Resilience in the Making:
The Balance of Bending and Breaking
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Quitting. Something most of us have done or at least considered at some point. And while I often say strategic quitting is a good idea, something akin to understanding when to fight and when to let go, it can feel simply awful. In many cultures giving up is considered giving in—giving in to something dark and sinister, bordering on complete failure.
When we feel we are failing we are most likely experiencing a lack of commitment, brain fog, or anxiety, and these feelings can lead to depression. Our brains are firing extensively in a negative space and sadly wiring neurons together, sometimes even losing the power to fire at all.
Therapists are usually well-equipped to support someone through the healing process of the pain from depression or anxiety. Coaches work on growth and development, where the focus is on moving forward and achieving goals, and many coaches are also trained to deal with the frustrations and challenges of their clients. Sometimes, though, it can feel like an uphill battle (helping them to modulate, regulate, and integrate), and that can bring the therapist or coach to a similar space of self-doubt, despair, and dread.
Of course our neurobiology plays a part in how we respond; and yet epigenetics tells us that experiences may allow genes to either turn on or turn off in their expression, especially with respect to support that is received during periods of growth. So what do happens when we reward our failings at those times of quitting or almost quitting, and see them in terms of acceptance and forgiveness? As a coach who is influenced by relational neuroscience, I have noticed that these two concepts, when included in the rigorous process of shifting one’s thinking and feelings, can truly enhance the process of fostering resilience.
Resilience comes from changing the mind and the brain, from transforming a dysregulated, separated brain into an integrated, whole, and healthy one. It comes from accepting the darker moments—not pushing them away but instead bringing them into the picture to examine and process their meaning.
Healthier narratives can develop from these experiences.
So, what is resilience?
There are many definitions. Generally, these tend to suggest bouncing back or not being broken by the adversity one has faced. Linda Graham (2013) defined resilience as an innate capacity (i.e., hardwired in the brain) to deal with life’s challenges, however large or small, and that unhelpful thought patterns, which develop over time, can be rewired. In an article in the Harvard Business Review, the key to resilience was defined as “trying really hard, then stopping, recovering, and then trying again” (Achor & Gielan, 2016).
Is resilience really about bouncing back? Or is it moving forward, or even staying still for a short spell?
Sometimes giving up is appropriate, and at other times perhaps giving in or leaning in to a break from a situation is also healing. This giving in or leaning in is what I tend to notice works very well for many clients, and it often occurs in a space where people forgive and accept, in a process that I describe as: take in and take hold; reframe and then release. From there, they begin firing up those neurons again and powering through for well-being, allowing them to move in a more positive direction.
Instead of thinking about bouncing back from dark times, might we do better to consider resilience as overcoming—and becoming more—because of them? And to do that, forgiveness and acceptance (along with support and a myriad of other items neuroscience has investigated, such as post-traumatic growth) must be addressed.
Some people believe that resilience is also about bending and never breaking; pushing through and never quitting.
Sure, I have been drawn myself to bending and not breaking. Perhaps it is why the weeping willow is one of my favorite trees. I have watched her over the years, and followed her long, flowing branches as she waved and danced, sometimes thrashing around, almost falling to the ground, yet never did I see her break.
Of course some willows do break; and some people break. We all, at some point, are either brought to our own breaking point or are witness to that moment when someone we care about appears to fall apart, parts of their strength falling to the floor with a thud and a crash… and yet, isn’t that part of the key – part of the solution: to be able to notice that point, that space in time?
To know the point at which we break or bend may help us understand our own resilience, how to increase it in ourselves and develop it in others, and how to help write or re-write the narratives that inform lives.
When we learn how to foster its power, or how to help others improve their ability to bend, to dance, to quit when they need in order to start again, then, they are better able to come back and move forward with honesty, passion and velocity. Whatever the trauma may be, deep bending, or even in some circumstances of breaking, there can be repair. Some experts even believe that the breaking may need to occur before true healing can begin. If this is the case, then we can look at resilience as something that evolves over time, often through our attachment experiences (and those of our clients) at an early age as well as through interpersonal experiences over time (Schore, 2012).
In many ways resilience is about thriving in, and past, the moments of intense disruption and dysregulation. Stress, pressure, trauma: they disrupt, they dysregulate, and sometimes they cause true desperation. Yet changing not just thoughts and emotions, but also the context (i.e., situations and people)—by adding appreciation and understanding of the disconnect between steady lives and chaos—may also be part of the recipe for increasing resilience.
We could also look at it as a point of managing equilibrium, or a point at which the part of them that moves toward positive progress actually takes on more weight. One thing I do believe, based on my personal history with chaos and trauma as well as my professional research, is that who we are, and how we show up, affects how people respond to us; and how people respond to us affects how we understand ourselves. Accepting certain truths—taking them in, releasing some—is all part of the strategy for becoming more integrated and more resilient.
In interpersonal neurobiology the concept of an integrated brain/mind and self takes a front and center focus on healing—Dan Siegel’s “healthy mind platter” (Rock & Siegel, 2011) comes to mind. I see this idea of integration taking on a larger or deeper meaning as we help foster resilience in others and ourselves. If we learn to integrate the moments of chaos and the points of breaking with the points of bending, if we allow the integration of acceptance and forgiveness AND hope and growth, and bring context into the picture too, I believe that resilience can always be within reach. And if we also remember that the emotional brain need not eclipse the rational thinking brain—that, in fact, they work together, we can help bring our own minds and brains, and those of our clients, back online to a healthy working place .
Anchor, S., & Gielan, M. (2016, June 24). Resilience is about how you recharge, not how you endure. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2016/06/resilience-is-about-how-you-recharge-not-how-you-endure
Davidson, R. J. (2012). The emotional life of your brain. New York, NY: Penguin.
Graham, L. (2013). Bouncing back: Rewiring your brain for maximum resilience and well-being. Novato, CA: New World Library.
Rock, D., & Siegel, D. (2011). The healthy mind platter for optimal brain matter. Retrieved from http://www.drdansiegel.com/resources/healthy_mind_platter/
Schore, A. (2012). The science of the art of psychotherapy. New York, NY: Norton.
Jessi LaCosta is a CCE Board Certified Coach and resilience advisor at BlueRio Strategies http://www.bluerio.net/