I’ve been talking via email with a friend whose teenage daughter has Asperger’s Syndrome. Our online conversation was mostly about the highs and lows of raising her neuro-diverse daughter and she shared with me many of the gifts that come along with having a special needs child.
Then, one day, this was the message in my inbox:
Today is a day in the trenches! It’s a battle and I’m bawling in my coffee. This journey is joy and pain in every aspect of those words. My knees are bloody on this life path. My guilt over wanting my life (before it was chucked under the special needs bus) back is outweighing my good will today. A special needs child “needs” almost all of the time. There is also the alienation aspect of this life in the foreground today. It’s very hard for me to relate to neuro-typical people. I hear people gripe and moan about “normal” problems and I want to cause them bodily harm! Some days are frustration!
While my heart ached for my friend, I was also really impressed with her message because she was actually demonstrating a lot of resilience.
“What?” I can hear you asking, “Where’s the resilience in this horrible day for her?” Let’s look a little more closely at her resiliency skills.
1. Sharing pain with a friend.
Instead of keeping these really difficult, raw thoughts and emotions to herself where they might boil inside her, she shared them with me. Using friends as a pressure valve can prevent your boiling emotions from scalding your heart.
2. The art of holding two opposing things at the same time.
This is a really tricky thing to do. You can see it in the sentence This journey is joy and pain in every aspect of those words. Joy/pain, guilt/good will. It really is possible to hold two different emotions – and even opposing – emotions and be okay with it.
I’ve often heard people who are grieving say, “I’m so confused. I’m devastated that he’s gone, yet I feel relieved at the same time. Which one is the right emotion? Should I feel relief or devastation?” To which my answer is, “Yes.” Both are appropriate and – although a weird sensation – it’s perfectly okay to experience both things at once.
3. Acknowledging emotions.
One of my favorite things about my friend’s message is that she doesn’t beat around the bush about how she’s feeling. Today is a day in the trenches . . . it’s a battle . . . my knees are bloody . . . Acceptance of your own experience and emotions is key to being resilient; the awareness allows you to be very realistic with yourself about how hard life is at the moment so you can best figure out a plan to bounce back.
4. Realizing that this is how it feels today.
Notice how my friend acknowledged her feelings of today: Today is a day in the trenches! My guilt is outweighing my good will today. Alienation is in the foreground today. Some days are frustration.
She is able to put things in perspective: today sucks. But notice how she doesn’t say, “My life is always in the trenches. I feel guilty all the time. I’m constantly isolated and alienated.” Her recognition that today is a really bad day automatically gives her hope for tomorrow. And realistically so, since she’s relying on her past experience to realize that there have been bad days in the past and she’s always made it through.
5. Using humor.
I couldn’t help smiling at some of my friend’s writing. She’s a very funny person anyway, and I could see that, even though this day was hell, her humor was still buffering it for her: I’m bawling in my coffee . . . my life was chucked under the special needs bus . . . I hear people gripe and moan about “normal” problems and I want to cause them bodily harm! It’s dark humor, but it’s humor nonetheless and a great way to take the sting off of the painful reality of her emotions and experience.
Takeaway points: Sometimes even the worst days can bring out the best resiliency skills in you. Give yourself some credit, even when you feel like life has you down for the count.
What stands out for you about my friend’s message?
And I say the same thing each time she sets off for their run, “Remember . . .”
“I know, I know. Breathe!” she says with only a mild air of exasperation.
1. Should I run or should I breathe?
Okay, maybe it is a bit annoying to frequently be reminded to “take a deep breath” as though it will solve the world’s problems. But try this right now: take a deep breath and let your shoulders sag on the exhale. There. Did you happen to notice how good the deep breath felt? It’s because you tend to breathe in a shallow way when you’re concentrating on something. Did you also notice that your shoulders were tense, maybe up around your ears? We carry a lot of tension in our shoulders and neck and muscle tension signals to the rest of the body that we are getting ready to do something, that we need to be alert and on guard. And all of this tells our sympathetic nervous systems to rev up which results in . . . shallow breathing (and a lot more.)
So, there we are at our computers, very much in fight-or-flight mode, as though we need to be ready in case a monster jumps out of the monitor at us.
Yuck. Who wants to be that alert all the time? (Although it’s probably good for security guards and long-distance truckers.) It really just causes more stress than we need for the task at hand.
The remedy? Just take that deep breath every once in awhile. Set your watch or phone to go off every 15 minutes or so to remind you to take a deep breath. Your body will get much-needed oxygen, your muscles will relax, and your calming parasympathetic system will kick in with at least a few minutes of physical and mental relief.
2. Take a breath, solve a problem
Being able to effectively problem-solve is an essential resiliency skill. And here’s how taking a breath can help: When you take the time to concentrate on taking a deep breath, it encourages mindfulness - the state of being aware of yourself and your surroundings. So not only is your body more relaxed by taking a breath, your mind is also more focused on the here and now and not skipping three steps ahead in a problem-solving sequence.
And – this is important – taking a breath before acting creates a pause that allows you to think through how you want to act. This can be very handy when you’re having a disagreement with someone and you need to think before saying something you might regret later.
And-a-half: Maybe breathing will solve the world’s problems
An old Coke commercial featured a song that said, “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.” Maybe if we all practiced breathing together, we could drop our differences – even for a little while – and be in perfect harmony. The website Do As One aims for just this goal. It’s a great way to take time out and practice your breathing with others.
Epilogue: Andrea gets Georgia excited for their turn at the agility course. Then she stands up, takes a deep breath, focuses, and off they go, enjoying the moment.
Takeaway points: Even though it’s old hat to “take a deep breath” to reduce stress, it really does work! And this simple action is also a great way to increase everyday resiliency.
Do you ever find yourself in fight-or-flight mode when doing routine things? When does taking a deep breath help you the most?
Once again, words of wisdom from ancient and current sages:
1. Annie Dillard
You do not have to sit outside in the dark. If, however, you want to look at the stars, you will find that darkness is necessary. But the stars neither require nor demand it.
2. Mark Twain
A thing long expected takes the form of the unexpected when at last it comes.
3. Helen Keller
I long to accomplish a great and noble task, but it is my chief duty to accomplish small tasks as if they were great and noble.
4. Victor Hugo
Be like the bird, pausing in his flight
On limb too slight,
Feels it give way, yet sings,
Knowing he has wings.
5. Mary Ann Radmacher
Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes it is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying . . . “I will try again tomorrow.”
What’s your favorite quote?
A few weeks ago, after playing endless games of Cribbage (which I love) on my smartphone, I finally got bored and went to the apps section to see what else I could download to play with. I tend to be the word puzzle kind of game player, but I was tickled to see Angry Birds pop up on the menu of available games. I had heard about the game, but I have an Android phone and Angry Birds was only available on iPhones. Until recently, apparently.
Click, click, download done. I quickly figured out the simple rules and just as quickly was hooked along with the millions of other Angry Bird players. (And somewhat to the annoyance of Andrea and our dogs who get just a little tired of the sound effects.)
If you haven’t played Angry Birds, the premise is pretty simple. The good guys are a group of colorful and pudgy birds. The bad guys are the green, round-faced, grunting pigs who have stolen the birds’ eggs. The aim is to wipe out the pigs in a progressive series of scenarios so the birds can get their eggs back. This is done by launching the birds from a slingshot toward the pigs who are invariably hiding in some kind of protective shelter. Most of the birds have a secret weapon like an egg-bomb or super-speed but there are a limited number of birds to use in each round so you have to figure out the most expedient way to use the birds to knock down the pigs’ shelter, pop the pigs, and rack up points. You have to get all of the pigs in order to move on to the next round. (Note: No actual pigs or birds are harmed in the playing of this game. Nor does it make you feel like doing so.)
So, I’ve been playing a lot of Angry Birds. And doing crossword puzzles. My favorite way to relax is to do a crossword puzzle. Being a glutton for punishment I don’t choose just any crossword; no, I do the NY Times Sunday crossword, known as one of the more difficult newspaper puzzles. I’m on my second volume of the NY Times Sunday Crossword Omnibus, each volume containing 200 puzzles. I don’t always get every puzzle, but I’m getting much better and am thrilled when I complete one correctly.
Can you learn anything from games?
A few days back, I started wondering: What is it about these games that I like so much? As I thought this through, I realized what I like about them are things that actually help to build resiliency.
1. Feeling satisfied with a job well done.
Each time I hear the birds “woo-hoo” in victory or fill in the last boxes of a crossword, I feel a sense of accomplishment and efficacy. It’s just a small thing and not one that’s likely to change the world in a significant way, but celebrating the small achievements in life like this is a way to increase your sense of competency so that you have more confidence in your own abilities when bigger issues arise. So, the next time you advance a level in your favorite game or finish something that was hard, stop and tell yourself, “Hey, I did that! Great job!”
2. Learning to see things from a different angle.
Most people are surprised when they hear me say this, but I tend to not see the forest for the trees. I can get very bogged down in the specifics of what is presented to me and have a hard time seeing the big picture. Thus, I always value activities and moments when I think of something in a different way. (Sidenote: I enjoyed Roger van Oech’s A Whack on the Side of the Head for this very reason.)
Crossword puzzles have been great at teaching me this skill. The more difficult crosswords are often built on puns within the clues or the theme of the puzzle. For example, the theme of last night’s crossword was “The Other Half.” The trick is to figure out the long answers in the puzzle that reflect the theme so you can more easily solve the puzzle. So, one of the clues was “Classic doll.” I filled in enough of the other answers to see the beginning of the long one was “Raggedy _ _ _ _.” Raggedy Ann? No, there were four spaces left. Raggedy Andy? Well, the ‘A’ worked, but not the rest of the letters. I paused and looked at the theme, “The Other Half.”
Hmmm. I made myself think about other options for this clue and answer given the theme, rather than only seeing Raggedy Ann or Raggedy Andy. The Other Half . . . aha! How about “Raggedy Amos”? Yes! It worked. Amos as in the other half of Amos ‘n Andy. The rest of the long answers came more readily after that.
Angry Birds has been a pleasant surprise in the “different angle” arena as well. It’s very easy to get locked into the idea that one must always use the birds’ secret weapons to achieve the goal. But, sometimes when I can get myself to think of doing something else, I just use the bird itself to crash into the pigs’ shelter, rather than having it explode or use super speed, methods that had not been working in past attempts.
One of the discoveries I get most tickled by is when I find what seems to be an obstacle actually helps to win the game. Maybe there is a rock or a wall between the bird and the pig and I can’t see how I’m going to be able to get the bird to the pig. Then I, finally, think about trying something totally out of the norm, and I shoot the bird at the obstacle. Sometimes, to my delight, the bird bounces off the barrier and right to where I need it to go. Success! I love it when I can open my mind a little and find that obstacles can be a springboard to success.
The next time you get stuck on a problem, stop, look around, and ask yourself if there is another way to see the problem that might generate different solutions.
Takeaway points: Games are fun but they can also be a delightful way to learn two important aspects of resiliency – the importance of celebrating any achievement, no matter how small, and the ability to look at things from a different angle.
My favorite takeaway from games is how much they have taught me to get a different perspective on things. I’ve learned a lot about life this way. Have you learned life lessons from games?
If you’d like to gain a different perspective on your life, I’m available for individualized therapy sessions. Call me at 650-380-6985 or email me.
“Oh God, save me!” he cried out in his despair.
In a little while, a life raft came by with other survivors. “Climb aboard with us!” they shouted, reaching their arms out to him.
“No, no, I’m a believer! I know God will save me!” he called back to them.
“Then at least take this life ring!”
“God will save me! Use your raft and life ring for yourselves,” the man sputtered between crashing waves.
The people in the life raft reluctantly moved on.
Soon, a Coast Guard vessel came by and rescuers jumped into the water with him. “Put on this life jacket and we’ll haul you up onto the boat!” they bellowed above the roar of the storm.
“No, no, I’m a man of faith – God will save me! There are people ahead of me in a life raft, maybe you can help them.”
So the rescuers moved on.
As the skies darkened, a helicopter came overhead and dropped down a harness. “Put the harness on and we’ll lift you to safety,” said a voice through a bullhorn.
“God will – glub, glub, – save me!” gasped the man as water filled his mouth, “I’m sure there are others out there you can help.”
The helicopter and crew flew away.
The seas became even wilder and the man, his legs finally exhausted, sank under the waves and drowned.
When he arrived in Heaven, he said to God, “Lord, I have been a faithful man all my life. Why did you not save me when I needed you?”
God smiled and gently said, “My son, I sent you a life raft, a life ring, a Coast Guard boat, and a helicopter. What more were you looking for?”
Opening of opportunities
I’m sure you’ve heard that story before. It’s a funny way to be reminded that sometimes opportunities are right in front of us, we just need to see them for what they are.
And it turns out that seizing on opportunities is a great resiliency skill. Researchers Emmy Werner and Ruth Smith followed the entire cohort of children born on the island of Kauai in 1955 from birth to age 40. They found that some of these children were in high-risk categories for not succeeding later in life: perinatal stress, chronic poverty, parents who had not graduated from high school, and family environments that were engulfed in the chronic discord of parental alcoholism and/or mental illness.
However, about a third of these high-risk children did very well in spite of the odds and, as the study went on, the researchers found that, as the cohort aged, even more of the sample became productive members of society and led lives that were satisfactory to them.
How did this happen? There are many protective factors that I’ve discussed in earlier posts, but the one that has stood out to me recently is the idea of the opening of opportunities.
Werner and Smith:
One of the most important lessons we learned from our follow-ups at ages 31/32 and 40 was that the opening of opportunities in the third and fourth decade of life led to major turning points among the overwhelming majority of the teenage mothers, the delinquent boys, and individuals who had struggled with mental health problems and/or learning disabilities in their teens. Among the most potent forces for positive change for these high-risk youths in adulthood were continuing education at community colleges; educational and vocational skills acquired during service in the armed forces; marriage to a stable partner; conversion to a religion that demanded active participating in a “community of faith”; recovery from a life-threatening illness or accident; and –to a much lesser extent – psychotherapy.
These people took the life ring that was thrown to them and found it to be life-changing. How about you? Do you look for opportunities that present themselves in your life?
Yum, that crow sure tastes good
The other day I was thinking about how I’d really like to increase my practice as the economy has taken its toll on my business as it has for many others. I went on about my day and later I received an email from an insurance company that wanted me to be a part of their Employee Assistance Program (EAP) panel.
“Insurance?” I thought to myself, “I don’t want to work with insurance companies.” And I deleted the email.
Lying in bed that night, musing about the events of my day, I suddenly started laughing. I was being just like the man who begged God to save him but turned aside every rescue opportunity provided to him. Here I was thinking about how to expand my practice and a “life ring” in the form of an insurance company had come along, only to have me ignore the opportunity because it was slightly out of my comfort zone.
The next day, I filled out the application for the EAP panel.
Takeaway points: Opportunities tend to be all around us, we just need to keep our minds open enough to see them. Sometimes, they are life-changing.
Werner, E.E. and Smith, R.S. (2001) Journeys from Childhood to Midlife: Risk, Resilience, and Recovery by Emmy E. Werner and Ruth S. Smith. New York, NY: Cornell University Press.
Photo by mikebaird
I woke up slowly, my groggy mind becoming aware that the irritating noise entering my ears was my radio alarm clock. It was set to NPR and some kind of newscast was on.
What day is it? I wondered, peering over at the offending clock whose digital numbers glowed 6:30 a.m.
Tuesday. It’s only Tuesday.
Tuesday, September 11, 2001.
What? What are they talking about on the news? Oh, it must be some kind of remembrance of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing . . . Wait a minute. Why are they going on about it in those urgent voices?
Suddenly, I sat up in bed. My partner, Ruth, had come to the same conclusion I had at the exact same time. “Something’s going on,” we said in unison. I reached for the television remote and tuned in to NBC.
Katie Couric’s and Matt Lauer’s voices were somber, a sharp contrast to their usual light, cheerful banter. An image of two buildings with smoke coming out of them filled the screen. Ruth and I gaped at the spectacle.
“This is what we know so far,” Katie said, “Both the North Tower and the South Tower of the World Trade Center have been hit by commercial airplanes. Reports indicate it is possible both planes were hijacked. It is possible, but not confirmed, that these are terrorist attacks.”
“Oh my god,” I whispered.
We continued watching and listening as more reports came in. A fire at the Pentagon. No, an explosion. An explosion caused by a plane crash. A few minutes later, we watched as the South Tower collapsed. Then the North Tower, then reports of a plane going down in Pennsylvania.
My mind was numb, unable to take in the nightmarish domino effect that was unfolding. Ruth and I mechanically readied ourselves for work, peeking out at the television every so often.
We both worked at the county mental health clinic and there was an all-staff meeting scheduled for the morning. As we entered the large hall, a low, energized buzz emanated from those already in their seats. The director of our agency entered and stepped up to the microphone. She was not an emotional person and I was curious whether she would even mention the New York attacks.
“Good morning,” she began, “We are all very concerned about the events happening in New York. Let us share a moment of silence in honor of those who have lost their lives this morning.”
I felt relieved. It was good to share a short ritual with others who were impacted by the attacks.
After the meeting, I went back to my office where my staff had gathered in the conference room, waiting for me. My voice shook slightly as I spoke, “There is a great tragedy happening in our nation right now. We are going to turn the television on in the conference room here to continue monitoring the events. Given that this is an emotional day for all of us, I want you to make sure that you do whatever you need to do in order to be okay. You have my permission to cancel your appointments and stay here or you can go about your day as scheduled.”
We took each other’s hands and observed another moment of silence. Then, some people left to go back to their daily tasks; following their routine helped them get through the day. Others stayed in the room, tears running down their faces, eyes glued to the television. Being with others was how they chose to work through their shock and grief.
In the days that followed, I allowed myself to weep when needed (which was frequently at first) and, as the days turned into months, I tried to effect change by joining rallies to protest against President Bush’s drive toward war with Iraq.
Time has healed much of my grief for those lost on that horrible day. Yet I still weep when I need to over the loss of our brave soldiers and innocent Iraqi and Afghan civilians.
And I still keep two small rituals I have developed for myself. First, each year on September 11th, no matter how hot, I wear black clothing to remember and mourn the lives lost and the collateral damage done to our nation through war.
Second, the PBS Newshour with Jim Lehrer often ends their program with a “roll call of those lost in the military conflicts in Iran and Afghanistan. Here, in silence, are ____ more names.” As the pictures of soldiers and officers appear on the screen with their names and hometowns, I rise up from my chair and stand to watch, my arms behind my back, hands clasped, as a sign – just for myself – of respect for them and their families.
For those lost on September 11, 2001 and after:
I will never forget.
Takeaway points: The resiliency skills and behaviors in this post are in bold. You might notice themes of shared rituals, allowing emotional reactions, honoring differences in reacting to tragedy, utilizing internal locus of control (trying to effect change), time as a healer, and personal rituals as rememberance.
What are your September 11th resilience stories?
Yesterday I was walking with a group of friends and their dogs at a nature preserve in Palo Alto. As I was not walking a dog, I brought my camera along to take pictures of the group, their dogs, and the plentiful shorebirds that frequent the area.
I wanted to get photos of the entire group, but because I only brought my telephoto zoom lens with me, it necessitated running ahead of the group, taking pictures while the group caught up to me, running ahead again . . . you get the picture (pun intended.)
As the group sauntered toward me each time, I was vaguely aware of snippets of conversation. A mother and her 18-year-old daughter were telling the rest of the bunch a story from what I could tell. After awhile I caught on that it was a series of short stories. The women who were listening responded to the stories with “Oh!” and “Wow, that’s so frustrating!”
I ran ahead again.
This time as they came within earshot, I heard the mother laughingly say to the group, “So THAT’S why you don’t want to be in our family right now! Everything seems to be going wrong!” The daughter chimed in and said, “I know it’s all going to work out and be okay. It’s just that right now it’s very frustrating.” Then they said something I couldn’t hear, but the entire group laughed.
I liked this interaction. I liked it a lot. Not that I wish bad things on my friends, but I liked how this family is showing resiliency even in the little things. Let’s review their resiliency skills:
1. They talked about it. It was obvious that mom and daughter had talked about their circumstances quite a bit – they weren’t hiding things from each other. And they reached out for support to others even if only by telling their circumstances to elicit laughter. Which brings me to the next skill.
2. They laughed about it. Humor is a wonderful balm on all sorts of wounds. And the laughter was not that “We’re laughing about it only because we’re supposed to look brave” kind of laughter. This was “Can you believe life is throwing all this stuff at us at once? How ridiculous!” laughter. Real laughter.
3. They put things in perspective. They understood that life had hurled them tough stuff in the past and they had made it through. With this perspective, even the youngest woman in the group was able to understand that the frustrations she was facing now were temporary; past experiences gave her the confidence that everything would turn out okay.
It wasn’t any big deal. Just a mother and daughter telling some stories in a funny way about a rough patch in their lives. You might not have even noticed if you were walking beside the group. But that’s what resiliency can be – it doesn’t have to be big and heroic, sometimes it’s just a way of life.
Takeaway points: Humor, perspective, sharing. Just these three things can make life’s tough spots a lot easier.
What little things do you do that help you make resiliency a way of life?
In my last few posts (which you can see here and here), I’ve talked about the power of positivity and how generating three times as many positive feelings as negative helps to create more satisfaction and resilience in your life.
One of my concerns as I’ve shared this information with you is the possible message that negative emotions are “bad.” They’re not. Or, as Jerry Seinfeld might say about experiencing negative emotions: “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”
Negative emotions are okay and we need them
As mentioned in my earlier posts, negative emotions have an important role in our lives. They cue us that something is wrong and, in extreme situations, prepare our bodies to react to danger. Imagine hiking along a scenic forest trail, lost in your pleasant thoughts and feelings. Suddenly, you notice a mama bear and her cub in the path ahead of you. If you weren’t able to access your negative emotion of fear, you might smile and continue ambling toward them, perhaps to get a better look. However, with your natural instinct of fear in place, your attention narrows and identifies this situation as possibly dangerous and preps your body to get out of this mama’s way.
More realistically, let’s say you look at a bill that reads “You are in danger of foreclosure if you are not able to pay what is due on your mortgage.” Because of your perpetual happiness, you are not triggered into immediate action causing you to teeter perilously toward losing your house.
Or perhaps you don’t notice that an important relationship is in trouble because you aren’t in tune with your own anxiety or your partner’s anger. So fear, anger, worry, and other “negative” emotions really do have a very important function in our lives.
When negativity goes too far
The problem with negative emotions is when they go beyond the cueing or triggering function and start to cause ongoing dissatisfaction or other problems in your world. This is the point at which you really need to start cranking up the problem-solving techniques as well as shooting for that 3:1 positivity ratio.
The trick to it all
As a final thought, it’s good to remember that emotions just are. We don’t have to always put them in the categories of “good” and “bad.” My colleague and fellow blogger, Doug Toft, had an excellent comment regarding this on my last post: As a meditator, my training is simply to observe emotions dispassionately without seeking to cultivate one type of emotion more than others. On the other hand, positive emotions feel GREAT and do have different physiological effects. Maybe the trick is to cultivate positive emotions without resisting negative emotions.
I think that is the trick exactly. Barbara Fredrickson’s work on positive emotions is quite clear that we will always have, and should have, negative emotions. We need to notice them, see what they are giving us cues about, and react in a positive manner without resistance to the negative stuff.
So, next time you feel anger, worry, sadness, or fear, assure yourself, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”
Takeaway points: Negative emotions are actually okay and we need them. Acceptance and non-resistance are the keys along with noticing what our negative emotions are telling us.
What’s your take on the seeming paradox of creating more positive emotions while at the same time accepting the negative ones?