For as long as I can remember, I've found great solace living in the margins -- tenuous spaces inhabited by those set adrift, the wanderers and the disenfranchised. I spent much of life uncoiled and disconnected, first living as an emotional chameleon, a direct result of childhood trauma, and later as I nursed the seismic aftershocks of that trauma reverberating through my teens and into my 30s in the guise of addiction and suicidal depression.
Yet here I am today at 50 -- an elite athlete, author and international advocate for survivors of sexual violence. I do a lot of public speaking, and the question I'm most frequently asked is: How were you able to use the adversity in your life as a stepping stone for growth and success?
I believe it all comes down to resilience, and by that, I'm not referring to that static inner strength that allows us to endure or survive great hardship, trauma or loss, but rather to a fluid quality within that enables certain individuals to actively respond to and redirect the untethered energy of that adversity. It's a conscious decision that is available to all of us when we face our most all-consuming challenges, yet it is a choice that few are willingly to embrace -- for me, that is what sets apart people who are "resilient" from those who merely "survive."
So, how do you get to the place where you can nurture resilience in your life? I'm currently at work on a book about that very question, and part of the research for this project involves interviewing over 100 people from around the world who have demonstrated immense and sustained resilience through some extremely challenging life circumstances. A theme that continues to reappear in these interviews is the importance of "getting comfortable feeling uncomfortable." In other words, it's learning to exist within yourself and navigate along those disarming margins we often find ourselves in.
By learning to get comfortable with the uncomfortable, we open up the possibility to innovate in order to find new ways forward through adversity.
Anthropology refers to something called "liminality," a term that has its etymology in the Latin word "līmen," meaning "a threshold." It is a concept that is used to describe that period of uncertainty and disorientation occurring within the middle of a ritual when participants can no longer trust the pre-ritual status and have yet to identify and enlist the appropriate transition or way of being needed to move forward. It's a disorienting feeling during which identity, community and security are in great flux.
I believe that our ability to be resilient has much to do with how we weather so-called liminal periods of our life. It is those times that often arise out of trauma, adversity or great loss, when our previous way of being no longer serves us, and all our social and cultural values are called into question. Our way of interacting begins to dissolve and we have as yet to find or embrace, a new way of interacting with our environment.
Over the years, I have learned to recognize these moments not as periods of disintegration, but rather as opportunities for integration and creativity. We all face these periods of uncertainty in our life, so I thought I would invite you to consider adopting these strategies the next time you find yourself in a state of liminal disequilibrium:
Adopt an IDEA mindset
IDEA is an acronym I created that stands for innovate, delegate, excavate and accelerate. By learning to get comfortable with the uncomfortable, we open up the possibility to innovate in order to find new ways forward through adversity. Second, by delegating or deferring to others, we not only invite help into our lives but also stave off isolation by creating bridges of connection. Periods of dissonance provide an ideal time to excavate, or self-reflect -- time to take a close look at what sits in our hearts and eats at our soul. And finally, sooner or later you have to move beyond the liminal threshold of uncertainty, and the sooner you can accelerate that motivation to do that, the better you'll feel.
Timing is everything... Don't wait!
I recently heard an interview with Brandon Stanton, the creative genius behind the internationally famous photo blog entitled Humans of New York. As you can imagine, Brandon is often asked by aspiring photographers and creatives what he credits with the phenomenal success of his project, and his advice is to not wait until you have something all figured out before you start. In other words, "You have to start something before you're ready, [and in the process] you learn courage by doing things when you are afraid. Don't wait until you are not afraid before you start."
Harness the thrill of the uncertainty
One thing is for certain, the wake of trauma, adversity or deep loss brings with it a debilitating weight of indecision steeped in fear. A characteristic of resilience is having an ability to make decisions without having all the answers figured out first. I believe this comes from a faith that no matter how something works out, you will either have success or you will learn something important about yourself.
I once heard Elizabeth Gilbert describe it in this way: "I'm more excited and thrilled by the feeling of the jump rather than the landing... No one knows where he or she is going to the land, we have no control over that, but we do have control of how we feel when we jump."
If you, or someone you know, exhibits a high level of resilience, and you would like to be interviewed for my upcoming book, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Use this four-step process when you're curious about a reaction you had, don't like a reaction you had, or simply want to find a new way of looking at a problem. This technique is based on the work of Drs. Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck, and can help you better understand why your react the way you do to certain situations. First, describe factually what pushed your buttons (who, what, where, when); second, write down your reaction -- both what you did and how you felt (I felt angry and yelled); third, write down exactly what you were thinking in-the-moment during the challenge; and fourth, ask yourself whether your reaction helped or hurt your ability to find a solution. If you find that your reactions are harming your leadership ability, relationships, or other aspects of your life, target your thinking, which is where we have the most control.
Kids have zest in abundance, but as we age, societal and organizational pressures quietly tell us that having fun and being serious don't go together. Not surprisingly, zest is a strong predictor of work and life satisfaction. In addition, fun helps you socialize, provides an outlet for learning and creativity, and has great health benefits. The Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor posts numerous resources, including research, about the benefits of fun.
Research by Dr. Christopher Peterson and his team shows that using your strengths in new ways every day for a week increases happiness and decreases depression. In addition, Harter et al. found that those who get to do what they do best at work on a daily basis have increased loyalty, retention, and productivity. Two strengths tests are the StrengthsFinder by Gallup and the VIA Inventory of Strengths.
When you hear the word "optimism," do you think of a big smiley face, Pollyana, or an ostrich with its head stuck in the sand? That is not the kind of optimism that builds resilience. Optimism as a resilience ability is about a thinking style and not about a personality trait. Optimistic thinkers are able to identify what's in their control during a setback. Second, optimistic thinkers know "this too shall pass." They know that a stressor might be around for awhile, but it likely won't be around forever. Finally, optimistic thinkers know how to compartmentalize. For example, if they have a setback at work, the fallout does not bleed into other areas of their life. Conversely, pessimistic thinkers think the cause of a problem will be around for a very long period of time, affect many different areas of their life, and they fail to see where they have any control.
Remember the children's book The Little Engine that Could? The phrase the engine kept uttering was, "I think I can, I think I can." That is self-efficacy -- your ability to believe you can accomplish what you want to accomplish. The tendency to remember and dwell on only the times when you've failed or done less than your best often thwarts your ability to remember what you've accomplished. To build your self-efficacy, keep a journal of "wins." Write down all of the times in your life when you have exceeded expectations, accomplished tough goals, and were in control of your life. Review this list often and keep adding to it. Encourage your kids to start building their list now. In addition, don't be afraid to start small. Small victories create momentum, which is a great foundation from which to succeed at more complicated tasks.
Shelly Gable's research shows that how you respond to a person's good news actually does more for building a relationship than how you respond to bad news. This applies across the board, from personal relationships to business interactions. Responding in an active and constructive way -- that is, helping the bearer of good news savor it -- is the only response that builds good relationships. Killing the conversation by offering a terse response or hijacking the conversation by making it about you are quick ways to weaken a relationship.
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