In Depth: Resilient Spirit

In Depth: Resilient Spirit

For an introduction to Dr. Brené Brown’s 10 guideposts, see this post. For more on the topic, see her book “The Gifts of Imperfection.”

Guidepost 3: Cultivating a resilient spirit (letting go of numbing and powerlessness).

I tried to sit in total silence the other day. I lasted perhaps 0.7 seconds before I had to get up and do something else. Turns out that cultivating a resilient spirit is not an easy guidepost.

In the past, I would have told you that resiliency means the ability to bend in difficult circumstances rather than break. I would tell you that it means knowing how to solve problems, ask for help, and feel a sense of self-efficacy when life gets hard. But, as I get older and dive into this work more, I have expanded my own definition.

Resilience isn’t just being able to cope with hard times; it’s also being able to cope with hard feelings. It’s being able to face grief and loss, paralyzing fear, anger, pain, and regret without shutting down and turning the noise off. Resilience is the ability to sit with these painful emotions and not let them make decisions for us (don’t let feelings drive the bus). Resilience is knowing that we can not just survive these hard feelings, but that these hard feelings are normal and part of what binds us together as human beings.

When Dr. Brown talks about a resilient spirit, she takes care to point out that in her research that spirituality was a big component of resiliency. She doesn’t mean you have to believe in God or go to church. She does suggest that the research bears out that resilient people seem to believe in something greater than themselves; some kind of connective factor that binds us and holds us in love. For me, personally, the spiritual belief I hold is that we are all suffering. All of us are in pain, and all of us are connected to one another through that shared suffering. I believe compassion and kindness are superpowers that can pull us closer and change the world if we use them correctly. I believe we are stronger together than we are apart (or, in the words of BioWare’s “Anthem”: “Strong alone, stronger together”). I believe in the resilience of all of our spirits. I know that I am held in the hearts of all those that suffer as I hold them in mine. We understand that about each other. I don’t know about God, but I do know that we are a powerhouse of compassion right here on Earth. If we choose to, we can do anything.

The bad news is that to grow in resilience, we have to stop numbing ourselves out. We all try to escape the heavy burden of painful feelings. In the book, Dr. Brown calls herself a “take-the-edge-off-aholic.” I know I’m frequently listening to a book or podcast, watching a TV show or playing a video game. In those states, I can stay engaged but not really present to my painful feelings.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with video games or books or whatever. However, I know for myself that I can tell when I’m engaging in those things as an escape versus when I’m playing for fun. I can tell when I’m hurting and hiding. At those times, it is vital for my spirit that I try to sit with the big feelings rather than run away from them. I try to lean in to the discomfort, feel the feeling and name it. I’ve been sad a lot, lately, and I’ve been trying to feel that sadness right down to my bones. I’ve been trying to put my head right in the mouth of that demon. Like I said, I can do about 0.7 seconds so far. I get antsy. I get very chattery in my head. I start to feel bigger and more extreme feelings. It’s super hard. I try to do it anyway, because I know that engaging with emotion is the path to a resilient spirit.

If we want to live wholehearted lives, we must learn to coexist with our whole hearts. It makes sense, but it’s scary as all hell. That’s OK though. Fear is just another feeling.