Resilience

I originally wrote this article in 2018. Since then, coaching for personal resilience and mental wellbeing has seen a surge of interest, with individuals and organisations both keen to find ways to reduce the toll of ever-increasing demands on their mental and physical health, increase their ability to adapt flexibly and positively to change, and start thriving rather than simply coping.

The extraordinariness of 2020 has brought this into even sharper focus. In the early weeks of the pandemic, many of us went into a heightened energy state of adaptation – described by Ann Masten as the ‘surge capacity’ we draw upon in short-term survival situations, rather like an emotional and physical power bank to help us navigate a crisis effectively. Except that, as the acute phase became chronic, our uncertainty over how long the uncertainty would last continued to stretch out, and we found ourselves with little opportunity to recharge through many of our usual means of self-care, we were all left significantly depleted. 

In the immediate crisis stage there is often increased clarity as people are forced to focus on a delimited set of priorities and they pull together more than ever before. Individually, however, the adaptation can often come at profound cost to our wellbeing as we try to prioritise performance. Crisis can bring out the best in us, but can also make us revert to a lower level of emotional function. 

I’ve read a lot of very well-written pieces in the past few months about finding new ways to be in this brave new world. There is so much in the resilience science to draw from and so much good advice out there about identifying your own set of primary resilience factors – certainly far too much to distil into one short article. I hope, however, that some of this will prove helpful to you. If you’re finding life particularly challenging right now, there are really just three things that I hope you will take from this: 

(1) You are not alone and there is plenty of support out there. 

(2) Be kind to yourself; there is no shame in struggling and feeling overwhelmed. 

(3) All you need to focus on is the next step. The rest can be something for another day.

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What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

I bend, I don’t break.

I always bounce back.

Do you use any of these metaphors when you talk or think about resilience? Personally, I like the picture of resilience that’s summed up by this plant.

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It illustrates nicely the definition given by Carole Pemberton (2015) in Coaching for Resilience:

The capacity to remain flexible in our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours when faced by a life disruption, or extended periods of pressure, so that we emerge from difficulty stronger, wiser, and more able. 

In other words, resilience is gradual adaptation in the face of adversity. Being resilient doesn’t mean you have to be somehow invulnerable to life’s hard knocks – it’s all about learning and growth, and the ability to steer your way constructively through difficulty. I think the danger of the popular characterisation of ‘bouncing back’ is that it gives the impression that recovering from setbacks is as effortless and instantaneous as the rebound of a rubber ball. You just pick yourself up and carry on as you were, utterly unchanged by the event. Except you’re not.

Even if you’re of the true grit school of thought, it’s important to recognise that resilience isn’t a you’ve-either-got-it-or-you-don’t thing; it’s a continuum. Life continually tests us, and our ability to respond well to this can vary depending on context and domain. You may be able to cope very well with pressure in your professional life, but feel crushed by the breakdown of a personal relationship. You may historically have had no problems navigating the ups and downs of life, but find yourself unexpectedly and completely derailed after being made redundant. Our resilience can become overwhelmed in all sorts of different ways – and we will all respond differently, too.

I find it useful looking at this from the perspective of the three-factor model that combines the effects of genetics, external protective factors, and learning (diagram below adapted from Pemberton, 2015):

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What this tells us is that although some people may be more naturally resilient than others, resilience isn’t just a product of our personality. Research has also shown the important contributions made by the support networks around us (the availability of ‘secure attachment’) and what we learn from experience. That latter factor is probably most crucial for me. I love the way Masten puts it: resilience, she says, is ‘ordinary magic’: something we develop through the demands of living. It marks resilience out as something that can be available to all of us, even if we haven’t had the most fortunate start in life.

So how, then, can we cultivate resilience? It’s worth spending some time thinking about resilience factors – here are some that I think are particularly important, although resilience studies have identified dozens more: 

(1) Finding meaning

Purpose is a key factor in what drives us – the desire to connect to a greater and meaningful cause can give important direction and a reason to keep going. What purpose can you find in what you may be going through? What can you take from this experience that you can channel positively into something meaningful?

(2) Flexibility, Perspective and the Big Picture

Inflexible patterns of thinking stop us being able to see the larger picture and its possibilities for learning and growth. What can you learn from this adversity? How can you widen your perspective? What other ways are there to think about this situation? What can you control about this situation (conversely, are you expending energy in wrestling with what is actually outside of your control)? 

(3) Thinking Space 

It’s difficult to get perspective when you’re mired in the doing and the detail. What time are you taking to get the necessary headspace that will allow you to take a step back for a more objective evaluation? Resting from its incessant activity is what the brain needs to really harness its creativity and problem-solving capability. 

(4) Support

Resilience is not helped by social isolation. How can you reach out for help? What positive and mutually supportive relationships can you build? 

(5) Mindfulness

Pain is typically seen as a problem. Mindfulness helps us learn to detach from our negative thoughts and feelings in order to observe and accept them without becoming trapped in them – moving forward despite them, rather than trying to remove them from our lives. As Camus says, the human condition is absurd. But man’s freedom, and the opportunity to give life meaning, lies in the acceptance of absurdity.

(6) Proactivity

What action are you taking? Sometimes all we need to take back control is to take one small step at a time.

What someone needs in order to help them become more resilient will of course vary. In coaching, there are many tools that can be drawn upon, including mindfulness, cognitive-behavioural approaches, narrative coaching, and positive psychology. If you’re interested in how coaching can help you build your personal resilience, why not get in touch?

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass, Quiet Space Ltd

To Follow Your Heart

I posted the image above on my social media accounts a while ago and was amazed to find how much it resonated with people. Maybe you’re not tired, maybe you’re just doing too little of what makes you come alive. It’s a theme that has kept cropping up in my coaching sessions and in random conversations with people over these last couple of months, as well as something that has been particularly close to my heart this past year.  

I don’t know about you, but my energy typically comes in bursts – often in moments of palpable connection and chemistry when I find a kindred spirit, when I’m talking about things I care about a great deal, or when I’m completely absorbed in making a project that matters to me happen. It’s also a running joke in my family about my ability to sleep anywhere, at any time, and for rudely long periods. There are days when I’ve simply had no energy for anything at all, yet also others when I’ve been on fire. 

You have, most likely, experienced what it feels like to just get by in a job, your work environment or just life in general – your energy levels dip, motivation wanes and productivity suffers. I hope, however, that you will also have had moments of alchemy when everything seemed to be working out – when you believed yourself to be happy, you were surrounded by the hope of possibility, and your energy levels and motivation were correspondingly high. 

There’s a complex relationship between energy, motivation, productivity and happiness. I’ve written before about motivation and how we’re all driven to achieve three things: autonomy (the ability to behave with a sense of volition, endorsement, willingness and choice), competence (mastery of our environment), and relatedness through purpose (the ability to care about and connect to others and to a bigger cause). When those three conditions of autonomy, competence and purpose are in place, there’s a much higher chance that you’ll be able to find yourself in the zone of what positive psychologists call ‘flow’: the mental state of being completely immersed in what you’re doing, where your skill is equal to the challenge and you are enveloped in the focus of the present moment – a space for you to be more productive, creative, and yes, happy. Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi (credited with having popularised the concept of Flow) has described it thus:

(Flow is) being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.” (Wired interview, 1996)

You know that what you need to do is possible to do, even though difficult, and sense of time disappears. You forget yourself. You feel part of something larger.” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990)

You’ll see from the images above that Flow has a number of key characteristics, but I like a bit of simplification, so where all these concepts come together for me is in recognition of this one thing: tapping into what, for you, is the meaning that makes life worth living. 

Meaning, I think, is the ultimate intrinsic motivator.  We catalyse our own happiness when we have meaningful goals that challenge us, yet are within our grasp, and when we’re able to direct and control our own actions in pursuit of those goals. 

In coaching I sometimes find that people feel happiness to be quite elusive, mainly because they’re looking for it anywhere but right here, right now. The thing about the energy of happiness, however, is that – unlike many of the events and things around us – harnessing this energy is very much within our control.1 Rather than expending energy on places, people and things that drain us, we can choose to direct our energy and presence into the optimal experience and ease of pursuing mastery of an area we care deeply about.

So where do you start? When working with my coaching clients we often look at the question of values pretty early on. ‘Values’, in straightforward terms, are the things that we stand for and how we want to behave as we move through life – they’re not something to be achieved, but rather what we want our lives to be about. Your set of values is individual to you, and when you connect with and set goals based on those values, you become able to take your life in meaningful directions even when the going gets tough. 

It’s helpful to think of them as a compass, giving you direction and keeping you on track as you go through life, setting and achieving goals along the way. Or perhaps like a lighthouse, guiding you on your way – your goal never being to obtain the lighthouse itself. Valuing is about the process and the journey, rather than the destination. 

There are plenty of tools and techniques to help people identify and clarify values. With my clients I like working with values card sort exercises (e.g. Carriochi and Bailey’s (2008) Survey of Life Principles) and questionnaires like Crace and Brown’s (2002) Life Values Inventory, but you can also do this old-school with a pen and paper, thinking about what matters to you in your life – you can split your life into as many areas as you like, or you may want to keep it simple with just a few key domains: work and education, love and relationships, health and wellbeing, and leisure and recreation. The values you identify might be obvious to others, or deeply personal to you, and there are no right or wrong answers. Perhaps your list might contain connecting with nature or having a life filled with adventure, or being self-sufficient, working with your hands, and making a lasting contribution to this earth. And then, perhaps the trickiest part: once you’ve clarified your values, it’s time to take a good close look at them and think about whether the life you’re leading is one that aligns with what you care about. 

What really matters to me, deep down?
What kind of person do I want to be?
What personal strengths or qualities do I want to develop?
What legacy would I like to leave?
And what am I going to do with these answers?

Plenty of people think of success in terms of goal achievement. If you do, I invite you now to consider an alternative to this, and see how it changes your thinking: success is living by your values. No matter how far your goals reach into the future (and no matter whether you ever achieve them), just like how happiness can be right here for you in this moment, so too can you have success right now – all that is required of you is that you choose to commit to your values, and start to work in the service of what really matters to you.2

This isn’t always going to be easy. You may have heard the adage that ‘fear and desire are two sides of the same coin’. If something really matters to you, when there’s a lot riding on something, the more it also matters if you don’t get what you want: what you desire is also what you fear to lose. 

British theologian John Henry Newman said, “Fear not that thy life shall come to an end, but rather that it shall never have a beginning.” So ask yourself this question: Are you willing to face whatever comes when you’re heading in the direction you desire? Self-doubt, distress and anxiety are common when we’re seeking meaning. Willingness takes strength, but if you summon the strength to say ‘yes’ to overcome your fears, there is a whole world beyond what you think you already know, filled with possibility.   

And finally, that image I posted at the top of the article? This was the accompanying caption.

Life is fleeting. One day you may look back and see how you let time march on inexorably, passing you by. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Happiness doesn’t only come about through grand gestures; it is in the moment of unguarded laughter, finally learning to be who you are, the willingness to be vulnerable, the seeing of joy in the mundane, the purpose in the pain, and living out what really matters to you. Go big or small, as long as you go. 

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

References

Carriochi, J. & Bailey, A. (2008). A CBT practitioner’s guide to ACT: How to bridge the gap between cognitive behavioral therapy and acceptance and commitment therapy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.

Crace, R. K., & Brown, D. (2002). Life Values Inventory. Williamsburg, VA: Applied Psychology Resources. 

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row.

And through the rivers they shall not overwhelm you

 

I’ve felt several times over the past eight months like life was unravelling. Things falling apart; questioning maxims I’d thought I lived by; reevaluating lots of things about me and my relationships with various people. When I’ve lost ground in the past my faith has always been there for me but lately I’ve felt distanced from that too. It’s been an interesting time.

This week I visited Salisbury Cathedral and was struck by the beautiful font in the nave and the reflections in the water.

This life has got to be about something beyond yourself. Something bigger than you. Not necessarily God, if that isn’t part of your belief system. But as humans we naturally seek meaning, purpose and connection. What am I doing this for? For whom am I doing this? Who’s got my back?

Finisterre

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I took this photo yesterday on the beach and it made me think of ‘Finisterre’ by David Whyte: https://onbeing.org/poetry/finisterre/

“but because now, you would find a different way to tread, / and because, through it all, part of you would still walk on, / no matter how, over the waves.”

If you’re looking for something to read that makes you say yes! that’s exactly it, you just put into words exactly how I felt – have a look at Whyte’s poetry.

One of my other favourites is ‘Sweet Darkness’.

“Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet / confinement of your aloneness / to learn / anything or anyone / that does not bring you alive / is too small for you”.

Your world is so big and blue and beautiful. Go explore.

Come, let us go and try it – why dream about it?

Fyodor Dostoevsky quote

As we look ahead to Monday, and as you take on whatever challenges and journeys this week brings, I want you to remember this. Don’t be someone who looks back at the end of their life, wistful that they never took a chance and never followed their dreams, and is filled with regret for wasted potential and opportunity.

You want it, go and get it. Make it a priority. Support is vital – you don’t have to do it on your own. But you have to do it.

Come, let us go and try it – why dream about it?

The order of time

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I’ve been feeling melancholic lately. If I were to try to find a unifying theme in my thinking, it would probably be about how people, relationships and things change over time.

I’ve been reading a wonderful book by Carlo Rovelli called The Order of Time – it’s thoroughly fascinating, and confusing in parts, and you should go read it. It’s about how time is in us rather than us being in time, and how time flows differently in different places, and how the notion of the present evaporates in the context of the universe. Philosophy, poetry and physics all in one book.

There is something beautiful about old things.
The creak of a joint
History of a glorious past
Wrinkle of a life well-lived
Collected stories from a lifetime
And the rust of days gone by.

Some things, though, wear more acutely
Than time, oxygen and water.
Like gradual disconnections
The sharpness of sour truths
And how the beauty of a siren call
Ends, usually, on the rocks.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

What are you spending your time on?

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I think every so often you have to take a step back and think carefully about what you’re spending your time on.

On a small scale, that’s stuff like mindlessly surfing social media or watching bad TV just because it’s there. At a higher level, it’s more like – how are you wasting your life? Honestly, if you’re unhappy, and it isn’t part of your long game, do something about it. Not next year. Do it now. Take time to evaluate what you want and what steps you need to take to get that. If you’re complaining and not taking any action, well – that’s totally pointless, stop that straight away, do not pass Go, get yourself in gear.

Ok? Call me if you want help.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Do you love the life you’re living?

I was messaging one of my best friends last week and he asked me what my purpose in life was. I thought for a little while, and then I wrote: “Making life a little better for every person I come into contact with, whether it’s for a moment or for the long haul. Helping people to believe in themselves. This life has got to be about something bigger than yourself – working towards a greater purpose. Maybe that sounds a little worthy? I feel very strongly about it though.”

I’ve been thinking about that today as I reflect on the past few weeks. Why do you do the work that you do? Do you love the life you’re living?

What is your driving purpose – that particular thread that pulls everything together for you? Some people want to make a difference through the execution of their vision for a better world – social change, environmental work etc. None of that floats my boat much. My driver is wanting to touch people’s hearts and build them up at an individual level.

Some people are perfectly happy just being – in some ways that is the ultimate goal, finding perfect happiness in this moment. But that needn’t detract from searching for what it is that will give this life meaning and fulfilment.

If you’re searching, then you need to understand your values and how to turn those into something worth pursuing. You also need to understand your motivated strengths: the things you’re not only good at, but actually like doing.

While continual introspection without action is pointless, action without understanding why can be counter-productive. How do you expect to end up where you want to be if you don’t know where you need to be heading?

Those of you who have attended some of my workshops or have been coached by me will know that I love using cards as a coaching resource – used well they can really facilitate discovery of key strengths, skills, values etc., and they also make a great self-coaching tool.
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These are from Barefoot Coaching Cards (the Coaching Cards for Every Day pack, which I’ve been sorting through today while chatting with a dear friend about purpose and direction). Perhaps one or more of these questions will find impact with you this week.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

January and that New Year Resolution Jazz

We somehow appear to be over halfway through January. How’s your month going so far? Did you make New Year resolutions? And if you did, how far have you stuck with them?

Last week I came across a quote that said “January is the Monday of the year”. The analogy is fitting, I suppose, for that (often reluctant) return to work after an extended break – starting the engine from cold; pulling out the choke; jump starting the battery. Excuse the motoring metaphors; I’ve currently got my next car on the brain (the Suzuki Jimny, in Kinetic Yellow, but I digress).

You may have read the research that tells us why January, despite its standard 31 days, always feels like the longest month of the year. Yes, science has spoken. That, plus January’s often the longest month between paydays. So not only are you cold and grumpy, but now, to add insult to injury, you also don’t have any money.

RozChast©Roz Chast, The New Yorker

It’s interesting, therefore, that for that final January flourish, lots of us then place ourselves under pressure by setting resolutions that are unsustainable, not fully thought through, insufficiently specific, or have the wrong focus. You’re going to lose ten pounds, save more money, eat less sugar, stop drinking, and argue less with your partner. You’ll start with the best of intentions, and burn brightly for two weeks before life catches up. Indeed, some research conducted by Strava discovered that in 2018, 12 January was the day that most New Year resolutions ended up slinking guiltily into the shadows.

Where did my motivation go?

So what happened? According to Dr Raj Persaud in his book The Motivated Mind, the science of self-motivation helps us understand that there are only three reasons why people don’t achieve what they want: resource depletion, inadequate tracking, and goal conflict.

‘Resource depletion’ occurs when your resources are insufficient for the task. That might be in practical terms (for instance a genuine lack of time, or not enough funds), but more often than not it’s physical or emotional (lack of energy, low mood).

‘Inadequate tracking’ refers to when you fail to adequately monitor progress towards attaining your goal. Because steps towards goal achievement are often gradual and incremental, measuring your progress provides valuable feedback on how effectively you’re working and how close you are to your target. If you don’t know where you are, it’s difficult to see how to get to where you want to be.

Finally: ‘goal conflict’. This occurs when a goal that you set is incompatible with one or more other things that you set out to do. Maybe the last time you resolved to participate in Dry January, you lasted 10 days because you wanted to kick back and relax the weekend after returning to work. Often the conflict is between longer-term goals and shorter-term desires – psychological experiments have repeatedly shown that we have a predilection for valuable outcomes sooner rather than later.

Our inbuilt preference for earlier gratification means that we’re battling our biology every time we try to focus on that distant reward. And the thing about willpower is that generally it is quite an unreliable beast, so thinking that you’ll be strong enough to stick to your goals this time is, unfortunately, not a particularly effective strategy.

What to do?

Firstly, don’t abandon the desire for self-improvement; having New Year resolutions isn’t in itself a problem. The problem that lots of us have, even before we come to the question of motivation, is that we don’t set the right goals. Sometimes, in fact, we might not even really be ready for change.

Are you stuck in chronic contemplation?

TTM(The Transtheoretical Model of Change, Prochaska and DiClemente)

Studies of change have found that people move through a series of stages when intentionally modifying their behaviour. Change, in other words, is something that unfolds over time. I think the most pertinent stage to talk about here is that of Contemplation, where people intend to change, but aren’t quite ready – they know what the advantages of change will be, but they’re also highly aware of the drawbacks. This can produce significant ambivalence and procrastination, which often means that people stay stuck.

No surprise then that most resolutions, apparently, are repeated five years in a row!

If you’re stuck in chronic contemplation or are otherwise getting in your own way, you need to tackle this first. This is where psychological coaching can be really valuable, helping you to understand and modify unhelpful beliefs, tackle underlying cognitive rules and assumptions, and learn to develop greater self-belief and self-acceptance. For now, though, I’m going to assume that you’re ready for action.

Goal set, game on

Here’s where it all starts to happen. How do you set satisfying and achievable goals? When I work with my coaching clients on this, we go through a process that includes goal clarification, prioritisation, and design. The kinds of questions we might explore at each stage look somewhat like this:

Clarification: What’s the overarching goal? Why do I want this? How does it align with my needs and values? Is this goal short-term in nature or does it require motivation to be sustained over a longer period?

Prioritisation: How high a priority am I placing on this goal? Where does it sit in my overall goal hierarchy? How does it align with my other goals? How can I address any goal conflict?

Design: Am I setting dead person’s goals? How can my overarching goal be broken down into achievable steps?

During the process, we also pause to reflect on a few important things.

First things first: What the heck are dead person’s goals?

Well, simply put, they’re goals a dead person can achieve better than you.

Language is really important when it comes to goal-setting. Goals like “I want to stop drinking”, “I want to eat less sugar” or “I want to argue less with my partner” are all about doing less of something or stopping something (let’s face it, the dead person’s got that in the bag, and he’s way ahead of you).

Instead, think about how you can turn that around to aim for positive action. What you focus on you tend to create, so focus on the things you want, not the things you want to get rid of. Ask yourself: So if I stop this, or do less of this – how are things going to change? What will I start doing, or do more of? How will I behave differently?

Vagueness is not a goal-setting virtue

Remember inadequate tracking? It’s hard to know how close you are to your destination if you don’t know where you are – but even before that, it might have been Seneca who said “if a person doesn’t know to which port they sail, no wind is favourable”.

So be clear about what you want your end result to be. Be specific about what, how, and by when, and make sure too that what you’re aiming at is realistic and achievable within the parameters you’ve set yourself. And then don’t forget to check in with yourself on a regular basis to assess your progress and recalibrate if you’ve gone off-track. 

Daily commitment to action and consistency are key

Let’s assume you’ve set a great goal. You have a vision of what you want your end point to be. Now what? How do you get from here to there?

Here’s where we come to talk about a systems mindset. To read more about this, I highly recommend you pick up Scott Adams’ book How to Lose At Everything And Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life. In Adams’ words: “For our purposes, let’s say a goalis a specific objective that you either achieve or don’t sometime in the future. A system is something you do on a regular basis that increases your odds of happiness in the long run. If you do something every day, it’s a system. If you’re waiting to achieve it someday in the future, it’s a goal.”

Having a systems mindset means that, rather than being end-state and future-oriented, you become process and present-oriented. You can see the longer-term vision, but what you’re doing today is the thing that matters most. If your goal’s to run a marathon in September, and you start training now, you’re not going to see any difference tomorrow. But follow that training plan week in, week out, and come the marathon, you’ll be ready. You may not be able to tick that overarching goal off your list until September, but if you commit to consistent daily action, you’ll be winning each and every day.

So start breaking down that overarching goal into small, achievable daily ways of being that you can sustain over the longer term. Think micro-resolutions – commitment to a limited, specific and measurable change in behaviour or attitude that produces a tangible and immediate benefit. It taps into that predilection for immediate gratification and the positive feedback keeps us encouraged. And you know what else? One of the best cures for lack of motivation is taking action. Just do it.

And that’s it – I do like it when a plan comes together. One final parting thought before I go. You can do all this at any time. You don’t need to wait for a new year, a new month or even a new week to start working towards the change you want to see. So if you abandoned your 2019 New Year resolutions last week, here’s your next chance. It starts now. You’ve got this.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Time to fly

 

It’s your time to fly. There is so much waiting for you, somewhere beyond the current boundaries of your ordinary life – something new, and wonderful. But you’re not going to get it by doing the things you’ve always done. So it’s time – time to spread your wings and get out of that comfort zone. Time to find something extraordinary.

Go out there and achieve the greatness you have in you.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd