How to Build Resiliency
For Chaotic Times
How to Build Resiliency
For Chaotic Times
When I knew we’d need resilience
I was in Sarasota with an executive team when the first reports of COVID-19 lockdowns started to trickle in. The leaders in attendance started talking about whether and how to move to working from home for a few weeks. Some had more personal worries as they had employees, family, and loved ones in the New York metro area where the outbreak was gaining momentum.
On a break from a strategy session, one of the executives thought out loud near me.
“I have a feeling this is going to be really big and probably longer than we thought. It’s going to test our resiliency as an organization and as a leadership team.”
Little did we know how much of an understatement that was.
That evening, I took a run in downtown Sarasota, stopping in at a restaurant to grab a meal to bring back to my hotel. I was chatting with a Midwestern couple at the bar and noticed our mixed emotions. We seemed to alternate between foreboding (“maybe this pandemic thing is real”), denial (“it can’t be as bad as they’re saying!”), and acceptance (“it might be tough, but we’ll get through it”). Mostly, I wanted to grab my seafood dinner, go back to the poolside seating, and forget about it.
Flying back to Chicago on an eerily empty airplane the next day, it hit me: everything was going to change. This was likely to be as much of a turning point in our culture as 9/11 and the Great Recession. In fact, I started to wonder if it would be more on the level of the Great Depression, an event that most living Americans did not experience. That was before the full economic impact of prolonged shutdowns and the cultural impact of social unrest resulting from generations of unaddressed injustice were obvious to any of us.
Your most important job in crisis is to cultivate resilience
Prolonged turbulence could chase us into self-protective bunkers. But while a certain amount of caution is warranted, withdrawing is never the long-term way forward. No, times of crisis call out for ordinary people to play important roles of influence and stability for those around them. Some will be very visible. Most will be virtually unseen. It doesn’t matter which one you are. Your contribution matters to the well-being of the whole.
You may be in the middle of a crisis as you read this. The good news is that a crisis can make you stronger and more adaptable even as you live through it.
You may be in a crisis lull right now. The good news is that you can be more prepared for the inevitable challenges ahead of you by using this time wisely.
Regardless, remember the golden rule of danger we’ve all learned during safety briefings on airplanes: put your own oxygen mask on before helping others. Marshal your own resources before you try to give to others.
Strong, resilient people can strengthen others. Weak, brittle people have little to offer.
What resilience looks like
Resilience is simple: when we are knocked off balance, it is how quickly we return to well-being. The faster we rebound, the more resilience we are showing.
Resilient people are grounded in reality and embrace reality, wherever it takes them. They know that denial is attractive in the short term. But over the long haul, denial is the best way to get knocked onto your backside by reality. As you feverishly try to look the other way, the real world takes your knees out from under you. You can eat seafood by the pool if you want. But if a pandemic is going to close your hotel tonight, you’d better hope you have a good sleeping bag.
Denial-induced wipeouts rob us of our confidence and ability to stand back up. The more times we get knocked down by reality, the harder it is to get up. Denial is also the source of much suffering because when you hold yourself in a distorted shape, you’re fighting any natural tendency you have to snap back. It’s much better to embrace reality from the beginning.
We easily glorify resilience and turn it into an action figure. “Captain Resilience, the hero of the day. She overcomes all efforts single-handedly. He stands tall in the face of trouble.” Here’s resilience in the gritty reality of everyday life: Jimmy has lived and worked all over the world, often among people who are poor and marginalized. Until recently, he gave most of his working hours to people who have to show a fair amount of resilience just to survive.
Then a manageable case of prostate cancer turned into a manageable case of lymphoma. That morphed into a chemo-resistant version of lymphoma. As I write this, Jimmy is waiting for an experimental immunotherapy that may increase his chances of survival. And it may not.
For several years, Jimmy has been on a rollercoaster ride of chemo treatments, temporary reprieves and tough setbacks. Through it, he has been remarkably resilient. Yes, he bends. There are dark days of post-chemo brain fog and physical suffering. But he rebounds. Jimmy sees the beauty of the moments he has. He has connected with friends around the world who support him. He sees even this time of disease and treatment as a time where he can become more of who he was created to be, and to give his life away.
Whether now or later, we will face challenges that will bend us. Who do we want to be in the middle of the next crisis? Will we snap like a brittle branch? Or will we rebound, ready to help those around us face the challenge?
How to build resilience
We all crave balance. You can see this in the created world since all biological and social systems crave balance. So building resilience, the ability to quickly return to equilibrium is key to health, well-being, and thriving.
Building resilience may be your most important job, though it’s one that very few organizations will consciously talk about or reward you for in your year-end review.
Whether you’re in a crisis or not, this day, this week, this month is an opportunity to build your ability to rebound. You don’t have to go to class, though you will see that surrounding yourself with the right people will exponentially grow your ability to progress.
Here Are Five Pro Tips For Building Resilience
PRO TIP 1: Let your emotions reveal reality
As much as we hate to admit it, we deal with emotions every day at work. That last exasperating Zoom call you had with your executive team, where that guy talked so endlessly that you were tempted to ask the moderator to mute him? That pit in your stomach when you saw the numbers drop again last quarter? The butterflies you felt when you had to confront your boss over a video call? They’re all examples of everyday emotional reactions at work.
I have a complicated relationship with my feelings. I grew up as the youngest of five boys with a mom who was raised by a single father. We had three feeling words in our home as I remember it: mad, glad, and hungry.
I married someone I assumed was as feeling-challenged as me because she was an accountant. We all know that accountants have no feelings.
Then Gretchen decided to make a whiplash-inducing career change. She became a marriage and family therapist. To make matters worse, she decided to specialize in Emotionally Focused Therapy. Really. It was enough to make me question my life choices.
But over time, I have begun to respect the value of emotions in helping us face reality. Say you have a mild toothache and you knowingly ignore it. “Maybe it will go away on its own,” you reason. A few months later, the pain is worse and you find yourself in a dentist’s chair. She tells you that you’ll now need a root canal because you let it go for too long. You may feel embarrassment, anxiety, sadness, or even anger at the dentist. You probably have physical signs of those emotions, such as a pit in your stomach, a burst of sweat, or the desire to cover your face with your hands even though Mr. Slurpie is still perched in your mouth. Welcome to a reality collision.
Those emotional reactions to collisions with reality can hijack our brains really quickly, cutting off the pathway to the parts of the brain we need for problem solving and for reasoning. An otherwise reasonable and useful person can become incapacitated and a burden. The number one job in building resilience is to train our brains to notice when a brain hijacker is creeping up on us and stop it from taking over.
You might think that your emotions are the problem in these situations. That’s understandable, since none of us like that out-of-control feeling that often goes along with a brain hijack. But neuroscientists have shown a complex interplay between our rational processes and our emotions. In fact, there is good evidence that we need emotions to make good decisions.
When we’re skillful, our emotions are remarkably useful signals of an impending brain hijack. They tell us what we really think even when we’re lying to ourselves. For instance, you may say you’re fine when you’re under pressure. But you’re probably kidding yourself. You aren’t fooling the colleagues and family members who you snap at or freeze out when you’ve got too much on your mind.
If you don’t know how you are really feeling, or if you deny it, the spark of those emotions turn into a blaze. Like a forest fire, they can create their own emotional weather, stirring up hot, unpredictable winds. That takes you farther away from resilience, not back to balanced well-being.
Your feelings tell you how you’re really doing. The good news is that we only have five basic emotions. A simple practice like the Action Replay can help anyone who will invest 3-5 minutes per day recognize and name those emotions. You may notice how many feelings you have and that you tend to ignore the milder versions, blowing past an opportunity to work with them in a manageable form.
Pretty soon, you’ll even notice bodily sensations that accompany certain emotions. That flash of heat or those butterflies in your stomach are more than coincidences. They’re signal flares that a brain hijack may be in the works.
If you notice emotions early enough, you can manage the situation before they are completely out of control. That’s why using a Feeling Word Cheat Sheet to name milder versions of the five basic emotions is so useful. You can notice, tell yourself the truth, and take action before your brain is hijacked. Because if you can name it, you can tame it.
Next time someone asks you how you’re doing, pause long enough to tell yourself the truth. Ask your feelings. They know.
PRO TIP 2: Get a handle on your OS
Picture this pre-pandemic scenario: You’re walking down the sidewalk. Someone is coming toward you from about 30 yards away. She looks up at you, covers her face with a scarf, swerves 90 degrees, and passes you on the other side of the street before coming back to your side of the street 30 yards behind you. If you’re like me, you’re thinking, “What?!? How rude!” Maybe a hot flash of indignation sweeps across your face.
Imagine the same scenario mid-pandemic: This time, the person sees you but walks straight past you without covering her face and without changing course. Again, you’re thinking, “Wait, what?!? How rude!” Perhaps you feel your heart rate bump up as you re-route into the grass to avoid possible contamination.
For instance, the story I wanted to tell myself on my run in Sarasota went like this: “I’m not scared. The world is over-reacting. We don’t do pandemics anymore. And even if we do, we’ll get past this in a couple of weeks. Plus, I’m a very healthy person, so this won’t affect me.” If I had kept on with that story, I would have had some pretty rough surprises during the ensuing lockdown.
On the plane, that story began to change: “This is bigger than I thought. Whether the world is overreacting or not, it’s not going to be the same any time soon. And while I’ve been healthy, I’m also more statistically at risk than I’ve ever been – and pretty much 100% at risk of being affected economically. I may not be on a plane again for a long time. But I’ll have a lot of friends and clients who need help.” That story led me to become more creative about how I served clients and more restrained about how I spent money.
Those stories control our lives. They run in the background like an OS runs in the background on a computer. They tell us what is possible and what is beyond our reach. They’re also often based on unproven assumptions about ourselves, other people, and the way our world really works. For instance, if I assume that the whole world does – and should – view something like a respiratory illness the way I do, I have some pretty serious bugs in my software – bugs that reality will reveal eventually. I may enjoy a seafood dinner by the pool, but not for long.
But here’s the tricky part. These stories are almost entirely hidden from view. We can go through much of our lives completely unaware of the underlying beliefs that drive us. That’s bad news whenever these beliefs are untrue or distorted. Because resilience is fundamentally grounded in reality. Any step away from accuracy and reality is a step away from resiliency. As philosopher Dallas Willard liked to say, “Reality is what you run into when you’re wrong.”
This is where our feelings come in. Emotions reveal the stories we tell ourselves. They’re the gateway to understanding our narratives and taking the first steps toward re-writing them. They help us find the bugs in our OS and rewrite the code with the accuracy we need for building resilience.
You can uncover the stories simply by tracing them back from your feelings. Here’s how:
- Take an ordinary day. Play it back, noting any particularly strong feelings, or even an unnamable discomfort.
- Pick one scene where you notice an emotional reaction, like a difficult interaction with a colleague that left you with a feeling you couldn’t shake. These are the scenes in your day that you replay as you take a shower or a run.
- Put yourself back in that scene. Imagine it happening again with all of the sights and sounds. Now that the scene is vividly in your imagination, ask yourself a few simple questions:
- What story were you telling yourself in that moment about yourself? Maybe it was something like, “I’m a smart, qualified person. I worked super hard on that deliverable. I made a solid recommendation.”
- What story were you telling yourself in that moment about the other people in the scene? “He doesn’t appreciate all of my hard work. He’s unreasonable and arrogant. He never really listens to me or changes his mind.”
- What story were you telling yourself in that moment about the world at large? “In the end, people only respect you if you stand up for yourself. Otherwise, you’ll get walked on.”
- On what assumptions were these stories based? “Everyone should understand I have good intentions and give me a break.”
- Looking back, what emotion did you experience? If you’re feeling-word-challenged like me, here’s a Feeling Words Cheat Sheet to help.
- Note anything you did as a result of this story. How did it affect your actions, your relationships, and your choices for the rest of the day? The storyline outlined above about that difficult colleague could easily lead someone to shout or pout or push.
You don’t have to change anything about this story. In fact, it’s very difficult and somewhat risky to attempt to change the narrative directly. Just let your emotions tell you the truth about the story you tell yourself. Note especially how that story affected your actions.
Crises evoke strong emotions. Those strong reactions are your narrative screaming at you to pay attention to reality. If you don’t, you’re in for another reality collision and a brain hijack.
You can probably also see how much better it is to do this work before a crisis hits. Denial-induced and panic-provoking emotional responses to a crisis––this is the end of the world! My job is going to evaporate! There won’t be any food or toilet paper!–– can easily turn into a brain hijack because they’re so strong. You may not be equipped to fend it off. It’s much better to get ahead of that scenario by preparing yourself.
Which leads to…
PRO TIP 3: Practice
Part of my job requires me to confront clients on occasion, to tell them things their employees can’t or won’t tell them. If I tell myself the story that I can’t afford to offend clients, I’m going to build a habit of telling clients what they want to hear. This story is based on an assumption that they don’t want to hear the truth. Over time, I won’t even think about this story. I’ll just blow sunshine at clients all day long, even when doing so is not in their best interest and when they actually hired me to do the opposite. My body is conspiring with my not-so-helpful story through habits to fail my clients.
To beat this habit, I have to build new patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving that work together for the good of my clients. The goal here isn’t to grit my teeth and do this through a heroic feat of willpower. Instead, the idea is to gradually build new habits – like recognizing feelings of anxiety in my body before they overwhelm my brain, noticing the stories I’m telling myself, and finding ways to talk myself off the ledge – so that I’m actually the kind of person who serves clients by telling the truth even when it’s hard.
This isn’t easy. No matter how well we understand the stories we tell ourselves and their resulting impact on our actions, we have habits that keep us trapped in old stories.
Change and improvement don’t happen by accident. No one steps up to take that crucial shot in a game or play the famous solo in the symphony spontaneously. No, people who are ready for the big moment – for being “on the spot” – spend many hours in practice.
Smart people engage in positive practice so that they’re ready to take on big challenges. They know that they must do some things when the lights are dim so that they’re ready to be who they want to be when the lights are bright.
Notice the emphasis on positive practice here. In truth, we have all practiced our unhelpful habits until we’re virtuosos of mediocrity – or worse. We practice tellings ourselves false stories, being afraid, or projecting our frustrations on others. We get really good at being ordinary or bad.
That’s why clearly envisioning who we want to be and what we want to contribute is so important. It helps us get practical about choosing a practice that will help us move in that direction.
Try these questions to help you choose a practice:
- Who do I want to be in the middle of the next crisis? What one word or phrase would sum up how I want to show up? Do I want to be the one who freaks out, or the calm center that helps keep others steady and thinking clearly?
- Why does that matter to me and to those around me? Visualize those people who matter to you. Imagine how your presence would help them if you were truly resilient.
- What practices will I use to notice my feelings, increase my awareness of the stories I tell myself, develop good bodily habits, and enhance my crew?
To be useful, any practice will help us line up the stories we tell ourselves with a simple way we use our bodies. When we do that, we get a virtuous feedback loop where the better stories we tell ourselves are reinforced by what we experience in our bodies.
There are as many practices as there are narratives we’re trying to rewrite. You can make up your own. Any way to get your body involved in a repeated practice that challenges your deeply held narratives when they’re not under the direct pressure of a crisis is fair game. Just be sure that your practices get you more aligned with reality because without reality, there simply is no resilience.
The great thing about practice is that it doesn’t have to take a lot of extra time. We all have enough time to practice because most practice involves stopping doing something useless or doing something we’re already engaged in, but in a different way.
Most people find shaping and keeping a practice on their own really challenging.
Which leads us to…
PRO TIP 4: Find your crew
During the worst of the pandemic lockdown, my friend Amy recommended I offer an opportunity for some of my clients and colleagues to gather virtually for mutual learning and support. I sent out an invitation to about 40 people and was stunned by the response. Over a series of sessions, around 30 busy, accomplished senior leaders showed up to connect and learn with complete strangers.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. We’re bonding mammals. We crave connection and belonging. We do our best work not alone as the big strong solitary leader, but in groups where we know that others have our backs.
Beyond that, surrounding ourselves with smart, caring people makes us raise our game. We consciously and unconsciously begin to imitate them. Similarly, filling your circle with freaked out people will spread fear because panic is contagious.
Who we surround ourselves with is one of the most important choices we make in developing resilience. Their emotional reactions, the stories they tell us, and the habits they have will inevitably rub off on us. They will either help us become the best versions of ourselves or they will take us down in flames.
Surprisingly, most of us pay more attention to what we put into our bodies than we do to the people we surround ourselves with. Whether we know it or not, the people in our circle – our “crew” – provide a lot of the diet for our hearts and minds.
Bright leaders make sure their crew has at least these traits:
- They’re trustworthy. You will only grow if you can be real. Otherwise, you will hide your vulnerabilities – the very things that need work – from yourself and others. And no one gets transparent with people who are unreliable.
- They’re admirable. Each person in your crew should have at least one trait you would like to emulate as you become a better version of yourself.
- They’re diverse. We can get too comfortable in a homogenous group, confirming our own views of the world. You only become who you were created to be by learning and stretching.
Of course, choosing a crew is only the first step. Then you have to cultivate it. While it’s not rocket science, it takes intentionality to build those bonds. Little things count, like celebrating when someone else in the circle succeeds, mourning when there’s disappointment, and thanking others in your crew for favors large and small. All of this creates an environment where real strength can flourish. And what you’ll need most in a crisis is an environment where real strength is on display.
PRO TIP 5: Create a resiliency-building plan
Every day, each of us is being shaped into a particular kind of person. That was true of people we admire like Mother Teresa or Martin Luther King, Jr. It was equally true of those we view with horror like Adolf Hitler. They became these people – for good or ill – by becoming a particular kind of person over a period of time. And they became that person through the continuous interplay of their habits, narratives and relationships.
The difference between someone who is shaped into the kind of person who rebounds in a crisis and those who are brittle lies in intentionality. Those who choose to actively participate in their shaping, who invest in their own development on a consistent and ongoing basis, have the chance to make themselves more helpful to those around them when things get rough.
Don’t think this is normal. My friend, Audrey, was going through a tough time at work. I suggested that she take a weekend away to slow down, rest, and think through her next steps rather than staying on the gerbil wheel and avoiding her anxiety. I argued that this would help her make wise decisions that would support her making her best contribution in the world.
Audrey said to me, “I couldn’t do that. I can’t slow down and rest even though I know it’s the best thing to do. I’m not like you. I’m not disciplined. Plus, I’m super busy at work and my boss wouldn’t appreciate it if I didn’t answer his emails over the weekend.” After a moment, she added quietly, “I can’t help myself. I always take on more.”
In all of those objections was a lie Audrey was telling herself about herself and about me; the lie that becoming our best selves is outside the reach of some and in the special abilities of others. That you can’t become exceptional if you’re normal.
If she had stepped back for a minute, Audrey would realize that she was selling herself short. I’ll bet she brushes her teeth every day. We become disciplined when we are aware of what’s at stake, like losing our teeth.
But in one way, Audrey was right. I think she doubts the strength of her will. It’s true that the human will is much more feeble than we’d like to believe. Ask any cookie on a plate near me just how strong my will is. Not very.
But as weak as our wills are, they can play an important role in helping us turn intention into reality. Even for normal people. Maybe especially for normal people.
That’s because your will can do one tiny, little thing. It can make choices ahead of time about to whom and to what it will turn itself toward. It can say, “I’m going to engage in these practices and engage with these people who help me raise my game, who help me find balance and well-being quickly in a crisis – on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis – so that little by little, I become a resilience-creating person.”
Maybe you see that, ironically, your will’s most important role in cultivating resilience is to surrender itself to people and practices that will shape the rest of you. It’s a modest, but crucial, role. Because those people and practices will have an enormous impact on your inner condition and how you show up in a crisis.
You’ll increase your chances of turning this resilience building plan into reality by making it visible, maybe putting it on your wall or desktop. You’ll make its implementation even more likely by sharing it with a few trusted friends in your crew and asking them to cheer you on. And you’ll bump it up even more by starting streaks, keeping a practice going for a long period of time. Streaks are highly motivating because you start telling yourself the very positive story that you’re the kind of person who keeps promises to yourself. And when you break a streak, as you inevitably will, resilience means you don’t quit: you try again as soon as you realize you’ve gone off track, no matter whether it was an hour or a year.
You’ll also increase your chances of having a solid base of resilience by engaging in habits of self-care. Here are a few self-care practices leaders can use to get their bodies in on the act of building a deep reservoir of resilience:
- Rest: If I had one practice I could prescribe for most leaders, it would be getting adequate rest. If you’re exhausted and irritable because you tell yourself the story that nothing gets done unless you’re involved, try getting adequate rest as an act of defiance. Otherwise, you’ll make horrible decisions and be perpetually cranky with those around you during a crisis – right when we most need you to be even-keeled and wise.
- Breathe: Too many of us are distracted and absent from those around us. We’re telling ourselves that something else going on somewhere else is more important, that we might be missing out. We can use the simple act of breathing to bring us back to the present moment, back to reality. When you’re really in the moment, you can be of great use to others, especially in a crisis. You can see what others are missing as their brains are hijacked by emotional reactions.
- Be Generous: One natural response to a story of scarcity is hoarding. It’s fear disguised as empowered action. But in the long run, it’s weak because it undermines relationships. Generosity, even in the face of panic, develops real strength. If the natural response to a crisis is to turn in on yourself, generosity engages your body in countering that tendency. Your hands tell your head and your emotions, “It’s OK. We have enough. Settle down.”
- Play: A lot of us take ourselves far too seriously. We tell ourselves that we’re the heroes (or goats) of the story, when in fact we are quite small. Play opens our minds to the kind of creative thinking we need in a crisis. Play can also be a big source of self-forgetful joy when a crisis might be dragging us into morbid self-obsession.
You can become a resilient person
Resilient people have the internal ability to rebound, to spring back when knocked down, to stand in a storm. That ability isn’t some mystical ability of the privileged few. It’s something in the reach of anyone who takes the intentional steps to prepare themselves.
There’s a great opportunity for building that kind of resilience hidden in any moment of turbulence. In fact it may be the only such opportunity because humans rarely grow except under some sort of stress. Rather than simply being something to survive, a crisis can be one of those moments that stretches us into stronger, more beautiful, more useful humans. Crises provide fresh opportunities for service and meaning.
A crisis can actually be the situation that draws the very best from us. History is full of people who rose to the occasion, who were able to not only withstand the pressure of a crisis but to even use it to become a better version of themselves.
YOU CAN DO THIS. We need you to do this. We’ll be cheering for you as you do.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR, TED HARRO
Ted helps people and organizations climb higher and shine brighter.
Before becoming a strategy and leadership consultant, Ted led the professional services division of Wilson Learning Worldwide. Read More…