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3 Go-To Strategies for Resilience

From simply surviving to thriving.

Key points

  • Each person finds a way to navigate life's challenges. Resilience skills can help propel us forward to thriving and growth.
  • Connect and tap into the support of those around you, and fuel your resilience with embracing opportunities to learn from your challenges.
  • When in doubt, turn to your inner coach for supportive reminders that you will persevere.

As a performance psychologist and entrepreneur, a woman working in a male-dominated field, and a single mother of two daughters, I’ve heard this line more times than I can count: “I don’t know how you do it!”

Maybe you’ve heard it too—most busy professionals trying to juggle a lot at once have. And layered over the challenges of the pandemic (loss of child care, workspace, social support, etc.), it seems to be a widely circulated sentiment.

I’ll admit, at times I’ve reacted with annoyance. I used to respond with a version of “I don’t know, I just do it!” But I’ve come to see that answering in that way could have the unintended effect of making the other person feel like I’m being dismissive, and ultimately minimizes the exchange.

So I took a step back (and a few breaths) and pause to reflect, and reframed. Now, when someone says that they don’t know how I do it, I recognize that they’re witnessing me overcoming challenges, surviving ... and even sometimes thriving. They’re wondering how someone does that.

That flip in perspective led me to reflect on the strategies that have worked for me over the years, as well as the tools I’ve taught elite performers who face daunting challenges. How have I found a way through professional challenges? Juggled the demands of a full-time career, being a startup co-founder, and the full-time hustle of single motherhood in the midst of personal setbacks and global stressors like a pandemic? Where does my resilience come from?

Through that reflection, I was able to gain awareness of and double down on my core sources of strength. I share them with you here and encourage you to undertake this reflection yourself, so you’re ready the next time you get the statement.

1. Prioritize Social Connection From the Start

When I was first married and working in my field after graduate school, we moved cities quite a bit. When we moved to Mississippi, I didn’t think we would be there long. As a result, I wasn’t proactive about becoming a part of the community. But I ended up spending five years there, giving birth to two children, and eventually realized that I needed social support in order to make it through that period of my life.

The final 10 months we were in the South, I began reaching out through colleagues, other parents from my children’s school, and via a local church group. The ensuing relationships and connections taught me that no matter what, every move, I need to immediately dive in and begin making connections with people. Whether my journey leads to those relationships being short-lived or lifelong, they’re valuable as an opportunity to give and receive support.

Research has shown interpersonal support to be the strongest predictor of resilience (Flannery, 1990; Ozer, Best, Lipsey, & Weiss, 2003). Social connection feeds a core sociobiological need we all have—the need to belong, to have a shared space for support and problem-solving. The reality is that “I” don’t achieve anything in isolation—I’m grateful for the village that I’ve had along the way, at every stop (no matter how long).

2. Be an Active Optimist, Especially in Tough Times

One of the tools I often teach elite performers is active optimism. Quite simply, it refers to a mindset and action taken to increase the odds that things will turn out well (as opposed to passive optimism, which means hoping things will turn out well).

Experts caution us on the risks of toxic positivity, which is refusing or denying the reality of life’s tragic or uncomfortable experiences. Consider tapping strategies from psychologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl’s work, which proposes that finding meaning in the darkness aids recovery and growth. He described the power of this “tragic optimism” as being able to hold space to experience the good and the bad parts of life, and finding ways to grow from both.

When taking life’s punches, consider asking these questions:

  • “How can this make me stronger, or help me grow?”
  • “How can this make me more forgiving?”
  • “What can I learn from this?”

This is how I practice active optimism—turning my sights and focus to the things that have gone well or sparked gratitude for me that day, and attempting to draw lessons for the future from those that did not.

3. Train My Inner Coach to Be With Me Always

Another tool I use in my work is self-talk—which I prefer to think of as “training my inner coach.” Self-talk can sometimes be reduced to “thinking positive,” but in reality, you can speak to yourself differently depending on the context and the skills needed. For a demanding task like briefing a high-performance team in Special Forces, I would employ a more challenging self-talk style, coaching myself to “just dig in” and be efficient and focused.

But for personal issues or tough times with my family, I need a more supportive style of coaching. I often coach myself with, “I’m strong,” or “I am loved.” I’ve used those phrases with my daughters over the years as well. Through that deliberate practice, I’ve worked out the style of coaching that allows me to “just do it” when things are tough. And remember, all coaches need training and their skills are ever-changing. I tap my inner coach for her versatile skill set—to motivate, challenge, instruct, and support me along the way.

These are the three strategies that have helped me overcome personal and professional hurdles through the years. I encourage you to try this reflection yourself—reframe “I don’t know how you do it” as a complimentary statement from another person acknowledging your strengths, and honestly consider the tools that have kept you going. Only you know how you do it.

References

Flannery, Jr., R.B. (1990). Social support and psychological trauma: A methodological review. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 3 (4) 593-61. https://doi.org/10.1002/jts.2490030409

Frankl, Viktor E. “The Case for a Tragic Optimism” (postscript to Man’s Search for Meaning). New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984.

Ozer, E. J., Best, S. R., Lipsey, T. L., & Weiss, D. S. (2003). Predictors of posttraumatic stress disorder and symptoms in adults: a meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 129(1), 52–73. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.129.1.52

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