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

Slow Down Retreat, 22-24 November 2019, Cotswolds

***20% discount when quoting Quiet Space!! Say I sent you and pay just over £350 rather than the normal price of £445 for a shared room***

Exciting news! I’ve joined the Slow Down Retreats team to deliver a very special retreat weekend from 22-24 November in the luxurious surroundings of Cotswold Park Barns.

It’s going to be a weekend of relaxation, yoga and meditation, and nourishment for body, mind and soul. Time for you, time to breathe deep and press pause. Time to rest, to unwind, to find some headspace, and to sleep.

I’ll be leading a group session during the retreat focused on self-care and self-acceptance – do you know what your body and mind need and what replenishes you (and conversely, what drains your energy)? How kind are you to yourself? We’ll be working to identify your personal strengths and your unique self-care recipe, and discussing how we can all move towards self-acceptance.

Full details are available at Slow Down Retreats. I’d be thrilled to see you there!

Self-care isn’t selfish

I’ve always loved Scott Adams’ funny and astute observations about the working world in Dilbert and these delectable strips on work-life balance are no exception.

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Those of you who have come to one of my talks on this theme may remember me saying that I don’t really like calling it ‘work-life balance’. I think the trouble with the word ‘balance’ is that it seems to imply some sort of tradeoff between work and not-work, whereas life and work is usually much more tightly knitted than that. I prefer thinking of it in terms of integration instead. How do your work and the rest of your life fit and flex together in response to any given set of circumstances?

I often find that clients will come to coaching with a particular conundrum like ‘help me get a new job’ or ‘I want to make a career change’. Once we start exploring their situation, however, it quickly becomes apparent that the approach that needs to be taken is far more holistic in nature. Work may be the presenting challenge, but there are often issues relating to confidence and self-doubt, identity, relationships and clarity of focus all tied up in that. The nature of lots of work these days is that you can take it with you – which of course is a huge part of the problem, because thanks to mobile and cloud technology, you can now not only work from home, but everyone else’s home as well. Hurrah!

There will always be times in which you’ll actually need to work through an intense, demanding and stressful period at work. But many of us get into the habit of always being ‘on’, which never gives the mind and body a chance to recover. And typically what happens, because burnout builds slowly, is that the continual pressure goes unacknowledged until you experience some sort of crisis.

There are always signs that point the way to impending burnout – exhaustion, irritability and impatience, loss of perspective, emotional volatility, and a decline in physical health. The key thing is catching these well before you get to the tipping point.

When someone talks about ‘self-care’, what do you think about?

“Cancelling plans is ok. Staying home to cook is ok. Disappearing for a bit to get your life together is ok. Resurfacing in a foreign country with a new name 10 years later is ok. It’s called self-care.”
– A meme all over the Internet  

It seems to be a bit of a health buzzword these days, but I want to encourage you to look at it as something sustainable for the long haul, not some wellbeing fad, and especially not something that is intrinsically self-centred. I’ll tell you now – if you’re the kind of person to worry that self-care is selfish, it’s a fair bet that you probably aren’t selfish. And, funnily enough, you’re probably also not taking care of yourself.

It’s time to change that.

Get a paper and pen now, because we’re going to do a bit of work. Do you know what’s in your self-care recipe? By which I mean, do you know all the things that re-energise you and bring you peace? Take a moment now to reflect on that, and then make a list of ten of those things.

Done? Let’s take a look. Here’s my list.

  1. Solitude and quiet
  2. Allowing myself to not achieve
  3. Plenty of sleep
  4. Books, music and headphones
  5. Exercise
  6. Saying no
  7. Massage
  8. Remembering that not everyone has to like me
  9. Deep one-on-one conversations
  10. Not sweating the small stuff

What’s on your list? What are you doing well, and what are you not doing enough of? What changes are you going to make to rebalance your life?

Self-care isn’t selfish; it allows you to recalibrate and replenish yourself so that you can continue to give. It’s a bit like putting on your own oxygen mask first so that you can make sure you’re able to put on someone else’s later. You can say no (and still be a good and kind person), and it is absolutely fine to not always ‘live up to’ the expectations placed on you (both by yourself and by other people). Allow yourself the breathing space – you will find that you come back all the stronger for the rest.     

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

 

 

The joy of new experiences

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In January I joined the Royal Leamington Spa Bach Choir despite not ever having had any classical choral experience. If you were following me at the time you may remember that by the time I got to the break in my first rehearsal I was all OMG WERE YOU THINKING YOU COULD SING YOU ARE TOTALLY DELUDED.

Well. Turns out I stuck with it and passed my audition, so I can’t have been that bad, and tomorrow we perform Haydn’s Theresienmesse and Mozart’s Requiem. And I can hit all the high notes and manage the vocal gymnastics that sent fear down my spine at the beginning.

So: try out new things, even if you don’t think you’re going to be any good at them. And then if you’re awful, keep going. Because you’re going to learn from the things you get wrong, and you’re going to get better. And the better you get, the more it will motivate you. And then you’ll look back and realise how much progress you’ve made, and you’re going to bloody love it.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Procrastination and perfectionism

Earlier this week I read an article on BBC News, which reported on a recent study that had provided physiological evidence of how the emotional centres of the brain can overwhelm a person’s ability for self-regulation (such as when you’re trying to keep on task), and how procrastination is a problem much more to do with managing emotions than it is to do with managing time. (Lots more information on this is available at procrastination.ca.)

I’m no scientist, but here’s a highly-simplified representation of your brain, so if you’re also a non-scientist you can visualise what I (hope I know I) am talking about.

three-brainsOne thing I found particularly interesting about the article was that the study showed that the amygdala, which is part of the limbic system and deals with motivation and emotion, was larger in procrastinators. It also showed that in these individuals, the connections between the amygdala and another part of the brain, the dorsal part of the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), weren’t as good as in the non-procrastinators. (The ACC, which sits in between the ’emotional’ limbic system and the ‘cognitive’ prefrontal cortex (part of the neocortex), takes information from the amygdala and uses this to decide what action the body will take as a result. It helps keep us on task and on track by enabling us to filter out emotions and distractions.)

So what does this all mean? If your amygdala’s more active, and your brain isn’t filtering that information out effectively, your decision-making and task-management ability can suffer. In sum, how our brains are wired can determine whether we’re more likely to get on with a task or continually put it off.

All this made me start reflecting on the work I’ve done with clients who have wanted help with time management. Inevitably, the core issue has not in fact been to do with time management. Instead, the difficulty of completing tasks has been interwoven with feelings of overwhelm and not being good enough; avoidance of tasks that trigger feelings of anxiety; and a deep-seated fear of what the client views as failure. A lot of this often has its roots in patterns learnt in childhood – enter the loud inner critic and the continual need to prove oneself through doing everything well.

In job interviews, when asked to talk about one’s weaknesses, one answer that often gets used is “I’m a real perfectionist and have high standards, and this can mean I spend more time than necessary getting things just right.” The idea, of course, is to present a weakness that you don’t actually see as a weakness. The trouble with this (apart from the cliched answer – which I don’t recommend, by the way) is that I don’t think perfectionism really has anything to do with standards and with getting things right. Rather, it’s an inability to be happy with what you have achieved because there is always room for more improvement: “Good, better, best; never let it rest. Till your good is better, and your better best.” It’s not a pursuit of excellence, it’s an endless cycle of nothing you do ever being adequate. It’s the constant, unhappy refrain of “if I don’t do a stellar job then I am not good enough”. Perfectionism and low self-esteem are a great double-act, and have been shown to be associated with anxiety and depression. 

For the perfectionist, working drafts are often anathema – you want things to be just right straightaway. You dislike being a beginner; if you’re going to do something you want to be good at it from the get-go. You get bogged down in the details, crafting and re-crafting something to try and get it just-so. Instead of relaxing into and enjoying the process of learning and growth, you are constantly assessing your performance. You think you’ve failed if you haven’t driven yourself to deliver anything less than perfect.

The constant need to live up to what are actually quite unrealistic and unfair expectations of yourself can be an exhausting struggle. Far easier to avoid doing something, because then you also avoid the negative emotions associated with it. And that is precisely what happens: you put off doing things because they trigger your anxiety about inadequacy in some way. I can’t face that right now. There’s too much to think about. I need to have time to do it properly. Over time, this can lead to complete overwhelm.

How do you break this cycle? Let’s first be clear – like anything else that takes a lifetime to build up, these negative patterns will take time to fix. But the important thing is to recognise that they can be changed. I believe that that change starts with learning self-compassion. In self-compassion, acceptance is key: accepting what is, what was, who you are and how you think and feel, without judgment. I think an important aspect of self-compassion is also self-forgiveness – learning to let go of not just the past and its regrets, but also all the future possible somebodies or somebody elses you may feel you need to become, in order to allow yourself to come fully into the present.

I’ve written several previous posts about mindfulness and meditation and thoroughly recommend this as a valuable partner in the journey towards being kind to yourself. Briefly back to the science – research has shown that mindfulness meditation is related to shrinkage of the amygdala and expansion of the prefrontal cortex. Learning to love yourself, in other words, literally changes your brain.

If this article has struck a chord with you, and you’re looking for support in your journey, coaching can help. Do get in touch. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with some short-term practical assistance: there are tools out there that can help you get to grips with tasks when you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed. I often use this action-priority matrix with clients:

Copy of Action-priority matrix-2

You may well have seen something similar – a common one is the ‘urgent vs. important’ matrix – but this particular rendition is a PICK chart (Plan-Implement-Consider-Kick Out) and the idea is that you categorise your tasks in terms of their relative impact vs. effort. So:

  • Low effort, high impact: Quick wins, go do them now. A complementary exercise I often use with clients is what I call “What One Thing (are you going to do today)?”   
  • Low effort, low impact: These are ‘time-fillers’ – consider doing them if you want to, but they shouldn’t be your go-to pile all the time.
  • High effort, low impact: (Don’t. Unless you have an actual obligation to do so.)
  • High effort, high impact: This is often where the procrastination comes in and, together with the Implement quadrant, is where clients typically need to focus. These are tasks that you need to do but can’t be done in one sitting. They require planning, and benefit from task breakdowns and micro-resolutions (small, achievable goals).

I hope you’ve found this useful. If you have, why not subscribe to my mailing list so you don’t miss future updates?

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Endings

Have you ever ended a friendship? Not in the sense of drifting apart, but actively, intentionally. I’ve never had to before, but stepped back from this friendship several weeks ago, telling myself that it was just a break and that in time we would be able to be friends again. Right now, though, I’m thinking that this is more final than I originally envisioned. That makes me quite sad, although I believe it’s the right decision.

I’m reminded of when I broke up with my first love – we’d been together five years but I’d been too afraid to end it when it should have ended (which is to say much, much earlier). Basically I was a bit of a doormat and wanting to be loved; to belong to someone. I didn’t value myself and was too scared of losing him to reject the emotional blackmail. It ended messily, dramatically.

Back in present day I’ve checked out from the drama. Much older, and thankfully wiser, I am no longer willing to invest in relationships where there cannot be genuine trust and mutual support.

Endings are difficult, but sometimes necessary. Cherish the good memories and learn from the unhappy experiences. Always remain respectful and fair, no matter how others choose to act or what they might say about you. I am reminded of the saying “live in such a way that if anyone should speak ill of you, no one would believe it”.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

What does “doing your best” mean to you?

IMG_8618“Good, better, best, never let it rest – till your good is better, and your better best.”

Let’s be clear, striving for improvement is important. Putting in good effort is important. Not allowing yourself to give up as soon as the going gets tough is important. It is however all too possible to go way too far in the opposite direction and work yourself into the ground.

Doing your best does not equate to sacrificing your mental or physical health. It does ask that you try to cultivate a spirit of optimism and an attitude towards ‘failure’ that recognises that if you have tried hard and you have learnt something, then you have already succeeded. It is a journey towards realising that your value does not depend on your achievements.

So by all means keep striving and learning. Just don’t forget that you are already worthy. You don’t have to prove anything to anyone.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Emotional boundaries

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I can’t stress enough the importance of self-care and establishing good boundaries. There is always an internal cost to expending emotional energy and you need to know when to step back and respect your own boundaries. It isn’t selfish; it allows you to decompress so that later on you can continue to give. It’s a bit like putting on your own oxygen mask first so that you can make sure you’re able to put on someone else’s.

Take care of yourself, ok?

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Lessons from a sofa

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On Monday I was once again at Draycote Water, which has become one of my favourite summer coaching venues. While I was surrounded by nature, one of my clients sent me this photo of a sofa at the spa she’s currently at. It looks a bit like a posh hay bale, and comes complete with authentic leaves down the back of the cushions. Apparently there are several of these sofas around the spa, but people weren’t really sitting on them. Because they are prickly.

It struck me that there were a couple of worthwhile lessons to take from this.

1) It is good to take time out for yourself – ensuring that you are paying regular attention to your psychological and physical wellbeing is really important. It’s not selfish unless all you ever think about is yourself.

2) There is sometimes a big difference between what you think will be good for other people and what will actually be good for them. It is useful to ask rather than assume.

3) Things that look nice are not always nice to have. Perception is not the same as reality. This third point was also one of the significant takeaways that my client took away from Monday morning’s session.

There you go, lessons from a ‘quirky’ sofa.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd