Resilience: Finding strength in moments of pain and challenge

Michelle Hunter by Michelle Hunter

When the world changes around us and when pain pervades our lives - both personally and professionally - how can we cultivate resilience and strength?

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We can talk about positive attitudes and abundance. We can move through our days with an optimistic worldview and see our cup as “half full” in just about every situation. I’m typically what I consider to be realistically optimistic – meaning I see the challenges around me, but I believe at my core that they can be overcome with a little hard work. 

But lately – quite honestly – I’m just overcome with the weight of emotional pain and challenge. 

This is an olympic year for challenge. We collectively absorbed the shock of the global pandemic and found a way to adjust to changing economic situations, job disruption, homeschooling children who would rather be in school, and isolation from our support networks. 

Personally, my family and I moved through a season of caring for my father as his health deteriorated and then saying goodbye to him as he recently passed away. The bonus challenge for all this was the isolation we endured during this time due to quarantine restrictions and protocols.

Now, as I process images of violence in the streets and grieve for our society in the face of systemic racism and hatred which is so rampant in our country… I’m just crushed. I feel as if my emotional reserve is completely depleted and I’m struggling to find productivity and balance. 

In these moments, we all need to cultivate resilience. We need to find strength in the midst of pain and challenge so that we can continue to serve those we love and be present in our community and society.  

How do we cultivate resilience? Here are my thoughts… 

Acknowledge the situation. 

My family is known for our ability to ignore unpleasant truths. We have a genetic predisposition for wrapping barbs in pleasantries (we call this porcupine speak) and burying negative emotion in food and funny movies. None of this is super helpful, actually. Pain doesn’t go away when we ignore it… in fact it festers and grows. 

Cultivating resilience means acknowledging stressful and difficult situations honestly and openly. Having the courage to look closely at pain and call it out…and the humility to see shortcomings and admit we are struggling to find solutions. 

Acknowledging the situation involves bringing dark things into the light so they can be examined, accepted, and resolved. Accepting the truth we know is there so we can move forward proactively. 

What does this look like? For me, acknowledgement comes inside the pages of my journal. The figurative monsters under my bed take shape and come out of hiding as my pen scratches along the pages of my notebook. I’m able to find clarity and a sense of empowerment as I examine the things that hurt me from multiple angles and perspectives.

Journaling might not work for you. That’s okay. There’s no magic in writing… the power comes in getting quietly brave and fully honest with yourself – in whatever way works best. 

Lean into and explore your feelings. 

Along with my family history of ignoring difficulty, I’m blessed with a stiff upper lip and a drive to “keep calm and carry on”. Emotional disruption is something I really don’t have time for in my life… I have too many things to do and achieve. So, this next point is difficult for me, if  I’m honest.

An important (even necessary) part of cultivating resilience is emotional. We need to lean into our feelings – even the painful ones – and explore them in order to begin the healing process. We need to understand how we feel so we can begin to respond to those feelings in helpful and productive ways. 

My grandmother used to tell me this → “Everyone loves a pity party. You can throw one if you like, Michelle. Just remember… a good party is over in a single day.”  This might seem harsh on its face, but it was actually sage advice during my pre-teen years. I’ve carried this with me into adulthood and it has served me well. Let me unpack it for you… 

My grandmother was giving me permission to feel deeply and grieve the negative events and circumstances in my life. Her words told me that it’s okay (and even positive) to have a good cry or get angry or feel all the things in my heart with abandon. I’m grateful for this advice, because it counteracts the compulsion to stuff things down inside. 

She was also helping me put limits on the emotion so I don’t get stuck. After the tears are dried, it’s time to get on with life. There’s work to be done…and life won’t wait while I wallow in the mire of bad times. 

In this year of pain and challenge, we hurt. We feel sad, overwhelmed, and disappointed. We get angry and fight the people and things we see as causing our pain. This is okay for a time… but then we need to get back to work. 

Plan a course of action or decide to stand firm.  

Resilience is defined as toughness and the ability to recover quickly from difficulties. For me, recovery comes from evaluating my response and making a decision that will guide my behavior going forward. It’s important to acknowledge. It’s important to feel and grieve. But the cycle of resilience isn’t complete until I begin recovering. 

Response for me is a position and an intentional decision to take action or to stand firm in my beliefs. Real response for me is never about waiting to see what happens next or hiding in my comfort zone so I can stay safe.  There’s something about making an intentional decision that empowers me and moves me forward.

Sometimes intentional action is my best possible response. I can speak out about the situation and share my perspectives. I can lead others to a problem resolution or pivot to align myself with a better scenario. Depending on the situation, I might choose to take a risk or make a sacrifice in order to create a better outcome for others. 

Other times, I find myself called to intentionally hold my position and stand for my beliefs and principles even when they are unpopular or challenged in some way.  I may need to keep quiet so I can work behind the scenes to comfort and support others. Or I may refuse to comply with someone’s demands even though it costs me in return. 

I find strength and agency in selecting my response. I’m no longer solely a victim of the situation. My powerlessness is replaced by intentionality, and I’m able to move forward when I was previously trapped and frozen. 

Resilience is a trait we must cultivate over time. 

We can’t wait until disaster strikes to cultivate resilience. It doesn’t work that way. Instead, we must build intentional everyday habits of acknowledging the truth around us, feeling emotions clearly, and then acting decisively to respond. Each day presents new opportunities to look at the world through an honest and objective lens…and select a response that’s aligned with our character and priorities. Embrace these opportunities… because 2020 isn’t nearly over yet.

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