By definition, resilient means:
In sport specifically we take this to mean being tough, having grit and being persistent. All good things in order to play competitive sport. These are almost precursors for being able to make it at the elite level. However what I think has happened is that athletes often try to embody this same toughness, grit and strength off the field when navigating all that life throws at them. These qualities along with constantly finding a positive attitude or finding the good in every situation (even when tragedy strikes) is what makes us resilient. This is what gets us through tough stuff, right?
Being resilient is less about being tough and more about being kind.
I am someone who has spent the majority of my life with chronic anxiety, panic attacks and bouts of depression. I’ve been in inpatient psychiatric care twice in my life and very little of my recovery, growth and healing had to do with being tough or strong. Tough is not going to get you anywhere in the middle of the night when your roommate is screaming at you because she thinks you are the devil. Strength is not what pulls you out of the depth of panic when you are on the floor, uncontrollably shaking because you can’t control your attack. Putting your head down and being persistent is not going to get you out of bed in the morning and drag you to therapy for yet another session when you feel like everything is lost.
I know because I’ve been there.
I won’t sit here and say that being tough, strong and persistent aren’t important. They are. Persistence and a strong work ethic are very much how I got to where I am both professionally and in my former athletic career. These are important qualities for life. But when it comes to being resilient and weathering the storms of life I don’t believe they are enough. I don’t believe these qualities are at the root of what you need to not only survive but to thrive. They are not enough to sustain you and keep you whole.
Kindness and self compassion are.
Kristen Neff, the pioneer of self compassion defines self compassion as showing compassion for yourself in a way that includes three key components : Mindfulness, Common Humanity and Self Kindness. In other words we flip the golden rule of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” around. This is treating yourself as you would treat a loved one in a hard time.
This is NOT looking on the bright side of things or allowing yourself to go down the rabbit hole and self loathe. There is a mindful awareness that we bring with self compassion that allows us to take a step back and understand our situation. This enables us to get clear in terms of what we are experiencing and guide ourselves with a kinder response. We live in a society where validation is hard to come by. With self compassion we take the time to validate our experience, gain clarity, and then act in ways that serve us.
If you don’t believe me then let the science speak for itself. More and more research is turning up about how self compassion actually allows us to more efficiently navigate tough stuff.
Specifically when it comes to mental health greater Self Compassion is linked to less depression, anxiety and stress (MacBeth & Gumley, 2012). When studying self compassion and resilience in adolescents Bluth, Mullarkey and Lathren (2018) found that adolescents with more self compassion were more resilient and Self compassion was seen as a buffer against their stress. Self compassion has also been studied with regards to trauma and recovery. In 2020, Shebuski, Bowie and Ashby found that Self-compassion emerged as a significant moderator in the relationship between trauma exposure and symptoms of psychological distress. Even more interesting was that while self compassion did impact psychological distress, trait resilience did not. Kristen Neff (2020) and her continued research has also shown that people with more self compassion are actually more motivated and less likely to ruminate in their negative thoughts and emotions.
In my own experience as I started to dip my toe in the waters of self compassion, I noticed a profound shift in my own mental and emotional well being. I spent an entire year dedicating my meditation practice to self compassion in 2019. This was brutal at times because Self compassion is hard. It is very counterintuitive to the modern world, yet I noticed that the more I stuck with it the healthier my mental and emotional state was.
I spent more time telling myself it was OK to feel the things I was feeling.
I let myself cry more than ever and I spent a lot of time journaling about both the pain and the joy that was going on in my life.
I spent time acknowledging my pesky inner critic like it was a friend.
I got to know it and all the stories it hooked me into and came to befriend it.
I gave myself more down time and rest than I ever had in my entire life.
I slowly started to exercise the kindness and appreciation for my thoughts and my feelings that I had always deserved.
I was shocked at the shift.
My anxiety was the lowest it had ever been. Even today as I write this I can say that I am the happiest and healthiest I have been in a very long time. I don’t view my negativity or my low points as bad. Instead, I treat them as a sign. Sometimes I view them as a friend that is signaling she needs help and love. As I continued in my self compassion practice I noticed that I was fine tuning my ability to sit with my emotions and move through my day to day alongside them rather than being consumed by them. I have become less reactive to my own self deprecating patterns and more often than not create space around them. My energy levels and productivity rates increased and overall I felt better and more fulfilled with the work that I was putting out into the world.
But I have also learned that it’s a journey.
Self compassion is not a destination. This is something that we must continuously do for ourselves. But I truly believe that this is the missing link as so many of us struggle to keep up with the basic day to day, let alone the tough stuff that life throws at us.
So as you finish this piece and contemplate this very counterintuitive concept of self compassion I encourage you to ask yourself how do I feel about it? As I read about self compassion what is the reaction I am having? Where does this land in my body and what is it that I feel?
In my next blog post I will turn towards HOW to embark on this journey.