I started my personal development journey after a road traffic accident in 2018. It was a minor incident, and shouldn’t have been particularly traumatic: I was stationary when a motorcyclist collided with the back of my car. I drove him home, called the insurers and that should have been the end of it.
Yet it wasn’t.
In the weeks that followed I worried about the motorcyclist. I fretted that he was more seriously injured than I thought, that he had internal injuries and perhaps lay in a hospital bed somewhere fighting for his life. I agonised over decisions and berated myself for all manner of things.
In my worry and catastrophising I stopped eating properly, stopped sleeping properly and lived in a state of high stress for weeks.
Some of you reading this may be wondering what planet I was on; no one was seriously hurt, no big deal.
But for those of you with a propensity to worry, catastrophise and ruminate, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.
My thoughts got stuck on a cycle, my imagination ran riot, a fist clenched around my heart as I relived the accident in technicolour, wondering what I could have done differently, or catapulted myself into some non-existent future where the outcomes were horrific. What if…what if…what if?
This was when I realised I had little emotional resilience.
I’d never thought to do anything about my tendencies to catastrophise and ruminate before. I wrongly assumed that excessive worrying was just part of my personality.
As my inner critic (hi Brian) adopted a megaphone for a mouthpiece, endlessly berating me and shaming me for not being able to move on, I realised I had to do something.
Resilience has become a bit of a buzz word nowadays. We should be helping our kids to develop it, we should be modelling it for them, it’s central to mental health and wellbeing.
But what exactly is it?
When I made the decision to do something about my rumination, it was without any real understanding of what emotional resilience is.
In my mind, resilience would have my mental fortitude shored up in the personification of Sarah Connor in Terminator Two, or maybe I’d be The Terminator: strong, untouchable, a machine.
I’d also be completely wrong.
Though I didn’t know it at the time, I’d just embarked on a personal growth journey that will probably last the rest of my life.
Over the next couple of years, I discovered that emotional resilience has nothing to do with being emotionless.
Our strength comes from feeling our emotions, allowing them without judgement (I can be so self-judgey that I judge myself for it), and then letting them go.
This has worked wonders. In allowing myself to feel my uncomfortable emotions and working to let them go, rather than dwelling on them or stuffing them down, my ruminating tendencies have greatly diminished.
So many other areas of my journey these past couple of years have played into developing my resilience too:
Quitting the binge drinking. I felt shame for the longest time around my drinking habits, yet felt powerless to do anything about it.
Finally, making the changes that were right for me and sustaining them over time has given me so much more trust in myself, which stuffs a figurative sock in my inner critic’s mouthpiece (take that Brian!).
Meditation has been a great help. Again, when I first started my mind chatter would whisper it was pointless, that I’d never get the hang of it. Now there’s rarely a day that goes by when I don’t make the time to meditate.
Allowing a short amount of stillness each day helps keep me in touch with myself (and the Universe, if you’re into that kind of thing. I am).
Mindfulness. Being present and open to what’s happening, instead of ruminating about past or present takes some work. One way I do this is ‘awe-spotting.’ Usually on my dog walk, or if there’s a particularly inspiring natural event, like a sunset, or the recent pink moon, I’ll take a moment to feel the awe of the world’s beauty. That moment can bring me back to myself.
Exercise. Maintaining a basic level of fitness not only helps me feel stronger physically, but mentally too.
Taking Action. In the past year I’ve operated a mini-digger, had a go at drawing, started a blog, volunteered with my daughter at our local Community Shop, written poems, worked on my maths skills and put myself forward for jobs I wouldn’t even have considered before. Trying new things and seeing that the world doesn’t implode when I do is humbling and confidence boosting at the same time.
My developing resilience was put to the test recently in an incident that, a couple of years ago, would have seen me ruminating for days.
A man shouted at me and my children after mistaking our intentions.
The old me would have been really bothered by this. My body would have gone straight into fight, flight or freeze. I would have elected freeze and done nothing. Then I would have dwelled on the incident, fretted about what he thought of us, berated myself for all the things I should have said or done.
When the incident happened, instead of jumping straight into fight or flight mode, I was able to recognise that he’d misunderstood our intentions. I was then able to calmly assert to him our actual intentions and walk away (in the wrong direction, it turns out, but I was able to hold my head high as I passed him a second time).
I didn’t really think about it again, except to notice that I felt pretty good about how I’d dealt with it.
This is progress people!
This is one of the reasons I’m a big advocate of journaling and blogging, or at least of keeping a short record of your most self-reflective thoughts on a regular basis.
You don’t have to write them down. I type longer journal entries onto my laptop a few times a week and keep a record of quick thoughts in the notes app on my phone. You could even send yourself a quick email as insights occur to you.
Every now and again I skim back over my old journals to see how much my thinking has changed over time.
I have written evidence of my internal growth which, let’s face it, can be hard to quantify externally sometimes.
“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say”Flannery 0’Connor
I see a tendency in our ‘keep calm and carry on’ culture here in the U.K to shy away from expressing or acknowledging our most uncomfortable emotions. The stiff upper lip seems to be the route most taken.
But not dealing with the difficult parts of life, including emotions, is a bit like closing our eyes when we see a charging bull on the horizon; whilst it might make us feel better in the short term, it’s unlikely to end well.
In not dealing with the difficult stuff we’re storing up problems for later. We’re also missing out on opportunities to grow, and this is when we can start to feel stuck.
There are times now when I feel stronger and more capable than I ever have. Of course, there are still many times when I don’t, but these times don’t scare me as much anymore. Not only that, they shine a light on the areas where I still have work to do.
I’m getting more comfortable with being uncomfortable.
I’m building my resilience.
“One can choose to go back toward safety or forward toward growth. Growth must be chosen again and again; fear must be overcome again and again.”Abraham Maslow
I’d love to hear your own experiences with resilience, leave a comment below. You can also follow me on Instagram.