks can find other people who have survived, they tend to believe they can do equally well – the ‘relate’ element. And then disruptions to our lives from setbacks may need new habits, be they changes in diet or workplace behaviours – and these can only take root if practiced sufficiently through repeating them. Last but not least, the ability to ‘reframe. Once I was discharged from the hospital with a walking stick and an ankle-foot brace, it was never my view that I could never climb again. Instead I changed my question to ‘what mountains can I climb with just a leg and a half’. Thus, reframing a challenge or a new situation was the third of the three ‘Rs in building true resilience. When we are stuck in the past, whether it is about the things we could do when we had two good legs; or when we pine for that wonderful job we held for many years; feeling sorry for ourselves about something we can’t change (the past) can’t move us productively into the future. We need to reframe our unique situation in the present and think of productive ways of moving forward in the new life we have.

Besides these clinically proven lessons we all can learn, I would add a few more that can help you weather our next personal ‘catastrophe’ and these include – having good people around you when you are going through a difficult period. This might also fall within the broader category of finding people with whom you can ‘relate’ to your unique situation.

In addition, developing a sense of humour is always helpful and creates a more positive way of looking at a grim picture. If you can practice all these skills broadly, it’s almost a sure thing that your next ‘dip’ in resilience will be a steep ‘V”, and bouncing back to your set point of happiness and stability will be a quick affair

Meet the author:
David Lim is Asia’s Motivational Mentor and is best known for leading the 1st Singapore Mt Everest Expedition. Since 1999, he has given over 700 motivational and leadership presentations. Engage him with questions at contact@davidlimspeaks.com.