This blog was first published on Action for NHS Wellbeing site on 6th September 2015. Resilience is currently very topical so I felt to share it here as well.
Resilience is the latest buzz word and emotional resilience training is the new ‘must have’ for those who are trained to kill, fight and go to war as well as those who are trained to save lives, heal and care for sick. Indeed, based on the fact that the Army now incorporates emotional resilience training before it goes to combat and war, the head of the GMC has decreed this is to be incorporated into medical training – before we go to battle in the NHS! Although it might feel like we are going to war or battle in the NHS, and thus need an armour to protect us, is the resilience training provided to those who are trained to shoot and kill really what is needed for those in a healing profession where compassion, care, gentleness and kindness are the qualities most sought after by patients?
Is it possible that we are missing something about what it is to be human, something that were it to be known would transform our whole understanding of resilience?
What is resilience?
Resilience has been defined as:
1) the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties: toughness
2) the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity, flexibility, suppleness, springiness, give, durability, strength, sturdiness, toughness
3) strength of character – strength, toughness, hardiness, adaptability, buoyancy, flexibility, ability to bounce back
4) the power or ability to return to the original form, position etc after being compressed, bent, stretched; elasticity
5) ability to recover readily from illness, depression, adversity or the like; buoyancy.
Even within these definitions there appears to be an inherent flaw, a paradox within the qualities of what it is to be resilient that can create confusion, misunderstanding and a form of resilience that is not truly healthy. For example, I used to believe that by being strong and tough I was being resilient and could face anything that the world had to throw at me. I had my armour on and I went to battle and had no problems being argumentative, demanding, controlling, standing my ground, as it was all done in the name of providing good patient care. My outer toughness was mirrored by an inner hardness, where I was self-critical, inflexible and stubborn. I didn’t bounce back so much as bulldoze my way through life – protected as I thought by the mighty armour of protection I had built around me, not letting anyone in – in order to be sure I would not get hurt by anyone or anything.
This form of resilience, of being tough, strong and sucking up whatever life serves is not a true or healthy form of resilience – indeed it is deeply harming for our bodies, particularly our hearts. It is a false form of resilience that is built and established to protect us from being hurt in one way or another. By becoming tough and hard, I shut down my ability to truly feel and recognise what I was feeling and I used alcohol to numb myself as well!
The thing is that as human beings we are designed to FEEL everything, we cannot stop feeling everything even though we have a myriad of ways that we use to dull, deny, numb, block, dismiss, over-ride, ignore and disregard what we are feeling. We are in fact by nature highly sensitive beings – all of us – and we cannot stop that sensitivity. It is innate. Perhaps this is the missing ingredient that can transform our understanding of resilience?
Consider the possibility that it is because we are so, so sensitive and feel everything, that we get hurt when young and because we don’t know nor have the skills to deal with those hurts effectively, we start to shut down our sensitivity, to toughen-up, harden, put on the armour and become resilient! YIKES! But it is a false form of resilience – one that eventually has to crack either through physical illness and disease, mental ill health, an incident or accident of some sort.
For me it was an existential crisis mixed in with a dose of burnout topped off with a splash of alcohol misuse that brought me to a stop and to question EVERYTHING about how I was living. The outer toughness and the inner hardness had to be cracked open, I had to address the inner beliefs I held about myself that were feeding these processes and the undealt with hurts that fed everything.
But underneath all of that I was assisted to discover something amazing – that there was a part inside me that had been unaffected by any of those hurt-full experiences, a part that was still pure and pristine, shining and glowing, a part that was whole and complete irrespective of the story I told. The more I connected with this part, my innermost, the more solid and truly strong and steady I became. I was able to see and feel those hurts and heal them, to see them for what they were, and to know they were not who I am nor do they define me. I became more willing to feel what was there to be felt instead of burying it, numbing it, dismissing it, overriding it – in the knowing that feeling it was the key to healing it. I began to take things less personally, to not take on other people’s stuff (it’s enough dealing with our own!) and to also accept my part in what had played out in my life and take responsibility for it.
I started to feel the harm of emotions like anger, rage and frustration in my own body and to understand the underlying reasons for their presence so that I could address them and I consciously chose to develop a more centred, a more still, less emotional way of being – one that was connected to my innermost, that cared for and nurtured my body through going to bed early, being aware of the food and drink I consumed and their effects on my body and exercising gently.
I discovered (with help) that there is a true and healthy form of resilience – one that comes from knowing who we are, from being open to, acknowledging and honouring our sensitivity, to being willing to feel everything and to listening to what we feel such that we trust the intelligence of our body to reveal what is really going on.
And so I have come to deeply know that resilience is not about toughening up and sucking up whatever comes our way; it comes through the practice of observing life and people rather than absorbing their issues, by knowing oneself deeply, being prepared to feel whatever is there to be felt without bottling it up, burying it etc, understanding that there is always a bigger picture and allowing it to be what it is whilst always endeavouring to live with a high degree of personal responsibility and integrity in the knowing that all choices have consequences as well as developing a deep regard and respect for self that means any abusive or bullying behaviour towards oneself is not accepted nor tolerated.
Bullying is pervasive in the NHS – resilience training should not be about enabling us to cope better with bullying behaviour or any other toxic practices so that they may continue! Instead true resilience empowers us to speak up and out about such practices, for we know and can feel the deep harm they cause to all the individuals involved and the wider environment and culture.
When we are connected to our innermost, to that place of love, stillness and greatness that is within all, we know on a certain level we are invincible, that emotions are toxic fuel for the body, that no matter what adversity or strife comes before us, there is always a bigger picture, one that is endeavouring to waken us up out of our deep and stupefying slumbers to realise we are so much more than we ever imagined we could be. Thus we can develop a resilience that is healthy, empowering and renders us fit for life whatever that life may entail. One where we know that even if we lose it or get affected by something – there is still an unshakeable core that does not need to bounce back because it never truly left. We experience the need to ‘bounce back’ because we left our core, our essence and how quickly we do this is currently a measure of how resilient we are.
But what if true resilience meant there was no or very little bouncing back at all because we are so solid in living from the absoluteness of who we are, that we have all the true strength and courage to do what we need to do? Not only that but rather than doing it with the tough bulldozer approach we appreciate the true strength that resides in openness, delicateness, tenderness and fragility, where we know the best protection of all comes from letting people in, feeling everything and being who we truly are. Any form of resilience training that does not first show you how to connect to who you are, to know who you are, will ultimately be another band-aid, a temporary fix, a solution of sorts, that does not bring any true healing or lasting answers.
The world does not need more quick-fixes, more solutions, more band-aids; it needs answers based on the truth of who we are – a truth that comes with a beauty, a majesty, and the glorious freedom of divine responsibility, where resilience is our natural, innate friend and not our manufactured foe.