“The strongest oak of the forest is not the one that is protected from the storm and hidden from the sun. It’s the one that stands in the open where it is compelled to struggle for its existence against the winds and rains and the scorching sun.” -Napoleon Hill (1883-1970)
As much as we love smooth waters, an Arab proverb states that smooth waters do not make skillful sailors. In this journey called life, the question is not, “Will storms arise?” Rather, the question is, “When will the next storm arise?” And even more important than that question is, “What type of person will I be when the next storm arises?” Advanced life skills are needed to navigate these sometimes treacherous waters.
As I was pondering the topic of skillful sailing, I thought about a book I read a while ago. The name of the book is The Resilient Self: How Survivor’s of Troubled Families Rise Above Adversity (Villard, 1993). For too long, an impression that many have had of psychologists is that they tell people to ruminate on their past, blame others, and live as victims, without ever rising above adversity.
Unfortunately, the argument of insanity or of an abusive background would be used to condone criminal acts. This is an extreme perception, but the truth is that the study of people who have come through adversity with key strengths has given us insight into some important life skills we can harness as we face adversity on a daily basis.
The study of resilience has identified us to some of these advanced life skills that I’m going to introduce to you. Think on these resilience factors so that can be ready to successfully navigate the next storm in your life.
The skill here is in learning to ask tough questions and to give honest answers. It’s about asking yourself hard questions — about your strengths and weaknesses, for example, or about the role you play in your own problems — and giving yourself honest answers. When going through hard times, the questions you choose to ask yourself are key to how what you will focus on and how you will handle the storm.
Here are some suggested questions to help you develop insight about your difficulties:
- “How did I manage to get up this morning (make it to this appointment, get through yesterday, etc.)?”
- “How I been keeping going day after day when there seems to be no hope?”
- “How is it (“What have I done so) that things are not worse?”
- “How come I have not given up yet? What held me? back from completely giving up?”
- “How did you learn to cope with such an awful situation, when you were still so young? Did you have to do it all by yourself?” (for example, talking about childhood abuse/trauma)
What is your view of people and of the world? What is your view of the future? Research into children and adults who flourished despite adversity shows the following. Relationships begin in children with contacting – making fleeting ties with others who are emotionally available. In adolescents, relationships sharpen into recruiting – the deliberate attempt to engage with adults and peers who are helpful and supportive. In adults, relationships mature into attaching – mutually gratifying personal ties that are characterized by a balance of give and take.
Application: Do not be shy about asking for help from reliable people when going through difficult times. Men, in particular, often have a difficult time expressing their emotions and being willing to ask for help. Reach out and get connected, whether that is through a church or other place of worship, a support group, or a professional counselor. Being willing to ask for help in times of adversity and diversity is a sign of health and strength. And don’t forget that cultivating those relationships during good times.
Research has shown that adults who emerged in healthy ways from distressing childhoods practiced independence as defined in the following way: they distanced themselves emotionally and physically from the sources of trouble their life. Independence begins in children with straying – wandering away when trouble is in the air. In adolescents, independence grows into emotional disengagement – detaching from troublesome situations and standing up for oneself. In adults, independence takes form in separating – taking control over the power of one’s pain.
Here are some ways to practice independence when adversity comes your way:
- Take the time to acknowledge the pain of the adversity, but also take charge of it by distancing yourself from it. This is very different from denial, or repressing pain by pretending that it does not exist. Resilient people allow themselves to experience pain, but they share it with trusted friends, and they also do other things to distance themselves from the pain.
- Set boundaries. Only allow yourself certain times to think about or reflect on the adversity. If you are prone to worry, schedule 15 minutes of worry time. Then, when painful feelings or worry come up, tell yourself, “I’ve got my worry time scheduled–I’ll think about it then.”
Initiative is the ability to take charge of problems, instead of being overwhelmed by them. You must learn that if you are ever going to live long and with significance in this world, you are going to have to accept and embrace adversity as a challenge and opportunity, rather than something to be overwhelmed by. The bigger dreams and goals you have, the more adversity you can expect.
It takes a degree of mental toughness and creativity to approach the problems of living in a way that will benefit you the most. I suggest utilizing Tony Robbins’ power questions both to approach the daily hassles of living as well as the bigger crises that come into your life. Here are some of those questions:
Morning Power Questions:
- What am I happy about in my life now?
What about that makes me happy? How does that make me feel?
- What am I excited about in my life now?
What about that makes me excited? How does that make me feel?
- What am I proud about in my life now?
What about that makes me proud? How does that make me feel?
- What am I grateful about in my life now?
What about that makes me grateful? How does that make me feel?
- What am I enjoying in my life right now?
What about that do I enjoy? How does that make me feel?
- What am I committed to in my life right now?
What about that makes me committed? How does that make me feel?
- Who do I love? Who loves me?
What about that makes me loving? How does that make me feel?
Evening power questions:
- What have I given today?
In what ways have I been a giver today?
- What did I learn today?
- How has today added to the quality of my life or how can I use today as an investment in my future?
Problem solving questions:
- What is great about this problem?
- What is not perfect yet?
- What am I willing to do to make it the way I want it?
- What am I willing no longer to do in order to make it the way I want it?
- How can I enjoy the process while I do what is necessary to make it the way I want it?
Creativity is using the imagination in a way that, once again, helps you mobilize your resources and navigate tough situations in life. Creativity and humor are related resiliencies. One of the most helpful tools to tapping creativity during hard times is a workbook called The Artist’s Way Workbook, by Julia Cameron. It encourages the practice of freehand journaling every morning in order to tap into your inner resources. Other helpful forms of creativity may include drawing, listening to music, painting, walking in nature, and meditation. I have found that I am most creative internally when I am running out in open nature, all alone.
Humor is an offshoot of creativity. Learn not to take yourself or life too seriously! Learn to cultivate your sense of humor, because when you do, it will help you play in the midst of difficulty, shape your reality by offsetting pain, and help you laugh in the face of the absurdity of your pains and troubles. By no means do I mean that you should minimize or pretend that your troubles don’t exist. However, being able to find humor in every situation will help you cope more effectively. Learn to enjoy funny books or movies. Laugh often.
Morality and Values
This means that you have identified your core personal values, and that you are living and acting on the basis of an informed conscience. It means that you have developed a philosophy of living and a moral framework and principles for behaving and decision making. Ultimately, these values and principles will serve as roots that will give you nourishment when the storms of adversity pound against you.
In the most responsible and developed stage of morality and values, we have an obligation to use our gifts and talents to serve others, even in the midst of suffering and pain. I cite some examples here: Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr. These are only a few examples of persons who tapped into morality and spirituality in the midst of adversity.
I hope that you will use these advanced life skills to successfully navigate the ups and downs of life, both the seemingly small, and the very big. Let me know if you have used any of these life skills, whether you are using any now, and which ones you would like to develop for the future.
Stephen Borgman is a licensed psychotherapist committed to bringing hope, understanding, and solutions to his readers and clients. You can read more by Steve at Personal Success Factors and Prospering With Aspergers.