The day my boyfriend moved his furniture out, a week after I’d ended our six-year relationship, my Mom called as I was curled up on my temporary makeshift couch of two oversized pillows pushed together. “I’m okay,” I said. “Oh, I know you’re okay,” she replied. “You’re strong as steel.”
Steel. I love that word. It’s a noun, of course, but it’s also a verb: to steel oneself, to mentally prepare for a difficulty that’s coming. Life is hard. Steel is harder.
There’s a storm before every calm. We’ve all faced one and will face more. You will not escape it. Some of us are probably in the middle of one right now.
Flailing and complaining, worrying and unraveling – these reactions don’t help us. They’re natural and honest, and they deserve acknowledgment, but the next steps are release, acceptance and bracing for impact.
Success isn’t found in the breakdown. It’s in the buildup.
We Need Resilience in Small Doses, Too
Resilience isn’t required for just the big things. Anyone who freelances, runs a business or is striving to level up in their career – or who has a newborn, is healing from an injury or is going through a divorce – knows that it takes bite-sized resilience multiple times a day. I’d argue that it’s more difficult to stay strong in little moments than in big ones. When life-or-death isn’t the conundrum, it’s much easier to buckle under lesser pressures, especially as they build up.
Rock Bottom Doesn’t Have to Be the Springboard
When the worst has happened, either by fate or your own fault, the way up is obvious because it’s the only way. You can be resilient before you stretch that rubber band that is your life as far as it’ll go, though. In so many situations, you have the ability to stop, shift and change the outcome; to improve your day now instead of waiting for tomorrow; to foresee bigger problems ahead and start making repairs now to avoid them.
Mister Rogers has a song called, “What Do You Do With the Mad That You Feel?” and even though it’s to help children make better decisions when they’re angry, it’s applicable to adults, too – because let’s be honest, we can all turn into toddlers when we don’t get our way. Here’s the best line: “It’s great to be able to stop when you’ve planned a thing that’s wrong, and be able to do something else instead.” Whether the difficulty you’re facing is within your control or outside of it, you can choose how you’ll recover.
(Have you see the Mister Rogers documentary? Watch it. Be prepared to cry.)
Maybe It’s a Good Time to Bail
When I was in high school, there were these two cousins who wanted to beat me up, tough, mean girls who wouldn’t have hesitated to punch me right in the face. They told me to meet them down in the parking lot after school. All day long, people came up to me to ask what I was going to do. I just shrugged, unflustered – “I’m not going to go down to the parking lot.” I left at 3 p.m., walked to my after-school job and nobody ever clucked another word about it.
We’re always bouncing back from something. Sometimes you have the luxury to choose what you want to cope with. I didn’t have to learn how to be resilient after getting a black eye. Instead, I bounced back from a scary threat and school-wide speculation, which taught me an entirely different – and more worthwhile – lesson.
Get real with yourself. What’s required here? What do you want to deal with? What are you even capable of dealing with? Is there a better, smarter choice with positive, long-lasting impact?
Life doesn’t reward you for taking the harder, tougher route for toughness’ sake alone. Your choices should make you a stronger person.
5 Ways to Be More Resilient
Assuming you can’t bail right now, here’s how to become more resilient, both in the moment and in daily life – think of it as your resiliency training.
1. Ignore the finish line. Believe in your abilities.
Few things turn out the way we envision them. A lot of the time, they end up way better than we could have pictured. Or way worse.
Goals are necessary so there’s something to strive for, but don’t fool yourself into thinking you’ll know exactly how a situation is going to turn out. (I dive into this some more in my article about the illusion of control.)
Personally, the best things in my life have come from two ideas working simultaneously: (1) utter acceptance that I have no idea what the future will look like and (2) complete and total faith in my abilities. Sometimes my ability is as abstract as making good decisions and leading myself in the right direction, and sometimes it’s a lot more tangible, like being able to write well and provide good customer service to my clients.
The point here is that if you’re more confident in your capability than hung up on the outcome, you’ll have an easier time bouncing back because you’ll be relying on the most trustworthy person in your life: yourself.
2. Gamify it.
Right now, you can’t do the last thing – you can’t solve the entire problem – but you can do the next best thing. Sometimes that’s super hard, like the time I hiked Giant Mountain, fell three times, hurt my knee and realized I didn’t bring my headlamp as the sun was setting (or the right boots or enough water). Or like when climber Joe Simpson shattered the Hell out of his leg at 19,000 feet – spoiler alert, he survived and then wrote Touching the Void about the experience, which I recommend you read.
Joe and I both gamified the experience. He created a pattern of movements to use for each step; I got up and down that mountain in 100-step groups. I’m sure we both cried, but we also both lived to tell the tale.
The point isn’t necessarily to make the situation fun but to make it bearable, to keep the mind distracted and focus on one crisis at a time. If you’re not in something as threatening and unforgiving as the wilderness, you can even give yourself small treats as you reach mini-goals.
3. Manage your impulses.
If you’re generally an impulsive person in life, you’re going to be an impulsive person under stress – possibly more impulsive and with worse consequences. Staying calm and making rational decisions can help you be more resilient because you won’t make a situation worse before it can get better.
Since most days you’re going to deal with minor problems and not major ones, get used to acting less impulsively. Don’t make decisions out of pure frustration or even pure excitement – think them through first. Write a pros and cons list if you need to. Or see what happens if you make no decision right now and give yourself plenty of time to sit on it.
4. Move through the stages of grief quickly.
There are seven stages of grief:
- Shock: Paralysis when facing the situation.
- Denial: Avoiding the inevitable.
- Anger: Bottled-up emotion and frustration pour out.
- Bargaining: Trying to find a way out of the situation (but not in a healthy or productive way).
- Depression: Realizing the inevitable is…inevitable, and being upset about that.
- Testing: Looking for realistic solutions to the problem.
- Acceptance: Finding a way to move forward.
People who are resilient move from the shock stage to the testing and acceptance stages quickly. They may even skip some of the stages in between, especially if they’ve faced the same difficulty in the past. Laurence Gonzales writes about this in Deep Survival (great book, BTW): “The best survivors spend almost no time, especially in emergencies, getting upset about what has been lost, or feeling distressed about things going badly.”
Forcing your way through the stages of grief takes a lot of willpower, especially because the middle stages are so tempting to sink into. Getting it all out can help, whether that’s out loud to someone you know or down on paper. If you need to, write out the different stages and how you’ve experienced them. Then start listing those solutions.
You can definitely practice this in everyday life. When something small-but-totally-annoying happens, force yourself to skip over the “I’m so upset about this” stages. Go right to solving the problem. The next time you spill an entire carton of orange juice on your kitchen floor, start cleaning it up without hesitating. If you forgot to buy something at the store, put your sneakers on and head back out before you can beat yourself up over it. If you get a splinter, gather the rubbing alcohol and the tweezers and get that sucker out. Just get it done.
5. Learn from others.
“Others have been through it too” isn’t comforting for everyone, but it’s always been comforting for me, especially when I can tie my experience to that of a specific person, not just the general public. We’re all unique butterflies, but honestly, one person’s heartbreak or firing from work or fight with a family member is a billion other people’s, too. Knowing that others came before, labored through and walked out the other end healed, employed or on speaking terms is supremely hopeful. Pardon my penchant for sappy stories, but this quote from P.S. I Love You pinballs in my head whenever I feel alone in disappointment or sadness: “Thing to remember is if we’re all alone, then we’re all together in that too.”
In practice, this can mean telling people about what you’re going through – you’ll hear similar stories in return. I’m not a “spill your heart out” person usually, so my solution has always been to pick up a book or read a magazine article about how Joe Famous Person faced something horrible and got through it. And if you really need a jolt of “everyone’s been here,” listen to Nate Berkus’ interview called “Surviving the Storm” on the SuperSoul Conversations podcast.
On the same note, this is a perfect time to give back. Helping others can give you a fix of “my life isn’t so bad,” or just shake you out of whatever slump you’re in. If you get a confidence boost from being selfless, I give you permission to enjoy that – it’s not selfish to feel good about yourself.
If you’re not a person who can handle daily life and all its teeny struggles, you’re going to have a difficult time moving through those stages of grief in order to help yourself when the you-know-what really hits the fan. Your habits and the way you handle your emotions on a normal day are the training and preparation you need to be truly resilient when you need it most. Get used to helping yourself in small ways so that it’ll be second nature when serious drama or trauma blows through.