Resilience and the New Year: Looking back and looking ahead. 3 questions you need to ask.

By all estimations, 2020 has been quite a year. So much challenge. So much change. So much uncertainty. In many ways, it has been a year that has pushed our buttons in ways we could not have predicted.

With everything that has occurred, it is natural to focus on what didn’t go well. There is plenty of that! Having the kids at home 24/7 and having to become a schoolteacher in addition to being a parent. All the worry and fear about personal safety. Not knowing when things will become more manageable. And, of course, all that time on Zoom.  

Yet, difficulty is part of life for all of us. That is the first mark of existence, which boils down to the fact that crap happens. And uncertainty and change are the true constant, aren’t they? That is the second mark: Everything is impermanent. These are definitely hard pills to swallow. At the same time, they can provide a helpful frame for coping with the challenges the pandemic has brought. 

As part of how we cope with challenges, the end of the calendar year represents a time for reflection, a time to step back and look back. Doing so can help us look ahead with renewal, with hope, and with the agency we all have in our lives.

In this post, I encourage you to take this time. Doing so can help you build your resilience to life difficulties and may even help you chart your course for a better year in 2021, no matter what happens with Covid.

Resilience lesson #1: See the silver linings

Start with looking back over challenges you have experienced pre-pandemic.

When you think back over difficulties you have faced over the course of your life, do you see silver linings? Perhaps something you learned from the difficulty or something good that came from the struggle.

I have shared in this blog and my book that I endured serious abuse as a child. It started when I was pretty little and continued into my teen years. While I often think that I would give anything to have not had to go through what I did, I also know that it has shaped me in many positive ways.

First, I coped with the abuse by channeling all my energies into achievement. I played piano for hours every day, pushed myself at school, did well in college, and survived medical school. These achievements have definitely paid off as I have had a great career both as a hospice physician and as a coach. I have often wondered if, without the pressure to cope by achieving, whether my life might have gone in a very different direction. Might I have gotten into serious trouble — with drugs or alcohol, for example? Might I not have had the sense of direction and purpose I have had? While always striving to achieve has its downsides, it has also had considerable upside. So that is certainly one silver lining.

Second, the isolation the abuse caused shaped my desire to be there for others. Somewhere inside me, I committed to being there for others so that they did not have to feel so alone in their life difficulties.

Third, the difficulties I faced are part of what has given me my ability to speak out and speak up. Without the adversity I experienced, I don’t know that I would have that same authenticity.

For each of these things, I am forever grateful.

Perhaps you’re aware of gifts coming out of adversity in your own life?

Take a moment right now to look back over the difficulties you’ve faced.

– Have the challenges you’ve faced given you strengths and purpose that you benefited from at later points in your life?

– How have the difficulties helped make you who you are today?

Resilience lesson #2: Learn from difficulty

We can also ask ourselves: What did I learn about myself from the challenges of 2020?

While the knee-jerk answer may be that you simply learned how to be miserable, perhaps there is more. Here are some examples I’ve heard from physicians I coach:

I can survive with less social contact than I have been used to.

I am more self-sufficient than I realized.

If I pause to give myself compassion, I can keep going even when the going is very rough.

While I really struggled having my kids at home, I learned that I could stretch myself to meet the new demands.

I can be there for my patients even when I am terrified of catching a serious disease, and that makes me feel really good.

While so much was out of my control, when I worked hard to show up as the best I could under the circumstances, I felt much better about things.

Take a moment now to ask yourself:

  – What are my key learnings from 2020?

  – What can I take away from this year that can help me going into 2021?

Resilience lesson #3: Start with the end in mind

As we move forward into a new year, we can also think about what we want to look back and see this time a year from now.

Borrowing from Stephen Covey, we can ‘begin with the end in mind.’

In other words, if we can envision where we want to be, it can provide a roadmap for how we’ll get there. This is a technique I use frequently with coaching clients who are feeling stuck and unsure about the right next steps.

Recently I was coaching a hospitalist who came to coaching struggling with burnout. She was having a lot of difficulty working facing heavy workloads every single shift; and was exhausted from it. She found herself with a short fuse and was snapping at her kids in a way that she didn’t feel good about. She told me that every night she was going to sleep berating herself for not being the mom she hoped to be. She went on to say that she had no idea how to shift her pattern.

After empathizing with the tremendous difficulty of working long hours during the pandemic and then having to maintain calm with 2 young kids, I asked her to envision how she wanted to be with her kids. I had her stand up and walk around as if we had waved a magic wand and she was now the patient mom she hoped to be. I challenged her to imagine how this would feel both when she was with her kids and also what might be different even when she was at work. Here’s what she imagined:

“I wouldn’t feel so guilty all the time.”

“I’d be prouder of myself.”

“My load would feel lighter.”

“I’d still be tired from my shifts, but I think I would have more energy overall.”

As she experienced a dose of this desired state, I pushed her to brainstorm any guidance she had for her present-day self regarding how to get there. Without missing a beat, she came up with two practical steps:

Be sure to get to bed early enough so I actually feel rested when I wake up, and

Push myself to pause and take 3 slow deep breaths whenever I’m about to snap at my kids.

When she came to her next coaching session, she had a big smile on her face as she told me that these two steps were not only doable, but they were helping her make the shifts she wanted to make.

If this example doesn’t resonate for you, another approach to beginning with the end in mind involves imagining your own funeral and obituary. But I’ll spare you that one!

Try this technique out today by imagining what you want to look back and see at the end of 2021.

– What will make you most proud of yourself?

– Is there something you want to commit to so you can truly look back and smile?

In summary, if we’ve learned anything in 2020, it is that there is much that is beyond our control. There are times in our lives when difficulty abounds. This is the reality for each and every one of us.

But resilience is less about what happens to us, and more about how we respond to it. 

As Victor Frankl said, “Everything can be taken from a man [person] but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” 

That is the choice we each have. I encourage you to start 2021 aware of your choices and intentional in your actions. I hope these questions can help you do so.

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