Mind & Body Wellness

How to Become Resilient, Not Bitter, When Life Is Challenging

Over the past five years or so, words like “grit” and “resilience” have become trendy buzzwords that aim to provide a map for how to be successful, grow, and change for the better. The thinking goes: if you push out negative thoughts and keep your chin up, chipping away at whatever is difficult for you, something magical can happen. If resilience is the key to success, how do you cultivate it from scratch when something truly awful, something that demands the utmost resilience, happens out of nowhere?

I found myself staring this question dead in the eyes when my husband was arrested for attempted solicitation of a minor male over the Internet, leaving me and my two boys stunned, alone, and unsure of what to do next. We’re all a work in progress, but I wondered how I could suddenly become the person that life demanded of me — a calm, collected, breadwinning, sandwich-making, sports practice chauffeur.

I’ve known people who have faced great difficulties in their lives — many even greater than mine — and yet still show up to the party with a smile on their face and a kind word for someone else. How do they do it? How did they not curl up in a ball and stay in bed after they lost a child, or what about those who have had to file for bankruptcy after a nasty divorce? How did they pick resilience over bitterness?

For me, bitterness came first, and hung around for a while, a process I describe in my memoir So Many Angels. I was angry at what my husband had done to our family. I was worried for the health and wellbeing of my children. I was unsure of what this all meant for me, my career, and my personal life. I did not want to let this ruin us, but I was confused and I was bitter.

We are entitled to throw a pity party and feel sorry for ourselves when tragedy strikes, but, as I learned, we can’t let the pity party go on too long. My friend who is a priest told me at the time that simply forming this conscious thought would help me make it a reality for myself and my sons: choose resilience.

Resilience can be developed if we push back against bitterness. But knowing how, especially when you are struggling to keep yourself afloat, is easier said than done. Below are the things I learned when forced to build resilience quickly, for myself, and for my two sons.

Seek professional help. Not tomorrow, today.

The death of a loved one, a scary medical diagnosis, divorce, loss of a job — handling these events may be too difficult to do on our own. Don’t delay finding a counselor. Get to work on it today. A place to dump your grief can be helpful, and for some it may make all the difference. The best way to do this is to contact your primary care physician so that you can get the names of counselors in your insurance “loop”.  My most important tip about counselors: If you don’t feel comfortable talking with the person after two visits, try another one. Chances are you’ll get better with someone else.

mental health counselor

Find something that you can do to help someone else.

This can help push you out of isolation and hurt, which are easy patterns to get stuck in amid crisis. Can you volunteer somewhere for a few hours? Can you stuff envelopes for your favorite charity or serve a meal at a soup kitchen? You may be thinking “I hardly have enough hours to sleep at night.”, but helping others can alleviate your own pain a little by helping you take a broader view of the world. It’s an old (and annoying, if you are struggling) truism: you are not the only one suffering at any point in time. If you focus your energy on alleviating another person’s pain, it may lighten your own and help put things in perspective.

Count your blessings.

Before you get up out of bed in the morning remind yourself of two things that you are grateful for. No matter how bad things are in your life, there is always something to be grateful for. When tragedy hit our family, I was always happy that I had my sons. They topped every gratitude list I made, even though I was worried about them. Other items on the list included friends who were patient and listened to my rants, dinners that people brought us, a wonderful neurologist who took care of me after diagnosing my MS, and neighbors who did yard work. Listing things that we are grateful for, in the midst of a crisis, can bring in some much-needed light.

Each of these steps will help you resist the spiral of bitterness and focus on the path forward, which is the essence of resilience.

Following a 15-year career as an attorney, Diane Stelfox Cook became a special education teacher, serving in the Massachusetts public schools for 11 years. Today, she runs her late husband’s construction company. A native of Boston, Cook attended Boston Latin School, the nation’s oldest public school, holds a bachelor’s degree from Clark University, a Master’s Degree in Education from Framingham State University and received her law degree from Suffolk University Law School. She is a voracious reader with a penchant for legal thrillers, a lover of all things aquatic including kayaking and swimming, and a diehard fan of her sons’ alma mater football teams, Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish and Virginia Tech’s Hokies – she continues to practice law part-time.

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