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How to Develop Survivor Resiliency

by Al Siebert, PhD, Director, The Resiliency Center

Adapted from The Resiliency Advantage: Master Change, Thrive Under Pressure and Bounce Back From Setbacks by Al Siebert, Ph.D. (Berrett-Koehler Publishers)

Suzanne Somers' father was a violent, alcoholic man. At age 18 she became pregnant. She married her boyfriend, but her marriage was miserable. Two years later she divorced him. Her son was hit by a car and almost killed. He needed medical treatments. Suzanne was financially destitute. Her ex-husband broke and could not pay any child support. Desperate for work she scrounged for low paying modeling and television commercial jobs.

There is always the temptation for the child of an alcoholic parent to turn to drink or drugs, but Suzanne didn't do that. She endured and achieved stardom in the television series Three's Company.

"Some people give up," she says, "they choose to be victims. I didn't give up. I am not a victim, and that is my proudest accomplishment."

Your inner resiliency determines how well you bounce back from adversity, hold up under pressure, and turn misfortune into good luck. Can you develop resilience, hardiness, and a talent for serendipity? Yes, you can. Research into the inner nature of life's best survivors shows that a person can develop excellent mental health and emotional strength the same as physical health and physical strength.

Emotional resiliency comes from developing the following attributes:

  • Be curious, play, and laugh

    Life's best survivors have a child-like curiosity. They love to learn how things work. They play and laugh like children. Playing with what you are curious about is the best form of learning. In a survival situation an ability to play and laugh at what is happening improves your chances of coping well. Your mind, rather than being overwhelmed, is able to absorb useful information rapidly.

    Action plan: Ask more questions, be curious, experiment, and laugh more. Learn how to make yourself laugh so you don't have to rely on outside sources. Counter-balance a tendency toward seriousness with a spirit of playfulness.

  • Learn from unpleasant experiences

    We were all born with the ability to learn directly from experience. It is as if the original equipment came from the manufacturer with an installed software program that constantly up-grades itself with use.

    Some people react to unpleasant experiences by protesting "Look what has happened to me now!" or "If only other people would change, my life would be better!" They have what is called a "victim" reaction. They blame others for their unhappiness and portray upsetting people as villains. They do not learn or gain strength from unpleasant experiences.

    It may help to know that Dr. Hans Selye, the physician famous for his "stress" research, apologized when he retired for making a mistake. He said in his autobiography that he used the wrong term and should have named his concept the "strain syndrome."

    Action plan: People tend to react to an upsetting or distressing experience with either a victim/blaming reaction or a learning/coping reaction. To develop the learning/coping habit, first accept responsibility for your reaction to what other people do or say. They are not "making you angry", for example, you feel angry when they act or talk a certain way.

    Second, if you understand that the challenge is dealing with strain, rather than external stress, you can treat a difficult situation like a workout at the gym. You do your very best, pause afterward to reflect on what happened, and ask "What can I learn from this?" Then imagine yourself doing better next time and look forward to embracing it fully with your best energy.

    If you repeat the learning process over and over for weeks and months, you develop confidence in yourself. You anticipate either handling something well or, if you don't, you expect to learn something useful. You become stress resistant. What used to be stressful becomes an invigorating workout for you.

  • Develop strong self-esteem

    Self-esteem works like a thick skin or blanket of energy around you. If someone is critical you can compare your opinion of yourself with theirs, decide that you like yours better, and shrug off the barb without feeling wounded.

    Strong self-esteem enhances learning. It allows you to be more open to healthy self-criticism. It also allows you to receive compliments better. People with weak self-esteem can't handle much negative feedback nor do they receive compliments well. Our need for self-esteem is so strong that people with little conscious self-esteem try to build themselves up by tearing other people down.

    Action plan: Make a list of all the things you like and appreciate about yourself. Practice positive self-talk about yourself.

  • Value your paradoxical traits

    Interviews and surveys show that life's best survivors value being flexible, resilient, and adaptable above any other quality.

    How does a person do flexibility? The answer is that flexibility, resiliency, and adaptability all come from accepting and appreciating your inborn ability to be both one way and the opposite. It is normal and healthy to be both serious and playful, self-appreciating and self-critical, optimistic and pessimistic, angry and forgiving, trusting and cautious, selfish and unselfish.

    Paradoxical traits are, at the psychological level, like the opposing muscles in your body that contract and extend. Your ability to control how you move and react comes from being at the choice point between counter-balanced forces.

    Action plan: Make up list of all the ways in which you are both one way and the opposite. The more the pairs of opposites the better. Validate opposing qualities. Tell yourself, for example, "It is all right to be both optimistic and pessimistic."

  • Practice empathy for difficult people

    Mentally healthy people can see how things look from other points of view besides their own. Empathy is easy with someone you know and like. But how do your react to difficult people? Give them a negative label? Labeling others is a sign that you are judgmental and emotionally fragile.

    Let's look, for example, at your reaction to someone who is negative all the time. If you are like most people you have labeled the negative person "a pessimist" and think "if only they would change, things would be much better." Do you recognize this? It is a victim reaction to something you can't handle well. The problem is not that the person is negative. The problem is that you have a negative reaction to their negative attitude.

    Action plan: When someone acts or talks in a way that upsets you, take a deep breath and work to comprehend how things look from their point of view. The ability to understand ways of acting, thinking, and living that you disagree with is a high level skill. Empathy does not mean, however, that you agree with or approve of the other person's views or actions. It means only that you comprehend.

    Try thinking of a difficult person as your teacher. This person knows how to do and say things you can't handle. The way to learn and gain strength is to through curiosity and empathy. Stop blaming them. Ask yourself "What advantages, benefits, and payoffs do they gain from talking as they do?"

  • Expect good outcomes

    People who are hardy and resilient expect and need to have things work out well. They expect to handle adversities in a way that leads to the best possible outcome. Pilot Scott O'Grady, for example, constantly scanned his situation in Bosnia to determine his best course of action for surviving and getting rescued.

    In personal conflicts psychologically healthy people look for resolutions that have all sides benefiting and "winning." This synergistic motivation saves energy. Everything works better; you create good "flow" when everyone benefits.

    Sometimes it takes patience to not try to rush a solution, especially when whatever is happening may not be clear. Mentally healthy people rank very high on their toleration for ambiguity and uncertainty. They are also known to be persistent in their efforts to get a good outcome.

    Action plan: Orient yourself to a challenging situation with the question "How can I interact with this so that things turn out well for everyone, including me?" Then work in a gently persistent way to make it so.

  • Barriers to emotional resiliency

    If you were raised to be a "good child" you probably find it difficult to consider doing the suggested actions. You were raised being told "Don't be selfish, don't talk back, don't be conceited, don't be angry, don't cry or be unhappy" and so forth. Lot's of "don'ts."

    Action plan: Experiment with some of the following:
    • Make a list of all the things you feel unhappy about and show it to someone.
    • Make a selfish request.
    • Talk back to a person in authority.
    • Tell someone to their face that you are angry at them.
    • Tell a friend about something you like about yourself.

    Doing any of these will not mean you are a bad person. They could make you easier to live with. Notice how much better others react. Notice how you feel more free.

  • Indicators of excellent mental health

    How many of the items below describe you?

    1. When hit by adversity, you have a learning/coping reaction, rather than a victim reaction. You feel responsible for how you react to what other people do. You appreciate unpleasant feedback from others.

    2. You have good empathy skills. You can comprehend views that you disagree with and see what is legitimate about someone acting in ways you dislike.

    3. Things work better when you are involved. You interact with the world in a flexible, synergistic way. You draw your responses from a natural blend of paradoxical traits such as pessimistic optimism, selfish unselfishness, loving anger, self-critical self-appreciation, moral lust, gentle toughness, cooperative non-conformity, and responsible rebellion.

    4. You convert accidents and misfortune into good luck. Called a talent for serendipity, you sometimes gain so much from a bad experience you feel lucky it happened and may feel that "It was the best thing that ever happened to me."

    5. Life gets better and better with each decade. Life at 60 is better than life at 50 or 40 or 30. You spend less time surviving than others. You become increasing life competent, playful, resilient, hardy, humorous, and free.

Al Siebert has studied mental health for over thirty years. He is the Director of The Resiliency Center and author of The Resiliency Advantage and The Survivor Personality.

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