I remember sitting in therapy after my ex-husband suddenly died, after years and years of being in a stressful and highly dysfunctional marriage, which was followed by a very difficult separation and a high-conflict divorce, and the therapist asking me this, “How do you do it?” I was really confused by the question because I didn’t know what I was “doing” that was so puzzling. It turned out that she was asking me how I remained grounded and hopeful. This struck me as strange, since she’d counseled me during the separation and divorce and was now seeing me through my ex-husband’s death. I would have thought she might have taken some credit for my sanity, but instead she was asking me what my secret was.
I stopped to think about it and tried to identify the things that I did that maybe friends who seemed less grounded did not do, comparing my habits to what might be less effective habits. What was the magical remedy for coping with adversity and managing to stay happy, motivated, and sane? What was the secret sauce? I listed my habits: I worked out nearly every day, ate healthily, got a good night’s sleep every night, had a wonderfully supportive network of friends and family, and wrote in my notebook every day. This list was nothing new. Researchers have been trying to figure out what makes resilient people resilient for decades and many of those same strategies, if not all, have been identified as strategies that could be practiced by people who are less resilient to make them more resilient.
I believed in my strategies so much that I became a personal trainer to help people reach their fitness goals and live healthier lifestyles. And I used my training as an English and writing educator to create writing workshops and writing prompts to teach people how to journal, so they could use personal writing as a strategy to cope with their own life challenges. Some of my personal training clients were success stories. They achieved their goals and maintained their level of fitness. And some of my journaling clients and Instagram followers found the writing prompts and techniques to be very helpful, and I would consider these to be success stories as well. But neither personal training or journaling coaching were 100% successful, which often left me questioning the techniques and programs I was teaching.
My therapist asked me that question in 2018, the year my ex-husband died. And now, in 2021, after a year of living through the impact of a global pandemic, compounded by becoming a captive audience to society’s ills, I find myself still working out six days a week and still keeping a daily notebook. These habits have not changed, for the most part. And perhaps, when and if compared to how others might be feeling right now, I am still considered resilient. I laugh every day. My family and I find fun things to do, as often as possible. But, some days aren’t easy. I find myself having moments when internally I want to scream. Or cry. I can shake those feelings off
and refocus my attention, and I do so quickly because I hate that dark feeling. But, I do feel it and I see it — the darkness.
So, now I’m challenged with the question of just how powerful are my strategies of writing daily, exercising frequently, eating right, being a good friend and nurturing supportive relationships, and having a sense of purpose because I actually can see the darkness peeking through.
I’m not a psychologist or psychology researcher. I have not conducted studies or poured through research that would bring me to any solid conclusions nor have psychologists and researchers, actually. The jury is still out on resilience. Resilience remains a mystery to people who study it for a living, so I most certainly do not claim to have the answers. They have been able to identify some things that make people resilient or that resilient people do or characteristics that they have.
- Resilient people have a high level of self-awareness.
- Resilient people practice mindfulness.
- Resilient people have supportive and positive relationships with others. 4. Resilient people have a sense of purpose.
- Resilient people practice self-care.
- Resilient people believe in survivorship and identify as survivors.
- Resilient people make meaning out of experiences.
- Resilient people are helpful to others.
- Resilient people try to focus on what is positive.
What I’ve also learned is that some people may have a genetic predisposition for resilience, and that while some skills may be learned, some come natural to others. And I believe that my predisposition leans towards resilience, potentially making it easier and seemingly more natural for me to do these things and behave this way. I have seen this throughout my life. My tenacity and grit seem to kick in, while friends become depressed or overwhelmed or anxious, when we both seem to want the same things going into similar situations. And coming to this realization that my love for my go-to, my safe place and space, my notebook, is not the answer for everyone. For a while, this realization had me questioning what I do, promoting journaling as a self-care practice, and that left me feeling quite lost and in a bit of a funk.
So, now what? What if you’re one of those people for whom resilience doesn’t come easily or naturally, and for whom personal writing never seems to help, no matter what pen or what notebook you use? You’ve tried some many different combinations and you still feel the exact same way. This is a tough question, and one that researchers have been trying to answer for a long time, because they, like I, want to help people feel better. My current thinking is that just writing is not going to help because it was never about just writing. It’s about those nine and maybe additional characteristics and behaviors that I’ve listed above. And it’s a long list and widely varied. It will be no easy task to acquire all of these skills and behaviors, or perhaps it will be. I’m not sure. But I would begin by writing them down in a place where I can see them all the time and consider them daily.
I would keep that list in front of me when I journal, and I would try to focus my journaling on one of those areas, whenever possible. I would ask myself questions that align with those behaviors. Such as:
- How am I reacting in this situation? How might I react differently? How might I address this more effectively? How would I describe my behavior? Do I wish my behavior were different?
- Do I feel anxious or nervous or overwhelmed? What can I do to calm myself down? ● How am I nurturing my relationships with others? Who comprises my support system? If I don’t have a strong support system, how can I create one? Are there toxic people in my life? Can I get rid of them? If not, how can I emotionally distance myself from this person or those people?
- What gives me a sense of purpose? What can I do to help others? What are my talents and gifts? How do I work on improving my talents and gifts?
- Am I taking good care of my mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health and well-being?
- Do I believe in surviving or am I stuck in the position of being a victim, if I’ve been hurt? Can I let go of the past? Am I able to forgive and move on? Do I hold grudges? ● When I experience something difficult, do I focus on the experience itself or on the lessons I’ve learned? Does it take me a long time to focus on the lessons or make meaning of my experiences? Am I able to move into this mode of thinking with a nudge, or do I tend to stay angry for a long time? What do I gain from being angry? ● How can I be of help to others? How can I make these experiences happen and schedule them into my day or time?
- Do I try to look on the bright side, or am I prone to see the negative? Do I acknowledge my negative and positive emotions and feel them all, while looking for ways to move forward and away from negative energy?
I know this is a long list of questions, but these are the sorts of questions that cycle through my mind constantly, and I mean with every experience. And I think that they are happening subconsciously, even when I am not accurately aware, which is why it seems to be happening naturally. I am constantly aware of my emotions, behaviors, and thoughts, and always modifying them, so that I feel stable. It is either my default or my disposition or learned behavior, but it is what I do, and what I truly think makes me resilient. My writing/my notebook is a tool that I use to think through all of the experiences, good and bad, that are worthy of my energy. I really hope this helps you build, create, find, or learn resilience, as we continue to muscle through life in these challenging times.