Monday, January 28, 2008

Serenity Tip: Resiliency

A word about illness and my last post: I was, of course, being sarcastic when I said that illness itself is the enemy of serenity. It can feel that way: You've got work to do and you can't move and that can be a recipe for obsessive worrying and self-condemnation (why didn't I plan for this? Why didn't I wash my hands more, the way they tell you to?).

But the reality is that illness is part of life and part of that 99 percent we can't control.

But what we can foster is resiliency--that is, the ability to bounce back quickly after a challenge or illness leaves us down for the count.

If you want to foster resiliency, the key is to focus on the future instead of the past. Sure, I could spend today gnashing my teeth over the fact that I lost a few days of work last week, or I can think about how to proceed with this week.

I once read something (and I'm sorry I can't now recall the source) that said that the difference between successful people and people who can never quite get there is that the successful people treat obstacles as a chance to change their behavior in the future (for instance, "Now that I've been sick I'll know how to approach clients about deadlines and how to manage my time better. I'll know to let myself rest earlier and not to take certain medicines that made me sicker this time."). People who struggle with success spend all their time looking at the past (for instance, "WHY did I do that? Why? I must know before I can move on." Or, "See? The fact that I 'failed' this time is proof that I'm a failure.").

But don't fear. You can have a little of both and still be successful. The Life and Work Connection at the University of Arizona reminds us of something very important:

Resiliency occurs on a continuum (it's not an either/or proposition)

In other words, feel free to wallow and beat your self up for a few minutes. Then think about how you can use this experience to make you successful the next time you experience it.

And have no doubt: You will experience whatever it was again. As the Buddha says, you have to remember that bad things will happen. And you have to remember that the only thing you possess are your actions around it.

So what actions should you take to develop the resiliency muscle? According to the University of Arizona, these are the keys:

1. Self-soothing: This is essentially anything that interrupts your stress response. A lot of the techniques are in the letting go toolkit. Meditation, yoga, support and prayer are all great ways to soothe your rattled mind. But it can also include cardio exercise and affirmations that contradict the anxiety building in your body.

2. Self-confronting: Essentially, this is challenging those self-doubts and negative thoughts that belong to you and pop up over and over again. For me, those are usually fatalistic beliefs about my ability to sustain self-employment and the belief that I will starve no matter what I do. Your mileage may vary, but please don't doubt that you have these grubby monkey-mind thoughts. Your job is to soothe yourself enough to contradict those old beliefs that are steealing your serenity.

The key here is to do both together:

Focusing on building your resiliency does NOT mean that whatever is going on around you is okay or that you should accept it, because maybe your growth issue involves saying no or setting a boundary where you've been afraid to in the past.

Self-soothing without the self-confronting leads to avoidance. Typical examples of avoidant behavior include withdrawing, being demanding, emotionally-driven eating, substance abuse, etc.

Conversely, self-confronting without self-soothing can lead to you beating yourself up (not good). Everybody walks a different road. For you, growing may involve backing off and letting go of control of a situation. For someone else, it may mean that they need to take more charge of the situation. Don't judge yourself by comparing yourself to others.

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