Some stories stay with you, like this one about my friend – let’s call him Alex. He was on the retreat of a lifetime in India along with his girlfriend and best friend. Alex was learning yoga, until the morning he woke up to discover that his best friend and girlfriend had run off together.
Sounds like the plot of an Adam Sandler movie, doesn’t it? But it happened, and Alex was devastated. He went to his teacher and professed that he had nothing worth living for. It sounds dramatic, but he was in a foreign country, all alone, dealing with the unexpected loss of the two most important people in his life.
Alex was at an absolute loss, so his teacher sent him on a mission.
It’s all a matter of perspective
Under the instruction of his teacher, Alex travelled to the outskirts of town to speak to a blind beggar on the street. When he found the man on the ground with his begging bowl, Alex poured his heart out.
“My life has no meaning now. This is the worst day of my life,” Alex concluded.
The beggar shook off his cloak. As it slid off the man’s torso, Alex was shocked to see that the blind man had no arms and no legs. With great compassion in his voice, the beggar spoke.
“I would trade your worst day as the best day of my life.”
Suddenly, Alex’s problems didn’t seem so huge and he returned to the ashram that afternoon with a new perspective.
Could perspective be the secret to resilience?
Building resilience doesn’t mean that stressful things don’t happen. Nor does it mean that you don’t react to them. It simply means that you’re better equipped to cope with the situation and move past it.
In his TED talk, ‘The happy secret to better work’, author and speaker, Shawn Achor, describes how changing your perspective can lead to completely different outcomes:
“We’re finding it’s not necessarily the reality that shapes us, but the lens through which your brain views the world that shapes your reality. And if we can change the lens, not only can we change your happiness, we can change every single educational and business outcome at the same time.”
Now, for those of us who don’t have a personal teacher on hand for every time we hit a crisis, this is very good news. It means that we have the power to choose how we perceive a stressful event. So how exactly do we do that?
1. Take a long-term view of things
In the heat of the moment, any problem or stressful event can feel insurmountable. One way to remove yourself from the midst of a crisis is to look towards the future.
I saw a great example of this when my friend was undergoing a gruelling medical treatment for a chronic illness she had lived with for 15 years. The treatment itself was more painful than the illness and pushed her right to breaking point. She had to dig deep to get through, so she looked to the future. She knew the treatment would only last six months, and that after that she would experience better health than she had ever known.
2. Learn from the past
The American Psychological Association states that “focusing on past experiences and sources of personal strength can help you learn about what strategies for building resilience might work for you”.
We’ve all been through stressful situations at one time or another, and the point is that we got through them. So, consider how you did that. Did you reach out to people who could support you again this time? Did you use other tools such as journaling, exercise or meditation? In the same way, reflect on what didn’t work for you at that time and avoid repeating the same behaviour when handling the current situation.
3. Recognise the things you’re grateful for
The beggar on the street showed Alex how much he had to be grateful for, and it made his problem seem much smaller and more manageable. When you’re feeling overwhelmed by a situation, stop and write down all the things you appreciate in your life. Once you’ve listed the obvious ones, such as loved ones or your health, dig deeper. Do you live in a country that’s free of war? Do you have access to food and clean water whenever you need it? Many of the things we often take for granted can actually give us the greatest perspective.
One day I asked my friend with the chronic illness how she stayed so strong. She replied: “When I hit the point where I feel like I can’t get through, I find a place to sit in the city centre. I see so many people who are carrying loads much greater than my own. I instantly feel grateful that this is all I have to deal with.”
4. See the problem as an opportunity
Every problem or challenge presents you with an opportunity to grow. Recognising the opportunity empowers you to turn a negative experience into a positive one.
As a clinical psychologist at Columbia University’s Teachers College, George Bonanno has been studying resilience for a quarter of a century. In Maria Konnikova’s article on newyorker.com, ‘How people learn to become resilient’, she talks about her interview with Bonanno:
“One of the central elements of resilience, Bonanno has found, is perception: Do you conceptualize an event as traumatic, or as an opportunity to learn and grow? ‘Events are not traumatic until we experience them as traumatic,’ Bonanno told me, in December. ‘To call something a “traumatic event” belies that fact.’”
5. Break it up into smaller chunks
There’s a saying: “The only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time.” Now, I’m not sure that I’d be dining at a restaurant with our big-eared friends on the menu, but you get the idea. Looking at the whole problem in all it’s overwhelming glory, can leave you in despair. But when you break it down into bite-sized chunks, all of a sudden it seems more achievable.
Let’s sum up
From teachers in ashrams to clinical psychologists, the proof is there – perspective helps build your resilience. So the next time you’re faced with a challenging or stressful situation, use these strategies to step back and shift your perspective:
- Take a longer-term view of things by looking to the future.
- Recognise the things you’re grateful for to see the problem as just one aspect of your life and give yourself a more balanced view.
- See the problem as an opportunity to grow so it becomes an experience that will bring positive outcomes.
- Break it up into smaller chunks which will leave you feeling less overwhelmed and able to progress through the situation.
If you’d like to find out more about how you can build your resilience and wellbeing email email@example.com