When describing resilience, I often draw on the example of trees. This is because my sense of this inner quality is an embodied one – in terms of both what it means and how it might be fostered. When an object (or human being) is bent out of shape by adverse events, resilience is the capacity to regain a natural shape. Dictionary definitions include: to recover form and position; and elasticity – physical or mental.
In coaching and supervision work, and in mindfulness and wellbeing approaches, resilience has come to mean having the resources to work with testing experiences in a way that supports learning and growth. Resilience allows us to stay in contact with the impact of challenging circumstances in a healthy way, rather than trying to avoid or overcome the accompanying frustration, distress or fear. In this way, we cultivate greater capacity for handling the curved balls of life and work in a way that doesn’t deplete us.
However, to skilfully engage with adversity, we must calibrate the scale of it in the context of our personal capacity for resilience (which may vary from day to day, even from moment to moment). This is where the imagery of trees becomes useful.
In intermittent strong winds, a tree flexes to accommodate the airflows. When the wind speed lessens, it regains its form. This tensile strength is the heart of resilience. A tree isn’t rigid, its shape changes just enough to dissipate the incoming energy and avoid harm.
In human terms, resilience works in a similar way. When knocked off balance by an event, we’re able to regroup when it’s over. We might temporarily fold under pressure but we’re able to regain our poise (and humour!) when it abates.
However, trees in the path of prevailing winds can be structurally altered by them. Exposed to unremitting forces, a tree permanently loses its natural shape. We see this in people too. Someone subject to a steady stream of criticism (or worse) changes their approach to life. They may become habitually wary or routinely ‘get their defence in first’. They’re so affected by the harsh conditions they’ve endured that they seek to protect themselves even when these are absent.
The good news is that, unlike trees, humans can actively build capacity for both handling stressful situations skilfully and mitigating the impact of prevailing winds. Intriguingly, we can even learn to regain our shape whilst actually experiencing adversity – we don’t need to wait for conditions to improve. This is the premise of the Leadership Embodiment practices that have been central to my life and work these last dozen years.
Developed from the principles of the martial art of Aikido, Leadership Embodiment practices support us to access a centred state whilst under pressure. When we become aligned and open, we change our relationship to a presenting issue. We enhance our ability to absorb (and harness) incoming energy without losing our shape. With practice, we can act skilfully under greater duress. We have more resilience.
Yet, as this winter’s storms have demonstrated, there are limits to resilience. When a tree is battered and buffeted by especially gusty winds, perhaps from an unusual direction, it will be tested – and sometimes falls or snaps. Again, there are parallels in human life – sometimes we encounter events for which we’re unprepared or which are substantial enough to be overwhelming. Like the Norwegian spruce in my garden, which had endured for 100 years, we topple over.
Personally, I’ve experienced the pandemic, the associated restrictions and the constantly changing rules as a strong prevailing wind – and my resilience has reduced. I’m more susceptible to being felled by set-backs that I previously took in my stride. I suspect I’m not alone.
For me, this feels like the lowest point because I’m more depleted than usual. However, I have an option not available to trees! I’ve resolved to reconnect with my inner resources to regain my shape and rebuild my resilience. I’m using Leadership Embodiment practices to do this.
In addition, I’m inspired to begin to share these powerful practices with others once again. After two years when embodied work has been essentially off-limits, I’m keen to return to it**.
Will you join me?
- What are the signs that you’re being bent out of shape? What steps do you take to recover your poise (and humour!)?
- How might you nourish and enhance your resilience so that you’re more able to meet adversity with grace?