What does resilience really look like, anyway?

From Wikipedia on Indian Ocean Cyclones 1993/4

<1457 words – yes, this is a long one but it contains an interesting story and some pictures :-)>

And, I’ve added a link at the bottom of this blog to a very informative article on resilience that appeared in the New Yorker in Feb 2016. More on the science of….

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Do any of these words sound like things you already do?    Are you working on becoming more resilient? Which of these words and phrases make sense to you in that context, or in other words, do they sound like descriptors of what you consider resilience to be?

One of the dangers of adopting popularized words for the things we deem important is that we try to be things we are not, because the fullness of the concept unclear.  We talk about them as things we must have, and if we don’t have them, or if we are not like that, somehow we are deficient and need to work harder.

In thinking about resilience of course I explored what the Internet had to offer – all the words in that picture come from sites that talk about what resilience is or what you should do to get it.

  1. From a website, a definition: Resilient people are able to utilize their skills and strengths to cope and recover from problems and challenges. These problems may include job loss, financial problems, illness, natural disasters, medical emergencies, divorce, or the death of a loved one.”
  2. The human mind is a remarkable organ – we will each reframe what we read to suit our understanding of ourselves and the world. And so some of us will believe we’re following the good and well-intentioned advice while, in reality, we pursue a glorious path towards self-sabotage. It’s like reading about a weight-loss diet and then trying it on your own, without understanding anything about nutrition, metabolism or habits.

I’m not a resilience guru, but I AM a resilience practitioner.

There’s a fine line between being resilient and being an Adrenalin junkie.   I think I’m on the resilient side of the line, fortunately. There’s an equally fine line between being resilient and being numb.

I was an Adrenalin junkie many years ago, when I was engaged in warfare with an alcoholic partner and some rebellious teenage sons.   I claimed to be drained by it all and wishing for peace, but I sought the fights with my adrenal glands in overdrive, until I burnt out and had to retreat. I retreated so thoroughly that I changed continents, and then moved into the numb quadrant.

Numbness is where you claim, and/or believe, that you are strong and you can overcome any adverse conditions that may come your way, which can cause survival but not personal growth.

In truth, numbness is where you avoid engagement – you are emotionally detached; you pretend to lack ambition; you pretend to have ‘moved beyond’ looking for love or sex.  You are able to achieve great things, ironically, in a state of numbness, I found.  I did well in the job I acquired on the other continent, made new friendships, and reconnected with my family of origin (vs. my own family of my own loins and loves).  Because I avoided the highs I also succeeded in avoiding the lows. My expectations were managed; my emotions regulated; I had a great sense of control; I saw myself as a survivor and not a victim – all the stuff the resilience gurus on the Internet advocate. I believed I had great self-awareness. I once told my ex-husband, during this time that “I’m the sanest person either of us knows.”  I truly believed it.

And so I viewed myself as resilient through those years of my life, and in many ways I was, but it was not the resilience that I now believe is the real thing.  I’ve moved on way beyond being numb. I can even tell you when it happened.

I was in Tanzania, in 1993/94, working as a labour relations consultant to the expat management team at the Tanzania Breweries.

One Sunday the Dar es Salaam-based expat group decided to go to a beach south of the Dar harbour, for a braai (BBQ) and an afternoon on the beach. Fathers, mothers, kids, beet salad, steak, beer – the works. Loaded into a convoy of 4X4s, it was a mini African adventure.  It was a great afternoon and the group members did various things collectively and separately.  Some took the kids to the beach to play cricket, some stayed in the shelter of the boma and drank beer and chatted.  The waves looked great for body surfing and so I headed into the Indian Ocean.

I’d never swum there before and the other folks in the group weren’t much into swimming, so there was little knowledge to draw on about where it might be the safest to swim.   I learnt many things from my father, and watching and reading the ocean was one of those things. I could see from the pattern of the long curl of the waves, the crash, and the fizzling roll onto the beach, the back wash, that it was fine and safe.  They were great surfing waves.

The surfing was wonderful.  Never had I surfed in such warm water.  But gradually the size of the rollers was getting bigger. And bigger. I realized I was spending more time diving under great big breakers just before they broke, to avoid being tumbled, than I was surfing. In fact, it was no longer possible to surf. The waves came in a short-wave pattern – I hardly had time to come up for air before I had to duck under again.

When I looked back at the beach, briefly, risking being tumbled as I turned my head away from the waves, I      found to my horror that the cricketers on the beach had reduced in size to no more than large ants.  There was no point in shouting – my voice would not have carried.  I attempted waving but no-one was watching, and without binoculars it was unlikely that they’d even realize that I was in trouble.  It was a remote, desolate, African beach – no life guards, no rescue boats.  I had to get myself back.

Die_Eiland_RobbergDuring my summer seaside holidays South African I had learnt a great technique for getting back to shore when the waves became scary  – you take a deep breath and dive under the giant breaker, heading toward the open ocean -into  the path of the next waves. You then stick your legs out as far as you can, pointing to the beach, so that the energy of the breaking wave would pull you closer to the shore, without tumbling and tossing all of you.  I did that for a long time; wave after churning wave.  I gained ground.  I finally made it back.   When I approached my colleagues, drenched; exhausted;  proud and relieved; one of them said “You are REALLY sunburnt – you should be careful with this tropical sun – you swam for far too long.”

That night, as I watched TV in bed in my hotel, the main news report was about the damage that had been caused by a cyclone that had made its way to the Swahili coast from Madagascar. Seven people had been reported drowned on the Kenyan coast…. I believe the featured image to this blog shows the cyclone I rode that day – it is the one that curls onto the African coast and back into the Indian Ocean.

Was that experience  in the cyclone about knowing the ocean; having great swimming skills; or about resilience?

It was then that I discovered how strong my will to survive was.  And where I realized that this had been a far greater threat to my survival than any I had previously experienced, and that I’d remained calm; focused; confident; patient; and that I’d used my entire body to  get back to safety.  Had I experienced fear?  Only in the abstract, somehow, and then I had shut the fear out – there was no time for fear I was too busy. The Adrenalin that must have been pumping was the ‘fight’ secretion, not the ‘flight’ one.  I had migrated well out of the numb-zone, back into the Adrenalin zone.

I realized afterwards that my crisis was relevant only to me, because I had survived and overcome.

Had I not survived, it would have been dreadful for my hosts, my family, my employers and my friends. I would have turned into a lesson about the foolishness of taking risks.  Not only am I thrilled to be alive to tell this story so many years later, but also to know that it was the lesson I needed to learn to get out of the numb zone into true resilience – what I like to think of as the fight to continue the adventure of life.

Resilience is not merely a skill; nor is it a fixed attribute: You only know you have it when you need it.  It is something we can build and then build upon,  even when you have the natural ability.

Some may lean more naturally towards resilience, but I believe it is something that is a beneficial by-product of working consciously on one’s life in all its aspects – whether it is to be a good parent; an influential leader; being a remarkable kite surfer; an unpublished author of a ground-breaking scientific book; or an extreme mountaineer.  It’s a bit like those other parts of being human: intuition and empathy.  You have them, but until you know you have them they aren’t of much use to you or anybody else.  And, until you use them you can’t know you have them.

You have you find your own model of resilience – there is no finite formula.


Set your sail to the winds that buffet you – not merely to survive but to continue the adventure of your life.




PS.  When you’re trying to sort out how to deal with a conflict, much of what is described as resilience is handy to have in your repertoire.   I do, of course, work with people who want to come through and learn from the conflicts in their lives.  SO:  Contact me , and refer your conflict-stressed friends. Conflict management coaching really works.


New Yorker: How people learn to be resilient



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