We’ve all experienced some form of adversity in our lives. The good news is we naturally develop resiliency as a result of negative experiences that we had. Resiliency gives us skills, techniques and coping mechanisms that help us bounce back in the face of future trauma or challenges. Typically, resiliency is a really good thing.
It means we survived.
But I’m here to tell you that resiliency is also a double edged sword. Sometimes the traits that make us resilient, like an “I can do it myself” attitude, over-functioning, or over-responsibility, can lead straight to burnout, anxiety, and depression.
These traits can be valued by society though, so it’s often hard to recognize them as challenges or limiting beliefs. Resiliency keeps us safe, and the skills protect us from future pain or disappointment. But often these coping mechanisms may be hindering us and holding us back from making progress towards the big dreams we have.
That was true for me. Growing up in an alcoholic family as the oldest of three siblings, I started life with more responsibility than the average person. I helped hold the family together by doing the grocery shopping in high school and working in various aspects of our family business.
Tragically, both my parents died of alcoholism-related diseases within two years of one another. As the oldest, I was suddenly in charge of not only managing their estates, but also taking care of my two younger siblings. At the age of twenty-two, I became the sole guardian of my sixteen-year-old sister, which was an unbelievable amount of responsibility to be handed to a young adult.
I didn’t have a typical young adulthood with the safety net of family to learn skills from and fall back on. Failure wasn’t an option. I was “adulting” long before “adulting” was a common meme among millennials. I became self-reliant and was praised for my maturity and “having it all together.” My “can do it” attitude meant that I also excelled in my career.
I was resilient.
But this came at a cost. For instance, I didn’t get to have spring breaks and learn how to “unplug” and turn off. Most of my breaks during school were spent working to support myself financially. I didn’t learn the value of finding balance with my time and my boundaries. I struggled to understand and pay attention to my own needs for support and protection from others or learn when recharging and taking a break would make sense.
I had a belief that I have to work hard, and keep working hard in order to be worth something. Eventually, through self reflection, I made this link between my incessant need for busyness and achievement and how it was the only thing fueling my self-worth. It was mostly driven by my imposter syndrome – a belief that despite outward success I didn’t deserve it or it didn’t really mean anything.
It’s no wonder I struggled with anxiety and depression throughout my teens and 20s. It’s also no wonder that I moved through a career path and career ladder simply because of the circumstances I found myself in, not because it was the path that I designed or dreamed for myself.
I’m trying to speak out against this idea that we need to be busy and achievement focused to be worth something.
It took a long time for me to consider how these traits left over from my trauma — which are often valued in a career — were hurting me. Once I did, the good news is, I think my inherent resilience kicked in. I was able to adapt and consider another path, one that was more even keeled and includes more balance.
You may not think to describe embarking on an entrepreneurial journey as “even keeled and balanced,” but the truth is it was easier for me to create that for myself than trying to create it within the corporate environment.
Crusade Against Busyness
One of the reasons I dared to write a book exploring some of the traumas I had and profiling experiences of many others who made big changes in their life as a result of their own self-reflection and inner journeys is because I’m trying to speak out against this idea that we need to be busy and achievement focused to be worth something. It’s a bit of a crusade that I’m on.
And it’s warranted because burnout is an epidemic right now. People experience burnout in different ways. Burnout can show up in an obvious way like exhaustion, the inability to sleep, or maybe the strong need to sleep all the time. A hallmark of burnout is not having any personal time or self care in our lives. It can also show up as more of a simmering frustration, anger, resentment, or unpleasantness at your job.
Busyness and burnout can also just be a distraction. A distraction from experiencing uncomfortable emotions. It prevents us from looking too closely at how our past painful experiences in life might have given us coping mechanisms that hold us back from living in more happiness and fulfillment.
Once I made that link between busyness and my self worth, I was able to start letting go of the societal pressures to always stay busy and productive. Letting go of my corporate job helped me let go of my busyness faster, as I could now set the bar without input or guidelines from a boss or corporate culture.
Becoming an entrepreneur allowed me not only to live a life-long dream of working to help people with their personal finances, but do it on my terms with protections in place to prevent getting too close to burnout and overwork again.
Naming and achieving a big dream takes courage and being comfortable with a fair amount of risk. However, if we fear risk because it reminds us of something we experienced in the past — it means we have a lot more to overcome in order to do something scary and life a big dream we have in life.
My most important personal goal today is to spend time going back and living a more carefree lifestyle, as opposed to one that’s over scheduled, overworked, and burned out. I invite you to do more of your own self reflection to discover some of your coping mechanisms — what might be holding you back from living your biggest dreams?
The Resiliency Effect draws on the disciplines of life coaching, psychology, and financial planning. My goal with the book is to offer a way to develop excitement and energy around your purpose which often is preceded by deep, inner work. It’s available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and everywhere books are sold.
In a year like 2020 all of us could use a bit more resilience. The good news is, resilience can be learned.
In my book, The Resiliency Effect, I take you through the journeys of more than 50 people, the vast majority women, including those from the LGBTQ+ community, black people and other people of color. The common denominator of the women I profiled was that they made a big change to live a life more in sync with their purpose and passions. They had untapped potential and found the courage to harness their creativity, their values, and a vision for creating a better community around them.
Here are three tips from my research on resilience.
Self Reflection is Powerful
Most of the people I profiled experienced a period of burnout prior to making a big change in their life. Burnout is an epidemic in this country. A 2015 Deloitte study discovered that 77% of respondents experienced burnout in their current position — feelings of energy depletion, negativity or cynicism about work, and/or reduced personal and professional capacity.
There are many ways in which we can combat burnout in our own lives. For instance, I chose to stop using “to-do” lists. But one good thing about getting to a low place like experiencing burnout is that it can lead to a lot of self reflection. Self reflection was a catalyst used by many of the people profiled in my book to start living the life they were meant to.
This is an partial excerpt from a self-reflection workbook found in Chapter 1 of the book:
- How have you tied your self-worth to your achievements?
- Think back to the times right before burnout? Did you ever have self-doubt or a strong need to “prove yourself?”
- What does filling up your life with to-do lists and achievements mean you DON’T have time for?
Find the courage to go back to look at experiences and adversities you’ve had in your life and consider what coping mechanisms and limiting beliefs you developed that may be hindering you today. When I went through this process for myself, I found that I was able to unlock a life that is no longer a series of fires, to-do lists, or emergencies that needed to be addressed. Instead, my life is filled with the things I’m passionate about.
Success Catalysts Exist
One major success catalyst described by a lot of the people I interviewed was the recognition that working harder, faster or smarter isn’t the answer. Instead it’s about unlearning behaviors and coping mechanisms which have in the past kept us feeling safe, but in the present no longer serve us well. The challenge lies in doing the deep work that will give you the energy to not just say what your biggest dreams are, but to take action on them.
Some examples of unlearning from interviews I had yielded the following:
New Knowledge Doesn’t Always Lead to Better Performance
Tennis star Serena Williams learned this lesson well. 8 years ago she experienced a number of setbacks and lost a number of pivotal matches. She attributes her turnaround to unlearning a lot of old behaviors. She got a new coach so she could work from a clean slate tweaking her practice techniques and grew into the world renowned player we know today.
You Don’t Have to Do It Alone
Building a team of friends, supporters, and even professional help is a major success catalyst. Many of the women I spoke to mentioned key support such as mentors who helped them discover their true potential. Others reflected on a failed business launch and credited not finding help sooner as their biggest regret.
You Can Reframe the Idea of Security to Create More Freedom
Some of us fear making a change because it feels unsafe or insecure. Sometimes we have to let go of that fear. Those who do may find that they can create a new path / life / career choice that brings them more freedom and flexibility.
Let go of Perfection and Overachievement
A big thing we could all stand to unlearn is our perfectionist and overfunctioning behaviors. Sometimes the only thing standing in our way from living our best life is ourselves. If we believe we have to be near perfect before we’re worthy or capable of doing something scary, we’ll be waiting a long time.
One solution to this kind of perfectionism found from my research is that learning to be ok with vulnerability — with ourselves and with others — and learning to be ok with discomfort is important.
The way we grew up and coped with adversity in our lives is a well-worn path that feels comfortable despite the dysfunction. The nature of our experiences means that it’s easy for us to stay stuck simply because it’s what we know and are familiar with. To begin to change and think bigger, temporarily you have to learn to be ok with being uncomfortable. Being vulnerable with others is part of the solution because the more you can name your feelings, the less power they have.
But there’s another value too – being vulnerable can put us in touch with our tribe, our people, our support network. Being vulnerable creates connection. Yet, we’re often too scared to get vulnerable for fear of not fitting in.
Writer and entrepreneur, Nilofer Merchant knows this very well. On her long-running blog, she allows herself to get vulnerable about many challenging events she faced growing up: from experiencing her parent’s divorce at a young age, abuse from her mother, bullying at school, and a rape in her 20s, and ties them to pieces of wisdom, life and business lessons.
Merchant’s life stories are inspiring, and I’m sure she gets a lot out of processing her traumas through writing. But this is the part I love most: Her vulnerable blogging led her to get syndicated by the Harvard Business Review, which eventually led to several book deals. These days, she serves on corporate boards and writes about the concept of, “Onlyness,” the topic of her 2017 book.
In a way it brings together all she’s learned through her experiences, both the positive and negative, business and personal, to better the world. I don’t think utilizing vulnerability to work through traumas and coping mechanisms has to be done in a public way, however, that method clearly has worked for Merchant.
- What are some ways you could explore getting comfortable with vulnerability?
- When will you put these skills into practice?
- Who could you share some of your ideas with?
Hopefully some of these tips resonate with you as they have with me. I wish you luck and support on your own inner journey.
More about The Resiliency Effect: In the first part of the book, we examine the root causes of imposter syndrome, which is often a catalyst for overwork and burnout. Then we look at the health impacts and high probabilities that people who deal with imposter syndrome and burnout also deal with trauma.
We also examine how the cycle of trauma, as well as the health effects of adversity are passed down within families. Finally, we look at the latest research-backed techniques for creating lasting resiliency that let you move on from surviving into thriving in your greatest life. Collectively, I refer to this deep work as the “inner journey.”