When we think of the concept of resilience, it may be that we think of simply being tough or breezing through challenges with little acknowledgment of discomfort. Yet research has suggested that resilience is not about avoidance, but about being able to sit in our messy feelings and move through them, not through closing down, but by staying open to the full spectrum of our experiences.
Miller et al.’s (2010) study looked at the concepts of vulnerability and resilience and found that rather than being separate, there were many ways in which these concepts overlap. Those who are truly resilient are able to live in harmony with life, acknowledging their human frailty and embracing it, rather than storing an ever-growing burden of sadness, disappointment and anger. Resilient individuals learn to self-protect where necessary but remain open-hearted. So how can we retain our equilibrium and strength, bounce back from difficulties yet simultaneously stay open to life and all of its gifts?
Mentally tough, yet emotionally flexible
If we continually respond to life as though we are under extreme threat, we will eventually reach overload point, which affects both physical and mental health. Yet being able to overcome fear and self-doubt, staying soft while building our character strengths through self-development and working to achieve goals, may protect us against depression and anxiety and build resilience. Life is a constant series of ups and downs and a degree of stress is both unavoidable yet arguably useful, as a way of equipping us with the motivation to manage life’s challenges. However, the way we respond to life can make the difference between resilience and burnout.
Loving-kindness to open our hearts
Keeping our hearts open while managing the tough stuff can be a challenge, but we can learn to expand into life, rather than shrink from it when things are difficult. One of the simplest ways of learning to open our heart is through practicing loving-kindness. Barbara Fredrickson’s (2013) book, Love 2.0, is easy to read and offers exercises encouraging us to love, to stay connected, build compassion, firstly for ourselves and then for others. The benefits of this practice are manifold. Fredrickson describes love as our supreme emotion, as a means of encouraging our sense of connectedness to others. It is this connectedness, a sense of being part of the bigger picture, that can help us cultivate empathy, increase positive feelings and enable us to be OK with acknowledging our vulnerability whist also living with compassion, curiosity and openness.
Changing our focus with love
Even for a few minutes a day, focusing on offering ourselves loving-kindness can change the way we think and encourage us to soften and become excited about life, even when we might have challenges to manage. Once we can start to focus outwards, offering thought of loving-kindness to others, to the person we meet in the street, to our neighbours, our communities and as far as we want to reach, we develop a constant sense of open-heartedness. Our humanity is expressed through our ability to experience a multitude of emotions and our strength does not come from being brittle and hard, but from yielding to the flow of life’s ups and downs. Like many other species in nature, we can be both soft and strong.
Fredrickson, B. (2013). Love 2.0: How our supreme emotion affects everything we feel, think, do, and become. Avery.
Miller, F., Osbahr, H., Boyd, E., Thomalla, F., Bharwani, S., Ziervogel, G., … & Hinkel, J. (2010). Resilience and vulnerability: complementary or conflicting concepts?. Ecology and Society, 15(3).
About the author: Monique Zahavi