My husband and I had dinner last weekend with some friends who we have known for more than 30 years. We raised our kids together and traveled together in summer and winter. We love them dearly. We also have the utmost respect for them and how they have worked through the extremely sad and difficult challenge of having a child with a drug-addiction problem. “Lesser” couples would have long since divorced or simply devolved into heartless coexistence. But not Dick and Jane (not their real names). Their marriage is as strong—if not stronger—than ever. They had to partner in order to face the challenge and support their son through what has been a great number of twists and turns on his nearly 10-year road to recovery. And they had to hold their entire family together, ensuring that their other child was not brushed to the side while all attention was on “Keith.” That road has been incredibly difficult both emotionally and financially for all of them. But seeing them together, you can feel the partnership and love…and their commitment to not letting the devil of addiction beat them or their son.
This is resilience. To me, it is one of the most vital skills required for success in life. And one that I fear is on the wane in today’s world in which people are more interested in having pity parties for those whose feelings are hurt, rather than teaching them the skills to stand up to challenges, learn from them and forge new paths.
Coincidentally last week, I recorded a podcast with former NFL defensive lineman and star of the American Gladiator game show Dan “Nitro” Clark on the topic of resilience. It turns out that big, strong fitness expert Dan had his world shattered when he had a heart attack at age 49. This was just one in a series of setbacks throughout his life—including when his 12-year-old brother was electrocuted and died in his arms when Dan was 10 years old. Dan had overcome hardship many times throughout his life, but during the days after his heart attack, he announced that he wanted to die. His spirit had been broken. But then, true to Dan’s fighting spirit, he bounced back.
Neither Dan nor I know why some people are naturally more resilient than others—why some people fight in the face of challenge and others “flee.” We agreed, however, that there is a serious lack of resilience in today’s society. And it is likely only going to get worse, thanks to the parents, school administrators and others in leadership roles who choose to mollify people facing challenges, rather than to encourage them to trust their abilities to overcome such difficulties and provide a structure that allows them to try.
There is that classic quote: “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.”
So how do we teach people to fish for resilience? What tools can they use? How can they get past the paralysis that sends them fleeing rather than fighting in times of challenge?
Dan suggests a number of things…
1. Shift your perspective. After spending several days asking himself, Why me?, and worrying that the life he knew had been lost, Dan had an “aha moment” and shifted his perspective. Why me? turned into What can I be?
Dan had remade himself previously as he moved from football player to gladiator and then actor and producer in Hollywood. Each of these roles was connected by his self-identity as a “superman,” but after his heart attack, all that changed. Dan hit bottom but came back up by asking himself, What can I be?…and opening his mind to a host of possibilities.
When you’re forced to make a change in your work life or your home life, open your mind to all sorts of new possibilities. If you have no idea where to start, try reflecting back on what your dreams were when you were very young. Often those dreams are still inside of you, but they have been buried by the practicalities of adulthood.
2. What can I control? There is a distinct connection between depression and a feeling of helplessness. Many people say that a feeling of helplessness is a result of depression…but there are others who would say that the helplessness comes first. Surveys of worker satisfaction bear this out. As much as people like to talk about salary, the truth is that money is not the primary influencer of job satisfaction. Instead, things like having the ability to learn…having a path for career progression…being recognized…and having autonomy and responsibility all contribute to job satisfaction. Yes—having autonomy and responsibility = control. Without a feeling of control, workers are frustrated and unmotivated.
Now think back to those “terrible twos.” All that young children want is a little bit of control over their choices. Same thing as they grow—fights between parents and children are most often simple power struggles.
Humans of all ages want to control their destiny.
As Dan set forth to start living again, he looked for small challenges that he could control. The day that he returned home from the hospital, he set a goal for himself that he would leave his bedroom, walk downstairs and reach the refrigerator…and not die. A small feat by many measures, but for a man who was on his deathbed just days before and was now living with the fear that any activity might kill him, getting up and going downstairs was enormous.
His goal…his control…his destiny.
3. Get over self-doubt. According to Dan, the number-one thing that holds us back is our own fear—fear of failure and fear that others will view us as failures.
Get over it.
Flee-ers are paralyzed by fear. They can’t see a path to safety. Fighters move past their fear. Even though everyone has self-doubts, bouncing back means bouncing through and over the self-chatter that holds you back.
There are always a zillion reasons why you shouldn’t do something. But what if there were similar reasons why you should do something?
Dan uses journaling to release the self-talk and instead focus on opportunities and possibilities. He calls the process learned optimism—teaching oneself to focus on the accomplishments and not the failures. See what has been done and not what hasn’t. Create an inner dialogue about the actions and the successes.
Facing challenges and bouncing back aren’t complicated, but they aren’t easy, either. Whether you are confronted with a life-or-death situation or simply a feeling of suffocation in your life, you have so much more power than you realize.
Newton’s first law states that “a body in motion stays in motion…” Take three steps—shift your perspective…find things you can control…replace self-doubt with positive self-talk and learned optimism—and you will be ready to fight.