The difference between those who “succeed” in life and those who do not very often lies in the level of optimism and resilience they have developed. The earlier people are able to do this the more likely they are to live meaningful, principled and fulfilling lives. Whether working with adolescents, young adults or adults, many of our clients had a tough childhood and are still working to manage many of these same stressors, limiting thought patterns and world views that have held them back since their youth.
We know that genetic factors do play a role in determining a person’s level of resilience and optimism. But both of these personality traits are also able to be progressively and systematically strengthened. Here we will look briefly at the importance of active coping skills, regular physical activity and of developing a positive and flexible outlook.
We can use a variety of best practices to both develop and strengthen each of these factors. Those who are able to execute supportive coping strategies are able to resist the immediate gratification and not eat the marshmallow right now for the reward of two marshmallows a short time later. Developing “healthy distractions” and ways to ground and allow cravings and intensely conflicting emotions to pass is crucial. In addition to developing resilience and mental fortitude, this allows us to experience the benefits of impulse control – and thus to experience the world as a kinder, less punitive place – which can foster a more optimistic outlook.
Creating and sticking to a fitness routine has been the inspiration for tens of thousands of companies, blogs and New Year’s Resolutions. The benefits are clear to most all of us and the accountability coaching and support is what is often needed to help bring this factor to its fruition. Through goal setting, planning and tracking we are able to use a fitness program not only to increase our physical health but also as a metric by which to gauge our willpower, our persistence and our level of commitment. A good fitness program is a microcosm for the personal growth process – one that includes body, mind and spirit/inner self. A great fitness program would include other people and the opportunity to inspire each other and share in the successes and the challenges.
Another necessary skill to develop is what might be called “emotional alchemy”. This is when are we able to use our painful feelings or experiences as a barometer that indicates that a need is not getting met. We are mindful of this need not getting met, but our goal here is to explore the context in which this is taking place. Here we become a “participant observer”, but allow our feelings to remain so we can explore the territory to see if there is something more, something positive that can be discovered in the painful experience. When we are able to develop the skill of both feeling and then detaching from “sting” of the personalization of an event, we can often get a clearer sense of why something is happening, of someone else’s intentions or of how we can make a needs request and get our needs met in our current situation. This is kind of like panning for gold – it takes patience and discipline, and may slow you down enough to experience a larger message unfolding in front of you.
By focusing on and developing these stabilizing attitudes and activities, we are better able to handle the curve balls that life will certainly throw us. Each in its own right serves to stabilize and ground us not only in a way that allows us to “whether the storm”, but also in a way that roots us in our own wisdom and allows us to be skillful in how we respond to both our external and internal conditions. Not only can we relate to them with emotional maturity, but the events of today will not trigger any past, unhealed trauma, and we can stand more cleanly between the past and the present and relate to the people, experiences and events that are at hand.
As we begin to strengthen in the our development of resiliency skills and access a more optimistic world view and perspective we often find a reduction in habitual, self-harming behaviors that once occupied a lot of our time and energy. What we are often left to face is a vacuum that initially needs to be filled. We rightly encourage filling this void with healthy, positive and pro-social activities, people and actionable goals. But as we stabilize and continue to move toward health and wellness, we begin to realize that this void is not just something to be filled, but is something with which we would be wise to develop and intimate relationship with. This, possibly, is the golden key to all of this – is the pursuit of a meaningful life. This crucial step that comes after “filling this void” is “experiencing this void” – allowing the void to “touch us”, to ask us the questions it has to ask. Questions like; “Now what?” “What am I here for?” “What was the meaning of all of my pain, suffering, surviving?” “What do I do that is meaningful or that actually matters?” To touch these questions – to not fill the space with idle chatter or with someone else’s answers or with Facebook, YouTube, or any of our effective ways to avoid them – and to be able to sit with the question, the not knowing, and the potency of the questions themselves is to continue to open to the possibility of deep healing, of personal truth and meaning, from which comes a sense of purpose.
Viktor Frankl indicated that this pursuit, for both personal meaning and its expression, is “a prerequisite for therapeutic success.” Being willing to risk exploring the territory of personal meaning is not only a personal task, but one that takes great courage. It is an act of bravery that can be seen as trans-personal, that is, an act of self-exploration that allows the explorer to bring back the gifts that he or she discovers to others. It is an act that goes beyond the self and is a courageous act for the benefit of all. This person, then, can serve as an inspiration to others and as a catalyst for profound, personal change and growth. How we bring these gifts of personal discovery to bear in our world is our purpose. This doesn’t necessarily mean that it is our job or occupation, but that there is a felt sense that one now has a gift to share with others that is not a personal possession, but is a shared truth that can only be exchanged in empowering others to explore this “existential void”, this ripe place within themselves, and come up with their own version of gold. And, as Frankl illuminated, this is not only the way out of our own hell, or sense of purposelessness, but is a way to create a slice of heaven on Earth.