The word resilience is everywhere lately. People are talking about mental health in the workplace. One of the reasons I love going to work is the challenge of interacting with so many different types of people. You see how others work, how they differ from you both in experience and outlook.
The skilled socialite learns their buttons and triggers in order to avoid them, and also learns what makes them tick – what gets them excited, so they can encourage and motivate those around them.
The less skilled will try a broad-brush approach that runs on a ‘best fit’ system of averages, modes, checks and balances.
And then there are the damaged, the unskilled – who may think only about the task and not the people involved, or they blunder through and speak inappropriately without due consideration, or may even actively seek to push the buttons in an attempt to see what happens.
But we all start somewhere. Many, if not most or all, of us carry damage. Everyone will encounter someone whose words and/or actions make us feel threatened, hurt, or broken. We know the feeling that accompanies such an encounter. Our hearts quicken in a couple of seconds – the infamous fight or flight response.
Very few of us are cut out to be directors and CEOs before we’re a bit older. The pressure and scrutiny placed upon people in such jobs is very high, and the margin for error small. So small, that mistakes are bound to happen. One must be willing to keep standing up and defending oneself, even after the hundredth knockback. I’m a senior manager with a fair amount of responsibility after around 5 years’ full-time experience, and there have been days when I just couldn’t cope because I felt shame or embarrassment at feeling inept or incompetent (especially during the first few months in post) – but this is passing. Am I increasingly resilient?
In my social life, I feel relatively confident. I have a lot of people I feel I can call in an emergency, or depend on to hang out with for a good time. I have a fiancé. I feel pretty secure. This wasn’t always the case – at university and for a time after I had a great deal of social anxiety. I avoided friends and sank into virtual worlds online, preferring the company of text sent by people who knew me well enough to comfort me, but not well enough to hurt me. Never well enough to do any emotional damage.
Why? I suffered depression through university, which I later realised was mostly a product of suppressing my queerness and trying to be someone I wasn’t. I had frequent female admirers at university – and broke most of their hearts. I kept running away. I told myself it was because I was scared of commitment – how could that be so when I had barely kissed some of these women?
Then I had some male admirers. I ran away from or sabotaged those relationships, quickly, too. I was late to the party. I hid away from people, thinking everybody hated me because I was trying to be everything to everyone, worried that I was nothing to anyone.
So, what is resilience? Why do some people seemingly have endless reserves, but others struggle to recover from the smallest setbacks?
The good news, according to all the ‘research’ out there, is that resilience is not fixed. I wasn’t ready for a relationship. I wasn’t ready for the responsibility. When we’ve just suffered a big setback, or when we’ve never experienced a situation before, our resilience will be broken (setback) or undeveloped (newbie).
In these situations, the tiniest breeze can feel like a hurricane. We go to red alert. Abort, get out, stop, shout, scream, punch, kick, karate chop. The one thing we can’t do is stand still, even if that’s the position of greatest strength. We say, “I can’t do this.”
I believe in the growth mindset – a concept coined by Carol Dweck based on the power of the word ‘yet’ to consider resilience.
I strongly believe in yet.
“I can’t do this yet.”
Resilience is like physical conditioning for the mind. Tiny rips and tears in muscles are what is needed for them to grow stronger. So tiny setbacks are what is needed for the brain to grow resilient. Later, we need bigger weights to make those same tiny rips and tears, because our muscles have grown.
The toughest people are not the ones who have suffered the biggest setbacks – those are the people who, if their resilience was not there, might have the biggest chips on their shoulders – the most fragile.
The toughest are the ones who have, through luck, or careful self-selection, have been exposed to failure, to hurt and pain, at suitable levels.
Inoculating oneself against a poison is yet another analogy.
So, put yourself in positions that test your boundaries just a little bit. That take you from your comfort zone just a little bit. Don’t run a marathon before you’re walking – instead slowly build towards it.
You can get there. And if you fall down, get back up and don’t be afraid of crutches. Just make sure you’re always trying to take a few steps without them.