Levels of Resiliency

Parent Category: Resiliency Reader eNewsletter Category: Spring 2015 - Resiliency Reader Index

By Glen Fahs, PhD

When we give presentations on resiliency, we share five levels that can be (much too briefly) summarized as:

  1. Health,
  2. Analytical and Creative Problem Solving,
  3. The Inner Selfs (including Self-Esteem),
  4. Complexity and Balance, and
  5. Serendipity -- which can be defined as more than a pleasant surprise, capitalizing on disruptive change, finding value in one's worst experiences, seeing opportunities where others see roadblocks, and bouncing back with alacrity.

In this article, I'll take a different and personal look at resiliency that frames how the principles of resiliency are applied daily to whatever challenges we face.

Cataclysm: The Immense Challenges

The most extreme challenges to our resiliency are faced by the survivors of sustained war, fear and brutality, of family betrayal and abuse and of other horrible events that seem mostly beyond our control. Survivors of the Holocaust show us that years of horror do not destroy every person. Genes, determination and external caring are all powerful factors in how we interpret, cope and thrive. It isn't all about the individual. Therapy and having supportive social structures can shape us. But starting with a belief that there is a meaningful long-term purpose amid the struggles is key to minimizing the nightmares and seeing life as worth living. Believe in God's plan or create your own. Or do both.

The Traumas

Losing control of one's body (e.g., paralysis), being a victim of a terrorizing crime, experiencing long-term homelessness, suffering a bad marriage or losing a child can be shocks that test one's ability to cope in ways no one would choose, but also can inspire inner strength that amazes others.

The Bad Turns

Unexplained and unforeseen loss of a beloved job or treasured relationship, the loss of a dream and a serious accident are parts of life that make some feel like victims and others feel the steel of their determination to overcome or move forward, maybe even to show the world one can't be kept down for long.

My life has had its challenges, but never to the debilitating level that are common. The positives made the rest bearable. For example, having a bully for a brother seemed a normal experience since there was trust, rapport and many strong experiences that made the abuse seem temporary. Having a strong family, friends and rewarding school experiences helped me survive the alcoholism of my mother when I was young and her resulting death when I was a teenager. Having my career upended by an unethical college administrator (I was one of 15 of 18 she drove out her first year) was disturbing, but a strong professional network and other job opportunities compensated. (I changed from administration to teaching and training.)

Yes, I always considered myself lucky and saw my strengths as more significant than my weaknesses, my situation as more promising than discouraging. Having a supportive family and the respect from peers and others were strong enough to carry me through. I took conscious pride in getting through disruptive change with dynamism.

Life has its challenges, but the daily tests of resiliency are the ones that are most often in my consciousness. Here are a few examples and how I coach myself to respond:

  1. I embarrass myself by forgetting a meeting or letting someone down.
    Response: I admit I screwed up and ask for forgiveness. If forgiveness is not forthcoming, I accept the consequences and remind myself that is a rare event and I must do better. I sometimes do something special for the person I disappointed.
  2. A promised job opportunity is pulled away with no explanation.
    Response: I try to develop and show understanding. While I may disagree, I realize I don't control others' choices. I keep so many irons in the fire that losses feel like a relief so I can give better attention to the remaining ones or the next special one.
  3. A friend or co-worker goes on the attack for irrational reasons.
    Response: I am persistent but gentle and slow at exploring the person's emotions, perceptions and situation. Sometimes I find their blowup was mostly about a distressing event that had nothing to do with me.

We often make mistakes due to clumsiness or insensitivity and sometimes we are mistreated. After our fight-flight reactions, we reflect, see our options and move past our self-centered reactions, asking:

  1. What can I learn from this?
  2. Why is it good that this happened - or at least what's the upside?
  3. What is the best option available both now and looking down the road?

A lost job or relationship often frees us to find a better one. We can dramatize the unfairness of it all, fall apart, become immobilized or dependent. But the adult in us reminds us to get over it and make the most of our futures.

Change is often painful but those who face it optimistically find the new challenges have wonderful advantages there for the finding.

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Dr. Glen Fahs is a trainer and consultant in adult education and organization development, and has been a long-time participant in the Summer Institute on Intercultural Communication held annually in Portland. Glen is the primary facilitator for the international Al Siebert Resiliency Center. He has taught at 12 colleges and universities in the fields of management, speech communication, human resources, and education.

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