How Resilient are You?

cow parsley looking weather battered to illustrate blog How resilient are youHow resilient are you?

You may have noticed that resilience is a hot topic at the moment.  News headlines tell us that employees lack resilience in the workplace.  Universities report that students are incapable of facing setbacks.  And, in that great indicator of fashionable trends – magazines are full of chirpy little quizzes designed to measure your resilience.  But resilience is so much more than the latest fad.  It is integral to good mental health and to survival in a changing world.  So, back to my original question:

How resilient are you?

If you find yourself riding a roller coaster of emotions – up one minute and down the next.  If you often feel that life is treating you unfairly.  If you regularly think “poor me” or “it’s not fair”.  If you constantly feel stressed and overwhelmed, then you could probably stand to develop more resilience.

What is resilience?

In materials, resilience refers to the ability of an object to return to its original form after being bent or stretched.  It is an items’ resistance to breaking under strain.  Think of a tree in a storm – a resilient tree will bend and sway but, when the storm passes, the tree will look pretty much the same as it did before.

In humans, resilience is a very similar thing.  It is essentially a person’s ability to recover from adversity.  Not, you will notice, to be unaffected by life’s storms, but to bend without breaking, to face problems and then recover.

Why does resilience matter?

Frankly, resilience matters because adversity will happen.  Every adult will, at some point, have to face big problems like illness, bereavement, job losses, financial challenges or relationship breakdowns etc.  In addition, they will face a multitude of smaller, every day challenges like a crying baby, an increasing workload or a fall out with a friend.

Why are some people more resilient than others?

Now we are entering the realms of the great nature/nurture debate.  Some people are simply more resilient.  They have a naturally optimistic and positive attitude to life and they bounce back from adversity with relative ease.  Some may see life more negatively.

Resilience is also a learned behaviour.  A child who is allowed to explore, to make decisions, to fail and to face the consequences of her actions, is likely to learn how to be resilient.  A child who is shielded from life’s challenges may not learn any coping mechanisms.  A toddler who is not allowed to climb (she might fall) becomes fearful and risk averse.  A child who is constantly told she is perfect may come to believe it.   A teenager who is always defended by her parents (against teachers, other children etc.) does not learn to take responsibility for her actions.  These are not qualities which lead to resilience.

How can I develop more resilience?

Learning happens in adulthood too.  If you can learn a lack of resilience in childhood you can develop more resilience as an adult.  The following will help:

  • If you have low self-esteem consider working on it. Low self-esteem does not have to be locked in for life.
  • If you have excessively high self-esteem it is probably time to learn that you are not, and cannot be, without fault.
  • Build a strong social network. Good friends will help you and support you when times are tough.  They will also be honest with you when you are contributing to the problem.
  • Develop your Emotional Intelligence – people who respond to situations appropriately, with emotional maturity, tend to be more resilient.
  • Try to shed any idea that you are a victim. Identifying as a victim can reinforce a sense of helplessness.
  • Learn to be honest with yourself and try to develop a balanced way of evaluating your own behaviour.

How resilient are you?  If your answer is “not resilient enough”, you might want to consider working with a counsellor or a coach to develop your ability to ride life’s ups and downs without being consumed by them.  To find out more click the button below and get in touch.

I would like to be more resilient

Empathy v Sympathy

Empathy Two blue wooden chairs sitting on the sand facing out to seaThe words “empathy” and “sympathy” are often used interchangeably and yet their actual meanings are very different.  The problem comes when people try to explain that difference.  I use empathy all the time in my work but I try not to use sympathy at all.  There is nothing at all wrong with showing sympathy but empathy requires a greater level of understanding – let me try to explain.

Earlier this week I was talking to a friend who had hurt her back – she was having difficulty bending, lifting, and even getting dressed.  I was less than helpful.

My first response was to say “oh no, poor you”, which is ok as sympathy goes (although a bit patronising and slightly tinged with pity).  But then I followed it up with the dreaded “I twinged my back this morning too.”  I was a bit cross with myself and couldn’t quite work out why I had said it – the conversation was not about me.

On reflection I realised that I was offering a fairly common (but not entirely helpful) type of sympathy.  I was trying to understand by putting myself in her position – in this instance I had twinged my back and it was, fleetingly, very painful so I was, somewhat clumsily, saying “I have experienced your pain and I understand.”  I was looking inside myself for understanding of her situation.

But the truth is I haven’t experienced her pain, I have experienced mine.  If I was to show empathy rather than sympathy I would have to try to understand what it is like to be her in her particular situation, only then could I truly understand.  This also applies to both positive and negative emotions.

Imagine a situation where a friend’s father has died.

Sympathy requires you to understand that your friend might feel sad and bereft.  You express your sorrow for her, maybe hug her and allow her to cry on your shoulder.  This is sympathy at its best and is a loving and appropriate way of responding.  Sympathy stems, in part, from understanding how people might generally feel in such a situation and acting accordingly.

Empathy needs a deeper level of understanding.  It requires you to understand what it is like to be this particular person in this particular situation and not to make assumptions – not everyone is sad when a parent dies, it can often be a confusing time full of mixed emotions; guilt, anger, sadness, relief etc.  It requires you to listen deeply and to feel deeply too.  If you are being empathetic you will feel sad/confused etc. with your friend not for her.

Empathy is not about cheering someone up or helping them to feel better, it is simply about joining them in their world and working hard to understand and share that experience and, in some instances, holding their hand until they feel ready to move.  Quite frankly, it is one of the greatest gifts you can give to someone who is struggling.

So, next time you are tempted to say “I know how you feel”, remember that you probably don’t.  If you don’t know what to say try listening instead of talking.  And yes, I will be taking a big, healthy dose of my own medicine this week.

This is the third blog in a series about the Core Conditions of Counselling and follows on from earlier articles about Congruence and Unconditional Positive Regard.