Resilience is the new buzzword. Everybody has it. Everybody needs it. But not everyone benefits from using resilience in their personal or professional lives, particularly women. One only needs to look at the gender-specific tasks women manage, such as conception and childbirth, to understand the potential women have for resilience. The challenge they face, however, is the conscious use of resilience to improve their lives, particularly when they are in the helping professions. As I discuss in my new book, The Resilient Woman: Mastering the 7 Steps to Personal Power, undiscovered and untapped resilience must be consciously nurtured and grown if women are to use it to their greatest power. Identifying and strengthening it is an important job for counselors and their clients.
What Resilience Looks Like
Resilience is the ability to deal effectively with adversity in any of its forms: from life’s unfairness, to the impact of abuse, to the effects of being in an active war zone (whether in Afghanistan or on the streets of Chicago).
Hardships we endure during our lives elicit a response from us. This might be the flight, fight or freeze response that traumatic events can evoke (O’Gorman, & Diaz, 2012) or the denial we have observed in addicts who are convinced they can beat their addiction without a support system. There are many responses to misfortune that are possible and many that are effective in that they help to protect us from the ravages of the experience. But resilience is the only truly positive response.
Resilience is the ability to take the trauma, the misfortune, the unfairness that has been personally experienced and do something positive with it. What we can do to protect ourselves is highly nuanced. Often it is seen as the ability to move through the trauma and come out the other side while having some key personal qualities positively reinforced by this process. We see this in clients who develop the ability to put their feelings into words and confront the person who has harmed them.
The idea is to take the pain of the experience and find something positive within it—in other words, giving suffering meaning (Frankel, 2006). This allows a shift in the direction of life. We have all seen this in a client who finds her voice and starts to speak out about the sexual abuse she has experienced or a client who shifts his career and begin to work in alcohol and drug abuse prevention as a result of his experience of losing a loved one in a DWI accident. We see clients who develop a deep spiritual faith as a result of tremendous loss and suffering. And resilience isn’t just for our clients: we can learn to view awful experiences that we as counselors have witnessed ourselves, and we can actually allow those painful experiences to be transformative, both personally and professionally.
Our resilience can allow us to take something negative and turn it into a positive. But even though we say this, most of us have not considered exactly what this means. How do we take the pain in life and make something positive out of it? And no, this is not the same as “I won’t do that again.” This is allowing this experience of pain to make a positive transformation within. It is, in essence, going through life two-handed, having one hand hold our pain and the other hold what that pain can teach us. This is a particular challenge for women.
Why Women Need to Develop Resilience Consciously
We are all powerfully influenced by culture, that large governor of what is and is not acceptable. Both men and women become finely tuned to the subtle expectations of how we should act, how we should look, what we should expect from life. And we are made aware of the consequences of not doing as we are expected to do.
For women, these expectations take a particularly troublesome direction. Women often are strong but don’t allow themselves to act that way because they feel it is not feminine to do so. They are still rewarded largely for how they look, not for what they can think or are capable of doing. Women feel that the beauty standard illustrated in magazines is what they should seek—and they fear they will fall short.
Girly Thoughts = Anti-Resilience
Girly thoughts are the negative, self-blaming, ego-wounding, internal dialogue that most women experience as a result of failing to reach the perceived ideal. They fill the gap between personal reality and the ideal, and they are anti-resilience. Girly thoughts sap a woman’s strength and sacrifice her knowledge. When women let girly thoughts invade their thinking, they can be merciless on themselves. They feel they are too heavy in the hips, too small in the breasts, too short, too wrinkly, too old to be desirable, too . . . (you fill in the blank).
Because of these girly thoughts, many women feel they deserve or actually cause whatever misfortune they encounter: a cheating boyfriend, a husband who drinks too much, or an emotionally distant partner. They blame themselves for someone else’s choices: “I made him do this because I’m not pretty enough or kinky enough or I talk too much, and it’s my fault.”
As counselors, we feel we can make a difference. After all, our desire to reduce the pain of others is what drew us to this profession. So we may have a tendency to blame ourselves when our clients “don’t get it,” particularly when the issue we are working on with them seems so very obvious—at least to us. This is why we also need to take a step back and appreciate the environment that we all live in (those girly thoughts and how we are affected by them). If you have learned to make your resilience conscious, you can reflect on your experience in doing this and see how it may help you assist others in doing the same. Begin by having some compassion for both yourself and your clients, and consider why this is such a struggle.
Women can be encouraged to begin resisting girly thoughts by taking a step back and realizing that if something really is all their fault, then they actually have a tremendous amount of power. They can be encouraged to ask, “With this much power, why not try to use my influence where it will do the most good? Why not try to control myself?”
The cost of not doing this is high. When women close down what they need, when they cut off how they feel, they silence who they are. And for this they will pay a huge price. Jacks (2010) speaks about the cost that women pay when they silence their self, and this is risking depression, a major mental health concern for women, not to mention addiction in any of its many forms.
Patterns of Resilience
To help your clients develop their resilience, start by having them notice that it is not an off-or-on quality. Resilience is dynamic and brought to the surface depending on what the person is facing. It is highly responsive to environmental cues and dependent on the stress level of the experience a women finds herself facing.
Resilience tends to form in certain patterns, certain ways of organizing experiences that become comfortable. These resilience patterns are adopted as part of knowing the self, even if this is not conscious at the onset. The following are descriptive patterns that women tend to use to organize their strengths. This is not meant as a new diagnostic category. They are offered as a way of furthering our nomenclature for describing what is right and good in us.
This is the resiliency pattern most women appear to use; they feel almost as if they function as two different people. This plays out in the following way: a woman is comfortable and feels competent in one part of her life (often at work), yet anxious and almost like a different person in another part (often her personal life). In intimate relationships she may feel triggered by her shame, and as a result feel afraid or unskilled and not sure what to do. This is a function of girly thoughts in action.
The challenge: Women who use their resilience paradoxically can be encouraged to apply the skills that work in one area of their lives to other areas, particularly those areas where they are fearful and feel they are not really acting as themselves. They can be encouraged to use their skills consciously in the area where they are underfunctioning. They need to be reminded that they are one person with one set of skills, no matter how or where those skills are applied.
Trauma survivors, even those in recovery, have a tendency to define themselves in terms of having survived that trauma. Their very survivorship is a vital, huge, important part of their identity. They become vigilant about keeping on track no matter what the area: personal development, professional success, relationships, recovery and so on, almost as if what they accomplished is not really theirs . . . those girly thoughts again.
The challenge: Women with stellar resilience need to be encouraged to not only take pride in their survivorship, but also to consciously build on the strengths developed here, to expand their sense of self to also include important factors in the present that can help further shape them. For example, a woman in recovery from sexual abuse who becomes a mother can be encouraged to use her skills to also expand her sense of self and embrace this new identity. In this way, women can use their considerable resilience to integrate their past and present.
We all experience trauma at times, literally overwhelmed by grief, rage, pain, and we shut down. This doesn’t mean that we don’t have resilience, merely that we can’t access it right now. Women need to deal with not just the trauma they are facing, but the overlay of their girly thoughts, which intensify their pain and complicate the process of remembering that what they are experiencing is just a moment in time and does not fully define them.
The challenge: Women whose resilience is overwhelmed must first reflect on how they have used their resilience in the past; they need to consciously recall the solutions to problems they have utilized in the past, even if they do not feel those solutions can be used now. As they begin to recall their well-developed survival skills—even if they feel those skills are not accessible at the present time—they can remind themselves that what they are experiencing now is temporary.
Some women define themselves by extreme competence. They feel that they “must do it all” with little or no help from others. They are totally resilient. They are ever vigilant, fighting those girly thoughts and everything else. As a result, they can become brittle and isolated. They feel they must be compulsively self-reliant, which is the polar opposite of codependency.
The challenge: Women who utilize their resilience in a self-contained manner need to consciously challenge themselves to develop flexibility and vulnerability—almost as if these are additional tasks to be accomplished. In the process, they will discover that their security is not really compromised by being more vulnerable others.
Some women live in such a protective bubble that their opportunity to bump into life and figure out how to cope by developing resiliency skills is limited. While this may feel like nirvana, it actually is very limiting. Unfortunately, counselors see this most frequently in adolescent girls. Their inner tentativeness (girly thoughts beginning to blossom) is covered by bravado, lashing out, even anger. This is a function, in part, of children being more of a luxury where very well-meaning, exhausted parents have more of a tendency to say yes than to help their children figure out how to handle complex situations (Wolf, 2002).
The challenge: Women with less than optimal resilience can begin to consciously become aware of the skills they do have and plan experiments to expand their resilience base. In this way, they can learn to take risks and make their own decisions, learning to more comfortably take responsibility for their actions.
This form of resilience is the ultimate goal. Women of balanced resilience are capable in many areas. They are flexible, which allows them to enjoy an easy give and take, being resilient when they need to be and relaxed when they do not. Yes, there are still those pesky girly thoughts that get stirred up, but women with balanced resilience are able to see them for what they are and not buy into their toxic messages.
The challenge: Women of balanced resilience can become more conscious of their strengths and tackle challenges using their skills strategically and intuitively as they learn to delight in this important part of who they are.
Tuning Into Our Resilience
People experience their resilience in a variety of ways. Perhaps the most common description of resilience is heard when people speak of their sixth sense. As counselors, we can encourage our clients to listen to that little voice, that inner urge, those not fully formed thoughts to do something different, to act counter to the usual way, whether that’s taking a different route home, or speaking to a family member in a new way, or joining a different support group.
Our resilience can also speak to us in our dreams or in our daydreaming; these are thoughts, images that point us in a new direction in solving an existing problem. Clients can be encouraged to listen to their own voices, voices that advise them on a new course of action. In my book, I include several assessments that can be used to determine the type of resilience your client uses as well as seven action steps that will help develop conscious resilience.
The important message for counselors is to encourage women to develop resilience by learning to make this inner process conscious. Your client needs to hear and experience this part of herself that advises, encourages and speaks to her so she understands that this powerful resource—her resilience—is within her, and she can use it to enhance her own life.
Resilience is a positive response to adverse circumstances. It is a living quality within that can be nurtured and developed, especially to combat girly thoughts, those societally shaped self-sabotaging thoughts that form so much of a woman’s negative inner dialogue. This takes conscious attention to the development of resilience in women, a process that can be taught and mastered through the 7 Steps to Personal Power.
The 7 Steps to Personal Power
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Frankel, V. (2006). Man’s Search for Meaning. New York: Beacon Press.
Jacks, D. (2010). Silencing the Self Across Cultures: Depression and Gender in the Social World. New York: Oxford University Press (USA).
O’Gorman, P. (2013). The Resilient Woman: Mastering the 7 Steps to Personal Power, Deerfield Beach, FL: HCI.
O’Gorman, P. & Diaz, P. (2012). Healing Trauma Through Self-Parenting: The Codependency Connection. Deerfield Beach, FL: HCI.
Wolf, A. (2002). Get Out of My Life, but First Could You Drive Me & Cheryl to the Mall: A Parent’s Guide to the New Teenager, Revised and Updated. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.