If you squeeze a tennis ball, it loses its round shape. But as soon as you let go, it bounces back to a perfect sphere. When someone recovers from a setback, we say they bounced back. The word resilience comes from the Latin root ‘resilire’ meaning ‘to leap back’. Resilience is our ability to find strength in difficult times. Bouncing back suggests the ability, in the face of life's knocks, to dust yourself off and carry on, undeterred. You may even walk away stronger.
As a young, newly qualified teacher, some of my lessons were observed and a report submitted to the head teacher detailing my strengths and weaknesses. The head was a man who I had observed encouraging bullying behaviour. One breezy summer day, he called me into his office, pushed the report towards me and barked 'what have you got to say for yourself?' It was exactly the tone he would have taken with a misbehaving teenager. I was outraged by his attempt to cow me. I replied, ‘Of course the report contains areas for improvement! I’m a newly qualified teacher!’
I pointed out the positive comments. As I left the room the wind caught the door, which slammed shut with a bang. This was unintended, but hugely satisfying! I was shaken by the experience, but it made me stronger. He never attempted to bully me again. I bounced back.
We all have some degree of resilience. Children fall over many times as they learn to walk. Undeterred, they keep going. Before very long, they are threatening to outpace their parents. Almost certainly, you have bounced back innumerable times throughout your life.
Bouncing back may not always be possible yet we can still be resilient, for example in the face of a life-changing injury or diagnosis. Bouncing back may not even be desirable if it means returning to an unhealthy work situation or relationship. Resilience is not just about endurance. It also means making positive new choices when we can.
According to resilience trainer Chris Johnstone, there is more than one type of bounce.
He describes bouncing with, using the image of a piece of cork floating on the surface of the water, bobbing along with even the biggest waves. Johnstone uses this analogy for the ability to ride with the ups and downs of life. This is a good image for how I experienced my teaching work - on the days when it went well! Issues appeared as challenges rather than problems. When we are well resourced and equal to the task, it can be exhilarating to meet what life throws at us. We all have times when we ‘bounce’ with events, like that piece of cork. Responding positively to a provocative comment rather than taking the bait; working with illness or aging by making positive changes in our habits; coping with difficulty with some degree of equanimity. Johnstone also described bouncing forward. If you squeeze a ripe tomato, it will not resume its shape when you let go. In fact, it will squirt out juice and seeds, making a mess. Yet if you return to that spot at a later time, you might find a healthy plant growing, with a whole new crop of tomatoes. That squashed tomato has borne fruit. Bouncing forward is where a life-difficulty that at the time felt messy and destructive has positive outcomes, beyond what we expected. Maybe we learned something through those tough times, or changed direction in a helpful way.
Thankfully, most of the head teachers I worked with had a positive ethos, doing their best to take care of their students and staff. In my last job I worked in a school for students with special needs, including those with challenging behaviour. It could be tough, but I had the good fortune to work for a head teacher I had a great deal of respect for. Along with the other staff, I worked hard and knew that I was appreciated. This made all the difference. When the time came for her to retire, the governors invited me to be part of the interview process for the new head. Of the two shortlisted candidates, I shared my concerns about one of them. He was keen and energetic yet I was concerned about his inter-personal skills. He got the job. Unfortunately, he and I had not got off to a good start. I believe he was then tasked with reducing staff numbers, especially those of us with more experience and consequently, higher salaries. The following year proved to be the last of my teaching career and was intensely stressful for me. A mess of squashed tomato is a good image for how I felt. Leaving this job to set up as a self-employed mindfulness teacher brought further stress. Yet, six years on I love my work and get to see the benefit people gain from learning the skills of mindfulness, compassion and wisdom. I have bounced forward like a flourishing new tomato plant! I am even grateful to that head teacher, without whom I probably would not have made these changes.
Have you experienced a difficulty that felt disastrous at the time, yet later bore unexpected fruit? Handling things that go wrong is a major way that we learn. It makes us who we are. Adversity can make us wiser and tougher. It may also make us more forgiving and compassionate in the face of our own struggles and those of other people.
In her powerful TED talk, resilience expert Lucy Hone describes three core qualities of a resilient person.
First, there is an understanding that life includes difficulties and this is true for everyone. The knocks are taken less personally.
Second, there is an ability to redirect attention. For example, rather than dwelling on a problem, the focus is shifted to whatever positive actions may be taken. The capacity to deliberately shift our attention is a key skill developed through mindfulness practice.
Finally, a capacity to notice how one responds to any challenging situation; asking 'Is this helping me?'. Even if we do not believe ourselves to be a particularly intuitive person, it may surprise how often our inner wisdom gives a clear response. When the answer is 'no', we are challenged to change something.
Everyone has a degree of resilience. But we can develop more - if we choose to.
This blog draws inspiration from ‘7 Ways to Build Resilience’ by Chris Johnstone (book) and 3 Secrets of Resilient People' by Lucy Hone (TED talk)