A new definition of Resilience

If I were a betting woman, I’d bet you’re seeing this advice come at you from all directions:

  • “Become more resilient to handle the stresses of life.”
  • “Raise resilient kids who can bounce back from hardships.”
  • “Improve your company’s resilience or be left in the dust.”
  • “Build resilient communities to recover from crises.”

Wondering how in the heck you’re supposed to do all of that?

Here’s a simple way to start:

Resilience is defined as “the ability to withstand or bounce back from hardship; toughness.” Phew, that sounds rough. I propose a different way to think about it that doesn’t have you bracing for the worst.

Here’s my definition: Resilience is being rested and ready.

There’s an important difference in this definition. The focus isn’t on disaster, stress, and hardship.

With this definition, being resilient means you’re ready for all of life, including the joys and thrills and even the luxurious moments of peace.

Without a balance of both “rested and ready”, we can end up chronically tense and anxious, or lethargic and blue. I’ve seen these states in many people, no matter what degree of success they’ve achieved.

One client noticed he never just stands at a corner waiting for the light to change. He feels wound up like a spring, his body thrusting forward like a racehorse waiting to bolt the second the light turns green. You may notice some version of that yourself. You feel jacked up, always behind, tense for “no reason”, anxious you’ve missed something, or worried about the future. Even if there’s nothing big to stress about, you can’t fully relax.

A friend told me she’s been letting work and laundry and workouts pile up. She’s having trouble making decisions, getting motivated and getting into motion. You might find you lack the energy to do the things you want to do. You’re procrastinating on things that you should do. You’re just feeling kind of flat though nothing’s really going wrong.

Though revved up and shut down seem to be extreme opposites, they’re both symptoms of an overloaded nervous system.

And, if you think of building resilience as building more toughness you may actually be doing your nervous system more harm than good.

One of the first things I work on with high-achieving, stressed-out clients is rest. Those who are athletes experience increased strength and speed by improving their rest time. For some this is a drastic change from overtraining, getting injured, and having setbacks.

Others find that by prioritizing rest they’re able to focus and get more done in less time, and their work performance improves.

I come up against a lot of resistance when I ask my clients to focus on rest first. It’s the norm to believe that we have to work hard first to earn our rest.

But if you’re a parent, would you treat your kids that way?

Did your newborn or toddler have to earn their nap? No, you knew that sleep and naps were essential for their development and mood. So, why is it any different for you?

What if you prioritized rest to be able to work at your best?

Don’t stress about getting the perfect night’s sleep – that won’t improve your rest.  And, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to nap during the day – but if you’ll give yourself moments of rest throughout the day, you’ll be amazed at how it improves your readiness.

Give me 30 seconds right now and I’ll teach you how to rest. Here’s what you’ll do:

  1. Stop reading this for a moment.
  2. Feel the support of the chair you’re sitting in. Don’t think about the chair, really feel your body being supported. Notice how that feels. Once you’ve felt what it’s like to be supported…
  3. Let your eyes look around. Let your head follow wherever your eyes want to go. Without any goal, allow your eyes to look at anything pleasing.
  4. Notice how you feel.

Give yourself 30 seconds to do that right now.

If you kept on reading without that taking 30-second rest, your nervous system is likely stuck in “ready”, rushing to the next thing. When you’re chronically stuck in ready, you’re actually less capable of handling challenges when they come.

It’s like strength training. When you work out, your muscles undergo the trauma of microscopic tears. When you rest your body heals the tears and makes that muscle stronger, enabling you to do that same exercise with more ease next time. It’s the rest that makes you ready for more.

You can do this practice anywhere, any time, and I recommend you do it often.

When you feel the chair supporting you, your body feels safe and sends messages to your brain that you can relax. When you let your eyes wander your eye muscles relax. Since your eyes are an extension of your brain, that sends a message of calm to your body. It’s when you feel safe in your body that your nervous system relaxes and you get a rest from that fight or flight survival state.

These regular interruptions into your chronic state of “readiness” can build new neural pathways that increase your resilience. You’ll be better able to handle challenges, make decisions, pivot quickly, and experience excitement, pleasure and peace.

If you’re bogged down by procrastination, use the same rest practice above and after letting your eyes look around at things that feel pleasing, ask yourself – What’s one simple thing I can do right now? Then just do that one thing. Little movements and accomplishments can regulate your nervous system and help you get stronger bit by bit.

Here’s to your rested, ready resilience!

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