I have become particularly interested lately in Resiliency Theory because after being a therapist for over 20 years, I am still gobsmacked by what traumas and losses people can handle and overcome. Here is my favourite definition of resilience from the American Psychological Association:
Resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress — such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors. It means “bouncing back” from difficult experiences.
Research has shown that resilience is ordinary, not extraordinary. People commonly demonstrate resilience. One example is the response of many Americans to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and individuals’ efforts to rebuild their lives.
Being resilient does not mean that a person doesn’t experience difficulty or distress. Emotional pain and sadness are common in people who have suffered major adversity or trauma in their lives. In fact, the road to resilience is likely to involve considerable emotional distress.
Resilience is not a trait that people either have or do not have. It involves behaviors, thoughts and actions that can be learned and developed in anyone.
I have many a book on resilience, but I always come back to my absolute favourite which is called, Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow by Elizabeth Lesser. In short, this book made me cry, laugh, and marvel at how resilient the human spirit is. Lesser is the co-founder of the Omega Institute in New York state – now the world’s largest center for spiritual retreat and personal growth. She has had the unique opportunity to witness people at their absolute rock bottom; while also watching them heal, grow, and ultimately, blossom through various workshops she has conducted at Omega over twenty-five years.
Her book is described on Amazon this way:
In a beautifully crafted blend of moving stories, humorous insights, practical guidance, and personal memoir, she offers tools to help us make the choice we all face in times of challenge: Will we be broken down and defeated, or broken open and transformed? Lesser shares tales of ordinary people who have risen from the ashes of illness, divorce, loss of a job or a loved one – stronger, wiser, and more in touch with their purpose and passion. And she draws on the world’s great spiritual and psychological traditions to support us as we too learn to break open and blossom into who we were meant to be.
My favourite part of the entire book is what Lesser calls “The Phoenix Process”: Another way to deal with a fearful change or a painful loss…named for the mythical phoenix bird who remains awake through the fires of change, rises from the ashes of death, and is reborn into his most vibrant and enlightened self…it is an alternative to going back to sleep”.
As a therapist, I was completely awed by the part when she says: “I am fascinated by what it takes to stay awake in difficult times. I marvel at what we all do in times of transition-how we resist, and how we surrender; how we stay stuck, and how we grow.”
I see my clients as brave birds like the phoenix that choose to stay awake through huge, scary, and often devastating changes in their lives (divorce, losing a loved one, kicking a life-threatening addiction, and massive career change are just a few examples). They are the rare ones who have an unwavering faith that there is a purpose for their suffering and believe that they will come out the other side one day- and they do. I have the incredible honour of acting as a guide on their tumultuous journey; sitting patiently by their side as they struggle, get angry, mourn, feel utterly hopeless…until they are done and one day are met by a sense of unimaginable peace, calm, and healing…and if they are really lucky, even joy and renewed faith in the world and its many possibilities.
I know that I am also a phoenix who has chosen to stay awake many times in my life when others would have given up and I have now lived long enough to experience the incredible rewards that come with staying awake through darkness and change and transformation. And I can honestly say it’s worth it now…all the pain and suffering and trauma has been transformed into a life of gifts; both ordinary and extraordinary. And this leaves me with a huge bank account full of gratitude.
I highly recommend this book as I’m sure you will relate to at least one of the stories contained within its pages. It is full of wisdom from people who earned it the hardest way imaginable- through catastrophe and great loss. We have so much to learn from these incredible people and the author weaves each tale beautifully with her own stories of struggle and triumph.