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

Returning to work after a career break

International Women's Day 2018

In a week encompassing International Women’s Day and Mothering Sunday, I’ve been thinking about women’s careers in the context of gender inequality – glass ceilings, the gender pay gap, harassment, societal expectations and conditioned expectations of self. I don’t want to get too political today though, so maybe gender inequality is a topic for some other time. What I did want to write about was my perspective on the impact that motherhood has on your career, particularly with your first child or when you’ve taken an extended career break to raise your family (still a disproportionately female endeavour, but yes, politics…).

In the course of my coaching career, as well as in previous management roles, I’ve worked a great deal with women who have taken time out of the office for family reasons. One thing is clear, whether you’ve had nine months of maternity leave with your first child, or a fifteen-year career break to raise three children, returning to the world of work can be hugely daunting, both in the prospect of return and in the actual transition.   

The challenges vary from person to person, of course, but I think there is nonetheless a great deal of commonality in the experience. If you’re returning from maternity leave, fatigue and overload are often front and centre – quite apart from horrific sleep deprivation (and the concomitant caffeine dependency) if you’ve been battling with a child who clearly hasn’t read the sleep manuals, you might still be coming to terms with a new physical and psychological identity in which the person you once knew has gone AWOL, replaced by someone who’s mostly forgotten how to have a proper adult conversation and whose life for most of the past year has mainly consisted of attempting to get out of the house before you’re due back home and trying to drink a cup of tea that hasn’t been microwaved at least twice (although you do now have new skills that include being able to switch off lights with your toes and work a variety of household gadgets with your elbow).

And when you return, everything is simultaneously familiar and foreign (all the more  so if, like me, you decided to get a new job while you were on leave – you know, because you are slightly masochistic). Your sleep deprivation is magnified from the exhaustion of being back in the work environment and absorbing new information in addition to re-learning all the things you forgot while you were away. Plus you’ve still got all your responsibilities at home, juggling kids’ schedules alongside keeping the household ticking over and in a vaguely clean, fed and organised state, and bearing the mental load of remembering everything on that burgeoning task list. You think you’re failing at everything because you still expect yourself to be able to perform the way you did before life changed and now you are neither a good employee (because you can no longer work all hours) nor a good mother (having left the baby wailing at nursery), or indeed a good wife/partner (because you are almost exclusively a mother and have somewhat forgotten how to be yourself). And then when you’re finally up to speed at work again – maybe, just maybe, you find yourself fretting about no longer having the focus or ambition you once had.

If you’ve been out of the workforce for a matter of years rather than months, lack of confidence and the issue of identity can feel like even more of an insurmountable barrier. The gap in your work history can feel like an ending, and your professional self a distant memory. Because you’re firmly rooted in a different world, going back is about something larger than a ‘return’ – it necessitates a re-invention. Perhaps you don’t want to go back to your previous sector or industry, or discover you’re going to need further education and retraining to get anywhere. Then the big questions start. Who are you now? Who do you want to be? What are you interested in (that will pay you)? What do you actually want out of a career? Where do you start? How do you get from now to where you want to be? Are you even going to be able to get a job? Do you have any currently marketable skills? Are you going to fall flat on your face?

It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been away for; the time will have changed you. Your priorities, values, interests and skillsets are likely to have shifted, and with them possibly also what you might want from your career. Sometimes a career change isn’t what you want, but is nonetheless going to be enforced due to childcare issues or the lack of a sufficiently supportive or flexible work environment. More often than not, however, many women come to a realisation that they themselves want to make a change that will fit their new circumstances or desires more closely. But this doesn’t mean that your career has no future. Take note: your career doesn’t have to stop because you’re now a parent and might want to move to part-time or flexible hours, or to a job that fits more easily around family.  

Where do you go from here? There are a few things worth reflecting on, I think.

The first is that you probably have more going for you than you might realise even if you’ve been out of the work world for years. Coordinating three children and a household? Administration, organisation and budgeting, not to mention creativity and the ability to pull things out of a hat at the last minute (World Book Day, I’m looking at you). Volunteering with the PTA? Tact, teamwork and negotiation. You get the idea. I don’t say this to be flippant; the important point here is about recognising transferable skills and being able to present them in a way that’s relevant to potential employers.

The second is giving yourself time and permission to ease back in, because it often takes at least 3-6 months to properly get to grips with the big change in your routine and to start feeling like you know what you’re doing. In any job the learning curve can last for a year or more. Don’t expect, after just two weeks on the job, to be back at the level you were. Be kind to yourself.

Thirdly, I think there are always compromises. Can you have it all? Personally, I think that every choice you make about how to spend your time means a choice to not focus on something else. But that also means that you don’t need to feel guilty if you’re not keeping all the balls in the air 100% of the time. Some things will give. And that’s ok.

And the final point? You don’t need to do it alone. If you’re currently planning a return from maternity leave or a long career break and this article has struck a chord with you, get in touch to see how return to work coaching can help you make the transition back into the working world with confidence. Take a look too at the upcoming Career Reinvention Day for a perfect kickstart.

To your success.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Bridges

Jephson Gardens bridge

I love everything about bridges. The architecture, the view, stopping to watch the world go by around you, the feel when they sway slightly under your feet, and the way they mark entry to a different part of the world. What does this have to do with coaching? I love the way they are a meeting place; a possibility for change; a metaphor for journey and connection. Bridging the gap. Crossing the bridge. Water under the bridge. Are you building or burning bridges?

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Get ready to live your dreams

The recipe:

1) Meet new people.
2) Get out of your comfort zone.
3) Dream bigger.
4) Progress, not perfection.
5) Take control of your fear.
6) NOW is the time.

What are you waiting for? Start here; start now. Get in touch for a chat about how Quiet Space can help you soar.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

What’s stopping you?

in brute reality there is no road that is right entirely
One question that often prompts a very enlightening discussion during my coaching sessions is “what’s stopping you?”

A great number of the barriers that hold us back from achieving our goals and dreams are in fact self-constructed.

Perhaps you don’t know where or how to start. You can’t see the woods for the trees, and become overwhelmed by how daunting everything looks. Perhaps you worry about making the wrong decision. Is this what I really want? What if it isn’t the right thing to do? What if I hate it? Perhaps you then over-analyse, exhaustively weighing pros and cons, and end up paralysed by all your options. Perhaps you’re scared of moving out of your comfort zone, and everything looks like a reason not to. It’s not the right time. It’s too risky. Maybe when I win the lottery.

The truth is, there isn’t one right road. There will always be reasons not to. And waiting for everything to fall into place can end up being a very long wait indeed.

You may have heard the saying ‘there’s no such thing as a wrong decision’. You see, how a decision pans out is dependent on a whole range of factors that aren’t necessarily within your control. Selecting the ‘right’ road or taking the ‘correct’ action doesn’t guarantee success. And the converse is also true – making the ‘wrong’ choice doesn’t mean that you’ve set yourself on the path to disappointment. Your action now does not dictate the rest of your life. It’s what you do after you set yourself on any particular path that matters.

If you place too much weight on making the ‘right’ choice, it’s very easy to end up becoming overwhelmed, getting decision paralysis, and stopping before you even start, waiting for something to change your life.

On the other hand, you can take control. Tune into your heart and gut to discover what motivates you and the things that really make you tick. Big goals can be difficult to digest, so think about micro-resolutions – any kind of definitive action, no matter how small. Start moving. Your dream isn’t going to come to you fully formed; it’s going to grow and evolve with every new experience that you have, because it’s your journey that shapes the destination.

Decisions are just decisions. Stop worrying about making the right decision and focus instead on how you’re going to make a decision the right one for you.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Carpe Diem

The truth is, most of us discover where we are heading when we arrive
A couple of years ago I had the pleasure of listening to a friend talk about her career history. She is a successful and charismatic administrative professional, but like many others in administrative careers, this wasn’t her answer to the question ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’

One defining quality of her career is that it has been almost entirely unplanned; she thinks of herself as a lucky person for whom things always work out one way or another. Her life has taken her from the army, through the dental industry, to the higher education sector, taking in adult education along the way. Her driver? Simply a desire for learning – on growing through continually seeking out new challenges and opportunities.

Planning is important, but so is remaining open to and seizing opportunities when they come along. Lots of us fall into career ruts because we get into a comfort zone and stop learning.

The takeaway? Stay curious. Keep exploring, learning and speaking with new people. Somewhere in these new experiences is the opportunity. Take the chance when it comes.

Image credit: Calvin and Hobbes, Bill Watterson.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Change: Choice and commitment

A boat is safe in the harbour. But this is not the purpose of a boat.
One of the things about changes that you actually want in your life and your career is that in the main, they don’t happen unless you make a choice to do things differently. That often requires a foray into the unknown.

Sometimes it’s a leap of faith. Taking a chance doesn’t need to be terrifying, though. Careful evaluation of the situation and your options, while remaining open to unexpected opportunities, can be a great start. Coaching can help you to make the change you’ve been wanting to see, focusing first on awareness and understanding, followed by an openness to learning, a call to action, and then commitment to making it happen.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd