What’s the difference between ‘surviving’ and ‘thriving’? The difference is the personal quality that you bring to the situation that you are in.
I get asked a lot about resilience. It’s another one of those words that has about 50 interpretations and is more conceptual than practical. People think that resilience is what makes us able to survive during difficult times, but I disagree.
Tenacity enables us to survive during difficult times. That notion of clawing, scratching and fighting tooth-and-nail, getting through and saying “that was bloody hard” at the end of it. Tenacity is what enables us to scrape through the situation by the skin of our teeth, depleting all of our resources, cash and energy, only to be faced with the battle of now building things back up – all whilst running on empty. Tenacity can also be the thing that ‘short-sights’ us into fighting for something that perhaps didn’t need to be saved and should be left to evolve or even end of its own accord. Tenacity can sometimes make us resist and rigidly stand firm whilst the sea of change pounds, pummels and ravages us. Tenacity shows resolve but takes an awful lot from us. And when a massive amount of tenacity is required, it could be pertinent to ask “is this worth the fight?” And don’t get me wrong – it may well be, however tenacity often pertains to avoiding that question altogether.
Resilience, on the other hand, is different. Resilience isn’t about merely surviving difficult times and hardships. Resilience is about thriving in those situations. It’s about taking the current situation as it is and adapting to it. Resilience requires acceptance of the situation and a willingness to evolve with it.
I consider myself a fairly resilient person. I only have to look back over my life and reflect on how I have responded to hardships to know that resilience in me far outweighs tenacity.
Growing up as the only gay kid in my school in the mid nineties when rainbow flags didn’t drip from every global brand’s logo, and learning to accept – and even like – myself demonstrates resilience.
Overcoming anxiety and depression in my early twenties and making the necessary changes to my life that would avoid a relapse demonstrates resilience.
‘Leaning in’ to my body-shame issues in the early stages of relationships, rather than hiding from them, demonstrates resilience.
Setting up a charity in the name of my little brother as a result of his passing from Sudden Arrhythmic Death Syndrome at age 24 demonstrates resilience.
What do all of these things have in common? A positive outcome. You see, when we face into hardships and come out of the other side beaten, bruised, jaded, cynical and closed-minded, it’s fair to say we have just about survived, and likely not unscathed. In fact, it’s not uncommon to find people that sadly don’t survive one or more of the hardships above. It’s also not uncommon to find people that haven’t ever experienced such hardships, and therefore have never naturally developed much resilience. I feel for these people if/when hardships come.
Our ability to take the challenges we are given in life and not just survive them but learn the lessons and grow as individuals is what drip-feeds into the “Resilience Pot”. And the great thing about the “Resilience Pot” – it fills but doesn’t empty. Once you have it, you likely always will.
I’ll give you an example. I’ll never experience anything as life-altering, as traumatising or as painful as the loss of my little brother (at least, I hope I don’t). That time in my life was the darkest I’ve ever known. To many people’s surprise, I decided that I wanted to deliver a tribute to him at his funeral. Now I look back and observe a great deal of strength and resilience at wanting to do this, but at the time, I was simply looking for a way to honour my brother and process my grief. So I wrote a poem for him. The day was wrought with emotion. As the cortege passed by the factory where he did his apprenticeship, every member of staff lined the road. They had actually stopped production for him. My Dad was in bits. The church – the largest one we could find in our hometown - was literally packed to the rafters. His three cousins and his three best friends were his pall bearers. I delivered the poem off by heart and flawlessly, and collapsed in my husband’s arms in tears as I sat back down.
Now, I’ve known hardships before. I have known hardships since. But nothing will ever be harder, or more important, than what I had to do – no, CHOSE to do – on that day. And I remind myself of this when times get tough. Whenever I face into any difficult situation or challenge, I say to myself “Neil, you delivered the eulogy at your brother’s funeral. Nothing you will ever do will be harder than that.” And here lies a massive source of my internal resilience.
I pull on this all the time, and not just the fact that I managed to do what I did, but the fact that - even in the face of the deepest grief, the darkest time and the worst pain I’ve ever experienced - I did it and I did it well. I was able to channel my love, my sorrow and my experience into a beautiful, fitting tribute to the man.
Tenacity would have meant that I dragged myself through that day, getting to the end of it a husk of my former self. But resilience meant that I felt proud, strong and accomplished at paying tribute to my amazing brother - even though no poem could ever do him justice. And don’t get me wrong – I was emotionally wrung out, but in fairness I had been for two weeks prior to that day, and remained that way for months, possibly years, after. But I cannot shake that little voice in my head – that, to be honest, sounds very much like Adam’s – that says to me “If you can do that, you can do anything”.
Resilience is when we take all of those experiences, survive them of course, but come out of them learning valuable lessons that equip us well for the future. Lessons about people. Lessons about life. Lessons about ourselves. They create a “Resilience Filter” that can sit in front of every bit of input we experience for the rest of our lives if we let it. But we HAVE to let it. There’s always a risk that we ‘archive’ painful experiences as soon as we’re ‘over’ them, and because they were so painful, never bring them into our frame of reference again. You may recognise this in people who struggle with things and it baffles you given some of the hardships they’ve known. These are people that have a full “Resilience Pot”, and a functional “Resilience Filter”, but either aren’t aware of them or choose (consciously or sub-consciously) not to use them.
And what happens if a person has never known great hardship, sorrow or pain? What then? Their “Resilience Pot” may be pretty empty. I feel for these people – as someone who has known great hardship, I pray the day will never come for them, but I know that it likely will, and I fear for how they will handle it. But there’s a secret to resilience.
You don’t have to endure great hardships to build it. You just have to check what the stories in your head are.
7 years ago, if someone had said to me “How would you feel if Adam died suddenly tomorrow?”, my answer would probably have been along the lines of “I’d die. I wouldn’t be able to cope. I can’t even bear to think about it. It would finish me off.”
Here’s the thing. It happened. I coped. I got through it.
When faced with the prospect of liquidating a business that I’d put 5 years of my heart and soul into, I said something along the lines of “I can’t do this. If this happens, it’ll finish me off. Nervous breakdown here I come, and I won’t be able to get out of bed”.
Here’s the thing. It happened. I coped. I got through it.
We give ourselves so little credit. The narrative in our minds constantly creates boundaries, limitations and restrictions on us. There will be experiences that we fear and dread, and we fear them because of what we THINK they will do to us. That we won’t cope. That we’ll curl up in a ball and die. That we’ll lose all functionality and become vegetables. These are the stories we tell ourselves.
But they are not the truth.
These stories keep us small. They may keep us safe and avoidant of any possible hardship, risk or trauma. But they are not the truth.
My experiences mean that the narrative in my head has changed. Now if someone were to ask me “how would you feel if THE WORST happened”, my response would be “It already has, and you know what? It was incredibly painful, tested me beyond measure BUT I got through it”. I hate that I’ve had to have some of those experiences for the narrative in my head to shift. And I hate that so many people will have to endure similar hardships before THEIR internal narrative changes. So my advice to you, dear reader and friend, is this:
CHANGE IT NOW!
Don’t wait to be tested. Don’t wait for the awful experience to show you what you’re capable of. Change that narrative now. Let the story you tell yourself be “If the worst happened, it would be horrific, I’d be destroyed, BUT I would get though it. I would survive. I would learn the lessons. I would ultimately be alright”. Because here’s the thing – YOU WOULD! You absolutely would survive and you would get through it. You won’t know how or why, but you are capable of it, and when tested, I’ve no doubt you would pass. Hey – if I can, anyone can. Developing this kind of belief in yourself and your capabilities is what will help you THRIVE if/when hardships come. Developing this kind of belief in yourself is what builds resilience in the ABSENCE of hardships and prepares you for them when they come. And developing this kind of belief in yourself makes you a bit more fearless.
When we believe that our experiences could destroy us, we stay safe and small. As a result, we may never know great hardships, but we may also rob ourselves of great joy and success. Building our internal resilience – changing the narrative – is what makes us braver, bolder and more open. We’ll take a chance on happiness because we know – no, we BELIEVE – that even if things don’t go as planned, we’ll always be ok. In fact, we’ll be better than ok. We’ll thrive. We’ll thrive because we have trust and faith in ourselves, and we’ll have trust and faith that whatever happens, we will always come out stronger and more enlightened. We’ll always be ok.
One of my favourite authors, Gabrielle Bernstein, wrote “obstacles are detours in the right direction”. Tenacity makes us steam-roll through those obstacles and tear them down, only to find that they were probably there for a reason and we’ve just wasted all our energy and resources getting them out of the way. Resilience is what enables us to accept the obstacles, take the detour and find the lesson, the positive or the gift.
I’ll leave you with this. At the turn of lockdown, I lost my main client and all the work I had scheduled in for the next 5 months. And for a few hours, I licked my wounds, indulged my self-pity, hated the world and imagined all the ways that I would tear down this obstacle, and the people that put it in my way. And then I heard a voice say to me:
“You read the eulogy at your brother’s funeral. If you can get through that, you can get through this”.
Since that day – since that detour - I have earned more money than I planned to, I have worked less hours, I have done work that I have enjoyed and excelled in, with people I’ve loved collaborating with, and I have even turned down a job offer so I can stay doing what I’ve done for the last 7 months, because I have loved it and thrived. All because of the story I told myself. The story I chose to believe.
(What a shame I had to experience homophobia, anxiety, depression, body-shame and bereavement to get me here.)
So take control. change the narrative. Change your story. Build your resilience. I pray that whoever reads this, if they haven’t already, never knows some of the pain that I have gone through.
And I pray they never need to.