A Case Study in Resilience


Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash.com

“Jennifer”, a coaching client of mine had degenerative disc disease and suffered from chronic pain.  She went through multiple back surgeries-spine fusions, was on several pain medications, had terrible migraines, had gone through many physical therapists and other assortment of treatments.  She was going through testing to determine if she had Multiple Sclerosis. When she signed up for coaching, she was not sure what I could help her with.  But after our first couple of conversations, she identified that she wanted to be able to drive again.  She was unable to drive because of her physical conditions, and therefore dependant on her husband to leave his job to take her to doctor’s appointments and a physical therapist she really liked whose office was far away, in the middle of the day.  She hated being so dependant on those around her.  

She was the type of person who did as much as possible, so when she could not stand to plant her flower pots, she sat and planted them.  She was close to her grown kids and helped take care of her grandkids. When her son moved to his own apartment, she was right there with him, helping him move.  In other words, she did not allow her pain to define her.  Constantly bumping up against her own limitations, she kept testing them anyway because she knew that if she sat down too often, soon, she would lay down, and then she wouldn’t get up.  Her pain was that bad.  Quitting for her was not a choice.

Most of my work with her was hooking her up with resources as well as role playing and problem solving how she could address her insurance company and her doctors’ clinics to get what she needed.  And I provided support and affirmation to encourage her to ask for help when she really needed it. Her physical condition was so complex, that there was a huge amount of tasks to stay on top of just to maintain.  I was impressed that she was able to get up every day and stand upright.  Even more astounding, was that she chose not to allow her pain to completely live her life for her.  She ran her house, she looked into getting a car that was fitted with what she needed to drive. She helped her kids and grandkids and planted flower pots.  AND she did this basically with a can do approach. She could have very well felt bitter and angry at her condition, but she went through her life with the attitude of gratitude.   

Most of you probably have heard the term, “resilience”.  Resilience means:

1.“The capability of a strained body to recover its size and shape after deformation caused especially by compressive stress

2:  “An ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change” (Merriam Webster)

In “Jennifer’s” case, both definitions applied.  She didn’t allow her physical condition define her, and she kept moving forward with her life with each new challenge.  It can be incredibly difficult to move forward when the stuff in your life feels way too heavy to carry.  And resilience does not mean you don’t give in to having a good cry or a long nap. It doesn’t mean that you never feel angry, frustrated, sad, anxious.  So, what does resilience look like?

  • It means, you are not taken prisoner by these emotions such that you can’t see or experience anything else.  
  • It means that you see your challenges and feelings as a normal part of human experience.
  • You are hopeful even when difficult times hit.
  • You are connected to your community and a supportive social network.
  • AND you are able to express your gratitude no matter what.

The key I saw in “Jennifer” was her ability to stay connected: to herself, her interests (as much as she was able), to her family and to her friends.  So how do you build that muscle?  Some develop resilience through childhood experiences such as having a supportive family or even mentors who believe in them.  AND by developing a sense of mastery and perseverance when young.  But you can get started at any time.  It most certainly can be learned and here are some ways to get started.  

  • First and probably most important, don’t let your connections go unattended.  When stress and busyness hits, they are sometimes the first things to get neglected.  Stay connected to the people in  your life who have your back.
  • Get involved in your community and give back. There are always people who have it worse!
  • Pursue your interests! They are part of what makes you, you and will help create meaning in your life.
  • Make gratitude an integral part of your day.  Research has shown that gratitude is part of the cushion that protects you from those hard knocks.
  • Take a risk and try something out of your comfort zone.  For an example, when I turned 50, I tackled learning how to play the banjo.  I had not picked up an instrument since I was in 2nd grade.  Believe me, learning how to play the banjo was a challenge!
  • Create rituals in your life that are meaningful–even if it is having quiet time for 5 minutes before bed.  The fact that you are carving out this time is part of your commitment to yourself.
  • Take good care of your physical health.  Your health is the basic support that will provide the boost for you to work on the rest.

Jennifer had two choices: she either cultivated her resilience, or she could have stayed in bed for the rest of her life.  Resilience can be learned, but it takes pulling back and looking at your life holistically.  There are many ways to do it.  Don’t wait until your back is to the wall and you have no other choice.