“Do not judge me by my success, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.”
― Nelson Mandela
Have you wondered why some people seem to grow stronger when faced with traumatic situations while others seem unable to handle them at all? The ability to get back up and keep going when life runs you over is a trait called resilience. The capacity to be resilient is something you may be born with, however, it is also something that can be developed and strengthened.
When I think about resilience and my earliest experiences with it, one story, in particular, comes to mind. When I was a teenager growing up in Northern California, a local girl was kidnapped from her house during a slumber party. Everyone was on the lookout for the young Polly Klaas and the man who kidnapped her for months.
Unfortunately, when they found the man that did it, she had been horrifically murdered but her killer was brought to justice. Her father Mark Klaas, went on to start a foundation for kidnapped children and their families as well as playing a role in having legislation changed in the sentencing of violent crime. He became an advocate for victims of violent crime and turned a horrible tragedy into a life with meaning and purpose.
Viktor Frankel, a psychiatrist who was held in the concentration camp during World War II for three years, wrote what is considered one of the most influential books ever written, A Man’s Search For Meaning. Viktor noticed the difference between the people that survived the horrors of Auschwitz and those that didn’t, were the ones that survived found meaning and purpose in even the most horrific of circumstances.
How to create meaning and purpose and incredible resilience
When Freud stated the greatest motivator in man is the pursuit of pleasure, Frankl disagreed. Frankl believed that what people craved wasn’t pleasure, but a profound sense of purpose and meaning. And when someone can’t find meaning in life, they numb themselves with pleasure, like food, alcohol and sex, which doesn’t actually fulfil our need for meaning. And so the cycle continues, never satisfying what we are really hungry for…
Frankl said people could feel a deep sense of meaning in three ways:
Clear Roles, Goals and Ambitions - Humans need a reason to get out of bed in the morning. They need to know that in their heart that the world needs something from them. A person needs to feel helpful and significant, and that significance needs to be connected to specific tasks and if possible, tasks that only they can achieve. Are your roles, goals and ambitions clear?
Healthy Relationships - Healthy relationships are crucial to experiencing a life of meaning. Are your relationships healthy? How are you affecting other people and how are they affecting you? The reality is we learn more from our experiences with each other than we do from tv, books, or movies. I find for most people, their relationships are their biggest source of pain. Most of us are not taught how to have a healthy relationship and therefore it’s essential to educate ourselves about relationships and invest time as well as money into improving them.
A Viewpoint that Challenges and Suffering are Growth Experiences - Everyone experiences challenges and suffering. The urge to act like a victim is strong, but stopping to make a list of the many ways a misfortune may have also serve as a blessing, takes some of the pain out of our suffering. If we change our attitude toward suffering, we could even come to see it as something positive, that our pain was not in vain.
It’s not enough to simply accept adversity and push through it, with clenched teeth. Instead, a more profound transformation can happen when adverse events contribute to a greater meaning and purpose to life. The resilient person is the one who emerges from setbacks profoundly changed for the better.
Most importantly, resilience is built by connecting and helping others.
In times of stress, people are proven to become more caring, generous, and prepared to jeopardise their own well-being to protect others. Why would stressful events lead us to become more caring? From an evolutionary point of view, we have the responsibility to first and foremost protect our offspring. Think of a mama bear protecting her cubs, or a father risking his life running through a burning house to save his child. Tragedies can be when we are at our finest.
For many of us, our natural response to stressful events can make us social, brave, and smart. It can provide us with both the courage and hope we need to launch us into action. This response may have evolved to help us protect our offspring, but when you are in that state, your courage can help you through any challenge you may face.
Anytime you decide to help others, you initiate this state. Helping others triggers the biology of bravery and generates strength. If you are overwhelmed by stress or the suffering of others, the way to find strength is to connect with others, not run away. In any circumstance where you feel powerless, doing something to help others can help you maintain or re-establish your inner strength and optimism.
Caroline Cranshaw is a hypnotherapist, founder and trainer at the New Zealand Integrative Hypnotherapy Training Institute and the author of The Smoking Cure. Find out more about her at nzhypnotherapy.co.nz. Listen to Caroline's new podcast WTF Stories & Advice.