"She stood in the storm
and when the wind did not blow her away,
she adjusted her sails."
Charles Krauthammer, who was a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for the Washington Post, died earlier this summer. He was by no means a political kindred spirit of mine, but I was drawn to read more about his life. I didn't know until recently that he was paralyzed in a diving accident when he was a first year medical student. With the help of many, but one professor in particular, he graduated from medical school and became a psychiatrist. He later became a political columnist.
The Washington Post opened their archives and I read some of his columns. One he wrote about resilience. In it, he talks about Roy Hobbs, the hero of Bernard Malamud’s “The Natural,” a baseball prodigy who tries to return to the game after being shot.
“No one knows why Hobbs is shot,” he wrote. “It is fate, destiny, nemesis. Perhaps the dawning of knowledge, the coming of sin. Or more prosaically, the catastrophe that awaits everyone from a single false move, wrong turn, fatal encounter. Every life has such a moment. What distinguishes us is whether — and how — we ever come back.”
I have been thinking more about trauma and how it changes lives. As Dr. Krauthammer says, "every life has such a moment.". I have had mine. You have had yours. I feel comfort knowing that, as Robin Roberts' mother told her when she was diagnosed with cancer, "everybody's got something". Knowing that bad things happen to all of us, that it is part of the human condition, somehow feels better than isolating with the idea that it only happened to me.
And I've been thinking about resilience too. Here's a simple definition. Resilience is being able to become strong, healthy or successful again after something bad happens. Bouncing back. Getting back up and moving forward. Resilience is understanding that the future will not be like the past.
Learning from what's happened. Perspective taking. Staying flexible. Adapting to the reality in front of you. Remembering what matters to you and moving towards it. Connecting with others, we are not alone.
And at the risk of being a Pollyanna, life can be better on the other side of trauma. While it can seem so bleak in the vortex of the emotions that swirl around a traumatic event, I have seen how the very awfulness of the event, how when everything you thought you could count on was suddenly not there, that upending of what feels like everything, can become the very thing that allows you to start again. New and yet more you than you've ever been. Fresh but not naive. Wiser but not cynical. Allowing experience to make us more of who we already are, that's resilience. :-)
I love this quote from a 2006 commencement speech by Stephen Colbert at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois:
“Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don’t learn anything.
Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us.
Cynics always say no.
But saying ‘yes’ begins things. Saying ‘yes’ is how things grow. Saying ‘yes’ leads to knowledge. ‘Yes’ is for young people.
So for as long as you have the strength to, say ‘yes.’”
Open hearted. ♥ Try it. Take a chance. Experiment. Nice.
“If you want something you have never had,
you have to do something you have never done.”
~ Mike Murdock
I love this quote from a truly inspiring person!
"Acceptance doesn’t mean resignation;
it means understanding that something is what it is
that there’s got to be a way through it."
~Michael J. Fox
“A greater intelligence is available to you
when you no longer reject, deny, or “don’t want” what is.”
Accepting what is. I think this is such a powerful and life changing idea that sounds deceptively simple.
What is acceptance? One generally understood definition of acceptance is through the lens of a judgment, that accepting something is the opposite of rejecting something. So with this definition, acceptance is like approval “I accept this because I approve of it, or I’m OK with it.” “She was accepted into her first choice of school”, which would obviously mean the school approved of her.
With this definition of accepting as akin to approving, accepting means welcoming something, bringing it closer to you, while rejecting would mean pushing away, denying, not wanting something, in this example being rejected from her first choice of school would not be the outcome she would want.
This other (and I believe ultimately more powerful) way to think about acceptance is without the lens of judgement/approval/evaluating. True acceptance means stepping away from the liking/disliking paradigm altogether. Another term for this form of acceptance is radical acceptance, a description used in DBT, radical acceptance means allowing your experience to be just what it is, flowing with the rhythm of life, not trying to control what is beyond your control, just observing what is. Now, this does not mean you don’t have feelings or an opinion about what’s in front of you. What it does mean is that you don’t conflate the two, that seeing what’s in front of you and what you believe about what’s in front of you are distinct.
Being able to hold the facts and the feelings about the facts as separate gives you so many advantages. The one most obvious benefit is that you can plan your action based on what is, not on what you wish to be true. Your actions are more likely to be effective the closer they take reality into account.
I’ll talk more about radical acceptance in my next post. Stay tuned :-)
My parents grew roses when I was growing up.
I remember a few things about this. One, they would throw used coffee grounds and egg shells onto the rose beds. I thought that was weird, to put food that would otherwise go in the trash around the plants. They explained that there were certain nutrients in those foods that made the roses even more beautiful.
The other thing I remember was that the roses, the flowers, were stunningly beautiful. When they bloomed, it seemed that it was a thrill and delight for the entire family.
I also remember how these amazing blooms were surrounded by straggly, not very pretty bushes.
Oh one last thing, it seemed like it was an awful lot of work for a few flowers that lasted for such a short time.
You’re probably wondering by now, why is she telling me this sweet memory about rosebushes?
As I was writing about before, I’ve been reading Henry Cloud’s book called “Necessary Endings”. He uses the metaphor of a rosebush to show how important it is to decide what your vision is for what you want, in this case, the perfectly groomed rosebush, and to engage in an active process to let go of what is not best to get you to your vision.
For a rosebush to be at its’ dazzling best, you have to prune. You have to prune weak branches, you have to prune dead branches, and you have to prune perfectly good branches that are outside the shape of your ideal. You have to let go in order to get closer to what it is that you really want, your ideal rosebush.
Can you see the metaphor here? To get to your best self, your vision of the life that you most want, you have to learn to let go.
People are like rosebushes. We have limited resources–of time, energy, money and attention. In order to be at our best, we have to make decisions about what we really want.
Contrary to the saying “you can have it all”, no, the truth is we can’t. And we have to learn to say no to what isn’t best for us, to what is no longer working for us, to what used to be fine but no longer is, and even to let go of some perfectly good enough things that are no longer necessary as we are moving towards our best life in this moment.
Isn’t that a great title?
I’m reading a book by Dr. Henry Cloud about how failing to end something blocks businesses from creating something new and better, whether that ending is a way of doing business, or discontinuing a product line that is no longer selling, or letting an employee go when they are not receptive to going in a new direction.
Applying this idea to a more personal and global context about living a life, I think about how our fears of letting something or someone go, often without a clear sense of what’s next, can keep us from trying something new and better for us.
The idea of needing to let go of the brass ring for the chance to catch the gold one comes to mind here.
But there’s risk you say. Of course there is!
But there is risk, while not as obvious, to holding on to what is not working too.
Not ending something that deep down you know is no longer working for you, leaving a job or a relationship or a way of doing something, is scary. And, often it is the only way to clear the space for something new and better to come forward.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is the newest addition to how I think about my work. As with Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), I am learning how powerful this approach is through my work with clients and also with myself.
In a similar way to Bowen’s family systems theory, ACT believes that there is much to be gained by establishing some degree of objectivity of self, that is, being able to stand beside yourself and observe, of seeing your thoughts, feelings and behaviors with some neutral stance. In ACT language, this is known as defusion, that is, recognizing that you are not your thoughts and feelings.
ACT uses metaphors a lot and I like that. One metaphor to illustrate defusion is that you are the sky and your moods/thoughts/feelings are the clouds. Even on the cloudiest day, we know that there is sky behind the clouds. Translating that metaphor, no matter what your mood is in the moment, your self is constant.
We get into trouble when we fuse our thoughts/feelings/moods with our sense of self. In ACT terms, “I am a bad person” would be “I am having the thought that I am a bad person”. Read those out loud, can you feel the difference? Now I know that the second sentence sounds clumsy and not natural. And that’s the point! The ACT way of describing the experience creates just a bit of space between you and the thought. That space creates enough objectivity that you have room to work on decreasing the power of those negative thoughts, to be reminded that you are not your thoughts.
Another defining feature of ACT is the idea of psychological flexibility. ACT believes that suffering is created by inflexibility, of thoughts, actions, beliefs. Like in DBT, ACT theory is based on the idea that resisting the world as it is creates unnecessary suffering. ACT principles and techniques offer a different way of thinking, a different way to approach what life puts in front of us.
If you want to read more about ACT, I would suggest “The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living” by Russ Harris and Steven Hayes. Or see this article that summarizes ACT from the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science website.
My name is Carol J. Tadeusik. I am a licensed psychologist in Durham, North Carolina. I invite you to read my blog and get to know me and a bit about how I think. And by the way, I love comments!
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