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

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

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

Rest is not a dirty word

IMG_8143I was talking to a client last week about the importance of proper rest. So many of us are ultra-focused on achievement, reaching our goals and ticking things off on our ever-growing to-do lists, and we forget that rest is not a dirty word.

So we keep going until we’re exhausted and irritable, because we always cope. Don’t we? But then we reach breaking point and we crash, and after recovering we have to take time to put all our pieces back together.

Rest (and not as a last resort) is not only warranted but necessary. Even machines need regular servicing.

Today, why don’t you take time out to do nothing but sit with a cuppa and a book or a drawing pad, calming music in the background, and take a break from the doing to just be?

And massage. Definitely have a good massage.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Beat

It’s Eating Disorders Awareness Week and I’m supporting the #sockittoeatingdisorders campaign by @beat.eating.disorders.

I was anorexic (and briefly bulimic) the year I turned 15, and I still remember the trigger which was a throwaway comment from my gymnastics coach about how I’d put on weight. I lost nearly 20% of my body weight over that year, could no longer sit without pain as I had no fat left, and my hands could encircle my waist. I recovered and avoided hospitalisation through lots of love from family and close friends. I am no longer anorexic, having learnt to actually love food while at University and in the intervening years to finally love myself too. Which is a good thing, because a few years ago someone in the queue behind me at work commented quietly about me, “So she does eat after all.”

Beat provides support, tackles barriers to desperately needed treatment, and challenges the stigmas around eating disorders. Education and understanding is important – a thoughtless comment in itself might not normally have much significance, but when you’re already battling several psychological factors, sometimes the combined heft is enough to push you over the edge.

So everyone, please be aware, be kind, take care with your words and don’t be afraid to be there to support people when they fall.

You can support Beat in this important work too. If you’re in the UK you can easily donate directly from your mobile phone by texting the code UAUA05 followed by your donation amount to 70070 – for example, to donate £10 text: UAUA05 £10

To anyone who’s battling right now: talk to someone. It’s possible to recover and you are worth the fight.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Goodbye 2017, hello 2018

A year ago today, I bid goodbye to my year of crisis. In 2016 depression got the better of me and I spent the rest of the year hauling myself back to a better place. I learnt lots of things, including how to take much better care of myself. Like how not to take things personally, leaving work in the office, knowing when to say no, making micro-resolutions, not sweating the small stuff, and embracing lots of new experiences. I started playing rugby and running regularly, joined a choir and dabbled in acro yoga, and attended my first music festivals and live gigs.

2017 has been kind to me, and I’ve been kind to myself. I’ve been altogether more sanguine about life. I completed my postgraduate qualification in career development and coaching, then took the plunge with a year-long work sabbatical. In just two months since leaving the 9-5 in October, I’ve launched Quiet Space, established a website and social media presence, networked, designed and developed programmes, and learnt so much about business development, branding, sales and marketing. None of this has actually felt like work, because I finally feel like I’m doing what I should be. And above all – I’ve been proud to be part of the transformational journey of my amazing clients.

I have lots of plans for 2018, but for now I’m looking back to appreciate all the things I’ve achieved. I’m proud of myself, and enormously thankful for all the love of my family and friends, who’ve gotten me through it all.

Look back on 2017 and see just how far you’ve come. Notice what skills you’ve learnt. The insights you’ve had. The people you’ve helped. The new experiences you’ve embraced. The challenges you’ve faced head-on. The friendships you’ve made. You are amazing. I guarantee it.I wish you all an amazing 2018. Love is louder than all of it.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Reclaim your freedom

Movement is the freedom of the body. But the mind finds its freedom in stillness. Let your body move. Find your mental quiet.

Too many of us have minds that never stop working and bodies that don’t work enough. Reclaim your balance and your freedom. Move. Find your mental quiet.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Coaching on the Run

This is me and my running buddy, Maria, on one of our favourite routes. We started running together in January 2016 and have since shared rather a lot of miles, not to mention laughs, tears, and confidences. We’ve compared bruises; talked about kung fu and rugby, religion, politics, relationships and much more; and supported each other through a mental health crisis, relationship problems and work woes. She is an amazing woman and mother whom I am very fortunate to be able to call a friend.

These photos were taken today on a gorgeous run, during which we talked about Gavin and Stacey and British Bake-Off, David Tennant’s red silk pants in Don Juan in Soho, Adrian Scarborough and Noel Fielding (although no one could actually remember his name), and also had a couple of rather exhilarating sprints.

Running’s been there in the times when things weren’t quite as jolly, too. Logging the miles, along with the supportive companionship, helped me stay sane and get the necessary headspace to deal with what life was throwing my way.

This is why I like to take my coaching clients outdoors for some of our sessions. Quiet Space’s Coaching on the Run programme brings a different dimension to the coaching process. The natural environment, distance from the stress of home or the workplace, physical exertion, more headspace – the combination can have a cathartic effect that can be a real kickstarter for coaching. Drop me an email at enquiries@quietspacecoaching.co.uk to find out more.

You don’t need to think of yourself as a ‘runner’ to reap the benefits that the outdoors can have for mental health and wellbeing – you can do any combination of walking, jogging or running and it doesn’t matter how slow or fast you go. A mile is a mile, and you’ve got this.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd