While we all expect setbacks and challenges in work and life, sometimes they’re beyond epic. Perhaps you lost your job a year ago or you’re about to run out of money. Maybe you flunked your certification exam for the third time and everyone knows about it. Or it could be that your angry rant went viral, and now all of your coworkers are either whispering about you or shunning you entirely.
An occasional disaster does happen for most of us, either in our professional or personal lives. And while it’s not helpful for someone to say, “Well, at least you didn’t [insert something worse],” many people have been through unimaginable hardships.
The skills required to bounce back from a major professional trauma are remarkably similar to those necessary for resilience in virtually any other area of life. Here’s what highly resilient people do in the face of adversity:
At first, it’s not unusual to feel embarrassed and ashamed. But, “shame is a toxic form of fear,” says Scott C. Hammond, a clinical professor of management at the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University. Get rid of it. It will only make it harder for you to find your way out. He points to some of the people in his research who were so ashamed of being lost that they hid, making it harder for others to find them and actually putting themselves at more risk.
Realize that people make mistakes and bad decisions, he says. When you catch yourself wallowing in shame, work on changing your thoughts to what you can do about the situation to make it better and take action.
When the worst happens, one of the most important things you can do is find a way to cultivate hope and a sense a promise of something better ahead, Hammond says. His book, Lessons of the Lost: Finding Hope and Resilience in Work, Life, and the Wilderness, chronicles the stories of people who have survived being lost in the wilderness.
One woman survived 48 days in a van in Nevada and says finding a symbol of hope was crucial. She planned a family reunion to keep her mentally focused on reconnecting with the outside world, and to give her something to hope for.
If you just lost your job or got diagnosed with a serious illness, it may not seem like there is any choice at all. But that’s not the case, says Harvard University lecturer Holly Parker, a psychologist at the Bedford, Massachusetts, Veterans Affairs hospital. Understanding that there are always actions you can take, and you can choose to try to make your situation better or not, is empowering.
You can choose to let a terrible situation consume you, she says. “Or we can make choices about how we respond to things in the moment and how we want to approach a situation moving forward.”
As a teenager, Cheryl Hunter was traveling overseas when she says she was abducted by two men who attacked her and then left her for dead. She’s since turned that experience into a career as a motivational speaker, coach, and author of Use It: Turn Setbacks into Success.
One of the important areas of her recovery she says was to have a supportive community to give nonjudgmental feedback and encouragement. You may find this among friends and family, support groups, therapists, or others who can listen to what you have to say without correcting or trying to fix your feelings or words.
“That’s essential when you’re going through something negative so you don’t like groove those neural pathways of habitual, negative thought,” Hunter says.
You have to reframe the situation in a way that you can authentically believe it, Hunter says. You can choose to look at your setback as a horrible embarrassment, injustice, or tragedy. Or you can look the situation as a series of circumstances you didn’t choose for yourself, but are challenged to endure and overcome.
Shortly after her attack, Hunter says she was in survival mode and was starting down a bad path. But she realized that, unless she found a way to look at the attack as something she could get beyond, her attackers would have succeeded in ending her life. She began looking at the attack as a turning point and became determined to help others through her experience.
“My grandmother had worked in a steel mill during World War II, and she was talking about the process through which they made steel,” Hunter says. “They first put it in the fire and they burn away all the impurities and they put it in the fire and they temper it and fortify it and strengthen it.”
“These things we go through, these circumstances we endure, the ones we wouldn’t have chosen for ourselves, they have to power to do just that,” she adds. “To fortify us. To temper us. To strengthen us. They leave you with who you truly are at the core.”