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The 5 Practices of Highly Resilient People
Why Some Flourish When Others Fold
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Resilience is categorically misunderstood. It’s not merely about bouncing back, and it’s so much more than returning to where you began. True resilient “doing” allows us to capitalize on the inescapable challenges of life and become better than we were before.
Dr. Taryn Marie Stejskal began working with brain injury patients and found that most popular beliefs about human resilience are incorrect. Since then, for the last 20 years, she has conducted qualitative research on the power of resilience, studying the science behind why some people succeed while others fail. Here, Dr. Taryn Marie outlines the five critical behaviors that define successful resilience: Vulnerability, Productive Perseverance, Connection, Gratiosity (Gratitude and Generosity), and Possibility. Resilient People bounce forward, take an active approach to facing challenges, and most importantly, they are made, not born.
Dr. Taryn Marie’s empirically proven framework shows us how to develop resilience practices in our own lives—as adults, as parents, and across organizations—in a manner that allows us to be enhanced by our experiences, not diminished.
RESILIENCE FINDS YOU
Challenge Cultivates Resilience
As you know, in addition to my research, I’ve examined my own life experiences to better understand resilience. I’ve used myself as my own research instrument to ask myself, as The Five Practices were emerging, How does what I am learning fit or not fit with my own circumstances? Like many other people, I had a series of traumatic experiences when I was younger that were part of shaping me into the person I am today. In complete integrity, I still grapple with the trauma at times. As with all life experiences, they become a part of us, and my experience with trauma will always be a part of me. For years, I pushed what happened outside of my consciousness for fear that if I brought my experience to the surface, people would look at me differently. I felt ashamed, as though I’d been damaged in some way by what happened to me. The post-traumatic growth from trauma has been to transmute an experience that left me feeling broken into something beautiful by sharing my resilience story in service of lighting a path for others’ healing, growth, and resilience.
If you may be triggered by the trauma of stalking, assault, and abuse, please know this is coming, and read on with this warning or skip to the section entitled “Embracing Adversity” here. Come back and read this story if or when you are ready.
As a fourteen-year-old freshman in high school in October 1993, I was dressing for school early in the morning, in my first-floor bedroom of our family home in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The window that looked out onto the driveway was open a crack, to let in the fresh fall air, and just a small portion of the window was not covered by the shade. As I prepared to leave the room, I was listening to music, and when I went to turn off my stereo, I saw the outline of someone’s face at the bottom of my window. As I stared into the shadows, with the light from my bedroom only illuminating his nose and chin, he stood up and there we were, facing each other, just feet apart, on opposite sides of the window, with just a screen, wood, glass, and a shade between us.
I had not gotten a good enough look at him to make out his features. In my confusion, disbelief, and fear, I searched my fourteen-year-old mind for an explanation that would make sense of what was happening. As I spun through my memories like a Rolodex, I recalled a time when my father had hidden outside to scare my mother and me. Perhaps this was just my dad outside playing a trick on me.
“Dad?” I ventured, tentatively.
“Take off your clothes; you’re beautiful,” a voice said from the other side of the window.
Definitely NOT Dad!
Terrified, I sprinted from my room, screaming for my parents.
My parents called the police, and when they arrived, the officer who took the report concluded that this was nothing to be concerned about. Probably just someone passing through the neighborhood. A fluke.
About ten months later, in June 1994, my parents were out of town. Since that incident, I’d always kept that window on the driveway shut tight with the shade all the way down. But this was a hot summer evening, and I’d opened my other bedroom window, the one that faced the backyard, to allow air to circulate through the screen.
I’d gone shopping at the mall earlier that day with girlfriends, and I tried on my new clothes, including a new bathing suit, in front of the mirror. When I removed my clothes, I heard his voice coming from the open window in my room.
“I’ve been waiting a long time for this,” he said.
I knew that voice. It was etched in my mind.
In that moment, my life changed forever as three truths emerged:
1. I was naked in front of a man for the first time.
2. My childhood bedroom, which should have been one of the safest places for me, had become profoundly unsafe.
3. This was not a fluke.
I felt the room closing in around me. Everything got small, tight, and compact, the way I feel when I watch a horror movie. My mind did the calculations. There was only a wire screen between us. Should I run? Scream? Get dressed first?
Fear paralyzed me. I couldn’t decide what to do, much less even move.
Finally, after what seemed like forever, I screamed for help.… The sound came out of my mouth, but no one came. My parents were out of town. They’d left my brother and me in the care of a young couple who had small children of their own. They were upstairs putting their kids to bed and couldn’t hear me over the commotion of the nighttime routine.
“No one is coming to help you,” he said through the screen.
I knew he was right. Then, I remembered I had the phone in my bedroom. If I was going to get help, I was going to need to get it myself. I reached for the receiver and dialed 911.
The man was still outside my window when the 911 operator picked up. But I don’t remember what happened next. My memory of that moment is clouded black, inaccessible to me. Time stood still, and the next thing I remember is hearing the police sirens getting louder as they approached our home. Later, I would understand why I lost time in between my 911 call and the police’s arrival. I’d gone into traumatic shock. This is the body’s natural defense mechanism when our brain is unable to process overwhelming emotions. People often freeze or dissociate, disconnecting from reality to protect our psyche.
The babysitters came downstairs and found me huddled behind my bedroom door, still naked, shivering in fear. They covered me up as a police officer searched my room. No sign of entry. The window screen was intact.
Another police report was taken and filed, but this time it wasn’t written off as a fluke, or just some creepy guy passing through the neighborhood. This was someone targeting me, watching me, stalking me. That seemed obvious. Even so, my parents seemed strangely passive, as if they didn’t really believe me, or didn’t want to believe me. Now, as a parent myself, I imagine it was too horrific for them to believe. Maybe it was easier for them to deny the truth of what was happening for as long as they could, without the perspective of hindsight we have today, rather than confront the trauma and danger that had found its way to our home. My parents did install a light with a motion sensor outside my windows. Looking back now, having the wisdom of knowing what happened next, I know they wished they would have done more.
I’ve resisted using the word stalker. That word has become sensationalized. I tried on other descriptions, like “peeping Tom,” but those seemed too innocent. “Prowler” sounded like someone wandering around in the yard. I experienced him as a stalker. Someone who watched me unbeknownst to me, waiting for a moment when I was alone to strike.
Time passed again, and the following winter of 1995, he appeared again. The ground was coated in snow. My parents had gone out for the evening, and my brother was at a friend’s house. I was home alone waiting for friends to pick me up. I saw the motion-sensor light flip on in the backyard. We’d recently gotten a chow chow mix puppy from the Humane Society, and her ears pricked up. Looking out the window, I saw someone standing on our back deck in the dark. His movements looked agitated and staggering. I walked closer to the sliding glass windows in our sunroom and we faced each other for a long moment. He was wearing a hat, and I couldn’t make out his face. Without warning, he picked up a plastic chair, patio furniture we hadn’t brought in for the winter, and threw it at the sliding glass doors that stood between us.
I screamed. The puppy barked.
He threw another plastic chair against the glass. Then another. He was trying to shatter the glass and break into the house. I knew I didn’t have much time.
I ran to the phone and called 911. When the police arrived, they surveyed the backyard strewn with patio furniture and footprints. Out of an abundance of caution, they tried to match the tread on the bottom of the shoes to a pair of shoes in our home, but nothing matched. I heard one of the officers say to another that if the man had found any of the large rocks my mother used to landscape the garden under the camouflage of snow, he would have had no trouble shattering the glass. I understood that his behavior was escalating, and this time, I had narrowly escaped a home invasion, let alone being attacked or even killed.
More time passed before I was aware of his presence again. I wondered if he’d gone away for a while or become so stealthy that I was not conscious when he was near. My final encounter with this man, that I am aware of, occurred the following summer of 1996, before my senior year of high school. My parents lived across the street from a park, and I was babysitting three neighborhood kids, along with one of their friends.
The three kids lived in a house just behind ours, and when the evening sky turned to twilight, we cut through my parents’ backyard to take them home instead of walking around the block. As I unlocked the door to the house and held it open for the children to walk inside, I saw a man standing on the lawn. He didn’t appear to be much older than me but looked disheveled and intoxicated by the way his body swayed back and forth.
Without warning, he began advancing quickly toward us, and I pushed the last child into the house and then followed them in, slamming the door and locking it behind me. Their home was a renovated farmhouse with large windows six or so feet off the ground, and to my horror, I noticed some of them were open. Trying not to frighten the children, I rushed around locking the other doors, and enlisting their help, telling them, as calmly as I could, “Let’s close all the windows, kids.”
Then, I turned off the lights so he couldn’t see us inside, gathered the kids in an interior room, and dialed 911. When they heard me talking to the operator, they became frightened. I felt terrible that they were scared. I felt guilty, too, as though it was my fault this was happening to them. I’d dealt with this before, and rather than going into shock, I now knew how to think quickly and act decisively.
Someone knocked loudly on the back door.
The police hadn’t yet arrived but were en route. “What should I do?” I asked the 911 operator.
“Are you expecting anyone?” she asked.
The little girl who was over on a playdate said, “It might be my dad. He’s coming to get me.”
“You have to go to the door then,” the 911 operator told me.
You can imagine how I felt about that. To say that I was terrified to leave the room and walk through the dark house toward the knocking on the door is an understatement.
I handed the phone to the oldest child and told them I’d be right back, willing myself to follow the operator’s instructions. Just as I arrived at the back door, the knocking stopped. After a couple of seconds, I pushed the curtain aside and peeked out the window. There was no one there. I exhaled and began walking back to the kids when I heard someone knocking, this time on the front door. I walked through the dark house to the front door.
This time, when I looked out the window, I recognized the girl’s father from the neighborhood, and I let him inside. “Were you just knocking on the back door too?” I asked.
“No, was there someone there?” he wanted to know. “Why are all the lights off?” he inquired.
“Come inside, and I’ll tell you,” I said.
I didn’t want to tell him the stalker story. It was the first time I remember willfully hiding my story out of embarrassment, but certainly not my last. I felt ashamed and damaged, like there must be something wrong with me to have the stalker target me. Now, because of me, he was targeting me with children in my care and frightening them! What had I done to attract his attention? Had I done something wrong? I was just coming into womanhood and maturing physically, mentally, and emotionally. This unwanted attention was not only terrifying, degrading, and traumatic, it was confusing. Young girls are supposed to want to be attractive, but all I wanted was to disappear, to hide away from being noticed, so this weirdo would leave me alone.
To spare the kids’ father the details, I kept it on a high level. As I heard the police sirens in the distance on their way to the house, I told him there had been a suspicious-looking man in the yard who’d made a move for the front door when we returned from the park. The father was concerned and thanked me for acting so quickly to protect the children. Then, I went home my own house. I didn’t know it yet, but thankfully, that would be the last time I’d see the strange man.
I graduated from high school in the summer of 1997 and moved into the dorms at the University of Michigan that fall. Although it was only a few miles away, on campus, I felt more at ease that I was no longer in my parents’ home where I had experienced the stalker. For a while, aside from nightmares, uneasiness, and being afraid of the dark, I rarely thought about what happened. I was grateful to leave that experience behind. Or so I thought.
The following year, my mother called me early one morning. The blaring ring had disturbed my roommates, who were still asleep, so I took the receiver into the hallway, with the coiled cord winding out the door behind me. Before I could chastise my mother for the hour of her call, she began to recount the news. She told me that a single mother in our neighborhood had been raped and severely beaten. Still half asleep, I didn’t process the urgency of her call, until I heard her say, “We think this could be that man who came to your window.” Then, I understood.
News accounts said the attacker had entered the woman’s home in the early morning hours while she was sleeping. He beat her badly after raping her, and she told police that she was sure he intended to kill her. She never got a good look at his face.
Police found no sign of forced entry to the house, even though the woman said she always locked the doors at night. During the investigation, she told detectives that she’d been remodeling her home and had hired carpenters and a painter. She had given them keys to the house so they could come in when she wasn’t home.
The detectives obtained blood samples from two of the contractors and sent them to the crime laboratory to be compared with semen taken from the woman after the attack. These were early days of DNA testing, and two full months passed before the test results returned. They matched the DNA of the painter she’d hired. The painter she’d hired lived with his parents, across the park from where I played as a child and with the children I’d been babysitting that evening, just four houses away from my parents’ home.
He was found guilty on the rape charge and sentenced to fifteen to forty years in prison. There was never any investigation into whether the painter had been stalking me all those years. He was going to prison on a much more serious charge, so if it was him, I reasoned, he would now spend many years behind bars. I’d soon learn that I, too, would spend time in captivity: I had developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a diagnosis that would cage me in fear, nightmares, and anxiety for twenty years. I experienced severe survivor guilt, imagining that I could have suffered a fate similar to my neighbor’s, enduring a brutal rape and attack.
Given that the title of this chapter is “Challenge Cultivates Resilience,” you may be wondering how these nightmare encounters I shared in the prior section, which haunted me for most of my teen and many of my adult years, could make me more resilient. The definition of resilience that has emerged for me after interviewing hundreds of people and reviewing thousands of pieces of data no longer endorses unhelpful myths of resilience like “bouncing back” or “quickly recovering from adversity.” The new definition of resilience I have uncovered is:
Resilience is the ability to effectively address challenge, change, and complexity in a manner that allows us to be enhanced by the experience, not diminished.
I’ve learned that through resilience, it is in adversity that we discover our strengths, talents, and wisdom, either for the first time or we are reminded of their existence within us. Resilience isn’t about quickly recovering or avoiding challenge, it’s about facing the challenge that comes our way and figuring out how to effectively deal with it for our ultimate growth and benefit. Rather than thinking about challenge from a victim mentality, as in “Why is this happening to me?,” we get to adopt the mentality of a warrior and a learner and reframe the question to see what we can learn from it. To adopt this mind-set, we can instead ask ourselves, “Why is this happening for me?” Therefore, the experience of challenge, by creating an environment that, though difficult, provides fertile ground to cultivate our resilience.
BEING RESILIENT DOESN’T ALWAYS MEAN FEELING GOOD
Facing challenges like the loss of a job, or a troubling medical diagnosis, call for resilience. You will likely feel out of balance, anxious, and unmotivated in moments like these. This is natural. Many of us imagine that being resilient should feel good. Being resilient and feeling resilient are not the same thing. Being resilient doesn’t always feel resilient, let alone feel good. This is an important distinction. Resilience is a workout for our psyche. We don’t always feel like exercising. Some workouts are hard and grueling. We sweat and gasp for breath. Yet, no one is ever mad about having worked out.
Facing challenge, even when you’re demonstrating resilience, like an intense workout, doesn’t feel awesome. Adversity never feels good. Often, it’s in hindsight that we can appreciate our resilience more when the difficulties are closer to resolved or behind us to some degree. Hard things are hard because they’re hard. When we’re wrestling with something, if it was simple, we would have figured it out already.
Demonstrating resilience in the face of dyslexia and trauma has never felt good in the moment. It felt more like a street brawl. Most days, I felt like I was just barely making it. I held on to hope and fought on, believing that eventually I could get better. It’s not until years later that I feel good now, in looking back, seeing that I demonstrated significant resilience.
As you learn and practice The Five Practices, you’ll become more adept at navigating challenge. Yet, initially, even when you are practicing these techniques and doing your very best you can in the moment, you still may not feel good, let alone resilient. But you are. Remember, in those moments, that barely making it is still making it. Gasping for breath is still breathing, and fighting on, even though you feel depleted, means having the courage to keep showing up for the challenging times.
Just because you don’t feel good in the moment doesn’t mean you’re not doing well. Applying The Five Practices often doesn’t feel good because of the magnitude and importance of what you’re facing in the moment. Typically, it’s not until you look back on your experience that you can fully appreciate your own strength and how you’ve grown.
Writer and poet Maya Angelou, who faced many challenges in her life, said, “I can be changed by what happens to me. But I refuse to be reduced by it.” That is a powerful statement and guide for treating adversity as a gift, an opportunity to emerge stronger than before. So often, we view challenge as something to be avoided, an experience that requires us to backtrack or blocks our ability to move forward. Recently, a CEO said to me in our coaching session, “Why does this have to be this hard? I feel like I have been a good enough human to deserve an easier path without so much pain and difficulty.” I said, “You are absolutely right about everything you just said. But unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that.” This CEO has founded a technology and cryptocurrency company. With the volatility in the marketplace, he has navigated through several “hundred-year floods” in the last six months.
I went on to share with him the principles of challenge that I’m sharing with you. Here are some new ways to think about challenge in your own life:
• Challenge can’t (and shouldn’t) be entirely avoided by careful planning. Many believe that, with careful preparation and planning, they can strategically engineer challenge out of their lives, they will avoid adversity, and the path will be made clear. Sounds good, right? Contrary to popular belief, this isn’t how it works. Without challenge, we miss out on instrumental experiences that are some of our greatest teachers in this life.
• Challenge happens (even) to good people. The irony is that many good people point to challenge as crucial moments that softened their sharp edges and made them into the good person they are today. Stuff happens. Bad things happen, even to good people. The key is to learn how to find the opportunities for growth within those challenges. A life without obstacles is like a potter without a wheel to form the clay. The challenge is the potter, forming us on the wheel, and we are the clay. The obstacles do not detract from our development, they are essential elements in our formation, our learning and growth.
• When challenges arise, it doesn’t mean you are on the wrong path. A common misconception is that the detours, roadblocks, and potholes placed in your path only show up when you are off course. Life isn’t a golf course, a perfectly manicured lawn that only gets bumpy when you’re off the fairway. Challenges arise without reason. You may be doing exactly what you were meant to do even when a loss occurs or a storm arrives. Do not think of challenge as a punishment or a signal that you’re going the wrong way.
• The more important the work, often, the greater the challenge. Do you want to do big things in this world? Even when your heart is big and your intentions are pure, challenge will still be a constant companion. Challenge both readies us for what is to come and is a test, a life checkpoint to see if we’re ready to be granted the next level of responsibility, the new relationship, or the expanded influence we desire. Following our life purpose and calling will inevitably bring challenge as the crucible to see if we’re ready to lead the change we envision.
• Think of challenge as an invitation. Ask yourself: “Is this worth it? Do I want to keep going in this direction?” Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Big Magic, described rejection letters from editors of her early writing as an invitation that asked her, “Well, Liz, do you want to keep creating things?” Gilbert says her answer was always yes, and she went on to write many books, including the runaway best seller Eat, Pray, Love.
• Challenge means it’s this or something better. When you don’t give up, when you are unwavering in the face of difficulties, you will find opportunities to elevate your life. The way may not appear right away. It’s through determination that you prove your mettle and possibly open the door to something even better than you had imagined.
• Resilience doesn’t prevent challenge; it gives you a toolkit to navigate the inevitable obstacles and setbacks. Resilience won’t inoculate you against challenge. Resilience gives you the tools to have the confidence to show up amid challenge and effectively address the issues at hand, rather than ignoring them or giving up, generating more strength and wisdom.
• Challenges are rarely unilaterally positive or negative. A new baby is a joyous occasion to celebrate a new life and comes with lost sleep and strain as all family members adjust to a new structure and routine. Similarly, a tragic loss may be deeply upsetting and unbalancing, but with time, many people can find goodness, even gratitude, that emerges from the tragedy, such as bringing them closer to friends and family, and a deeper appreciation for what it means to be alive.
• Challenge is not something shameful. There is no reason to feel guilty or victimized when challenge emerges in your life. It was easy for me to feel that I had done something wrong to bring the challenge of the stalker on myself. Blaming ourselves is never productive. Many people think they need a perfect track record, experiences unblemished by challenge, to be worthy. However, challenge doesn’t detract from our worth and value. Challenge provides the moments in which we learn just how much we are worth.
• Challenge is the comma, not the period at the end of the sentence. When challenge shows up in our lives, so often, we think challenge is the last word on our dreams and desires. We say to ourselves, “Uh-oh, here comes challenge, I guess I’m not gonna get that promotion.” Challenge itself is never the final word. Instead of seeing challenge as the final say, the period at the end of the sentence, view challenge as the comma in the middle of the sentence, asking us how we’d like to write the rest of our story.
Your challenges are part of your life story. You may not welcome them at first. You may not want to fight through them, to change, or to grow. You may cling to the status quo and simply ignore the moments when life gets hard. Many people deny their most challenging experiences, hiding from the experiences themselves, or hiding the challenging experiences from the world. They wall off the hurt to numb the pain. They mentally shut down to avoid feeling the discomfort. You can try that. I tried that. I can tell you from experience that it didn’t work. Challenge and the emotions that accompany challenge don’t go away when we ignore them. Your feelings get processed in your body, and find a way to surface, no matter how deep down we try to exile them.
- On Sale
- Apr 18, 2023
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Hachette Go