“You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.” ~Maya Angelou
When I look back, I am amazed at how differently I dealt with adversity the first few decades of my life.
Growing up in a stressful home primed me to experience life with caution. Whether it was being afraid of physical harm, loneliness, or failure, I’ve lived my life with an exaggerated fight-flight response to everything. Adversity seemed around every corner, and no one was ever there to save me.
I developed maladaptive mechanisms to minimize, avoid, or go around the things I was afraid of.
I became a quiet and obedient kid to avoid my father’s anger.
I accepted whatever sliver of love my chronically overwhelmed mother was able to give me.
I settled for the last pick on the team. I quit afterschool theater after I was assaulted on the way home one evening.
I gave up on art school because my father wanted me to be a teacher.
I went to a music school as he wanted and quietly accepted my instructor’s abuse.
On and on, hurt and disappointment became my constant companions, and I learned to just take it. No one seemed to care that I struggled. No one saw me.
Over time, I learned to accept that the world was just cruel and indifferent to my pain. I learned that I have little control over my circumstances. I learned that I can either fight and fail or stay quiet and survive. I learned helplessness.
I know now that my childhood wasn’t that unique, but for a kid, it was isolating and debilitating. I thought I was the only one who struggled like this. I felt different, alone, and somehow deficient. I developed low self-esteem and anxiety that soon morphed into this chronic feeling of impending doom.
I carried that sense of dread and defeat into adulthood. Hypersensitive to stress, I avoided things that would challenge and overwhelm me. I looked to others for permission, approval, and validation. I allowed things without a fight, latched onto any good thing that came my way, and accepted crumbs from others never daring to stand up for myself and ask for more.
They say that what doesn’t break you makes you stronger but for many—those without a healthy foundation—life’s big and small traumas build up and eventually show up as anxiety, depression, substance abuse, or PTSD. I developed most of these.
Resilience Can Be Strengthened
We all respond to adversity differently. Research shows that a loving, emotionally responsive, and supportive environment during childhood fosters psychological resilience throughout life. But even if we didn’t get that strong foundation growing up, we can still build resilience now.
We can learn to overcome helplessness by increasing our sense of control.
Finding Peace in the Present Moment
The most significant practice that allowed me to shift out of state of helplessness and offer me some sense of control was mindfulness.
Instead of reliving the past—the pain, resentments, and disappointments—or worrying about the future, I could find peace in this moment, right now. I couldn’t change what happened and can’t control what’s to come, but I can decide how I move now. In this very moment, I can control how I respond to life.
A deep inhale, noticing my child’s smile, the scent of garlic as I cook dinner—I can focus on here and now, fully absorbing life through all my senses, knowing that in this moment I am okay.
And, if I’m feeling stressed or unsettled, I become curious instead of trying to outrun it. I start paying attention to my body, tracking sensations, observing where I’m feeling tightness, consciously releasing the tension as I breathe in and out. This way, I can help regulate my nervous system and shift the patterns of reactivity. I remind myself to breathe as I ride the wave, trusting the discomfort will eventually pass.
Learning to Move Through Negative Thoughts
Once I allowed myself to feel what was going on in my body in times of high stress, I began noticing what I’m thinking and feeling in the midst of turmoil.
It can be difficult to not get overwhelmed by the negative thought patterns engraved deeply in our minds, patterns we’ve been falling into for decades, without much conscious examination. Looking at those now, I realized how detrimental my mental scripts were to my well-being.
With the help of my journal, I learned to reframe negative events, bring perspective into my experiences, and focus on what I could learn from them.
For example, I’ve carried with me this feeling of failure as a young parent. For those first few years, I was living in a constant state of overwhelm, and there was a lot of guilt for not being good enough of a mom, feeling like a fraud and a failure. When I took a step back, I realized there was a multitude of circumstances going against me that made this part of my life extremely difficult, and I was just doing my best.
I had three children super close together (three under three), which in itself was a Sisyphean task. I had just moved across the country and had no real friends or family to support me. My husband worked long hours, many weekends, often out of state. It was a lot to take on, and I was virtually on my own.
Looking at this part of my life, I realized I had unrealistic expectations of what it meant to be a good parent. I also realized my perfectionist tendencies and the relentless pressure I put on myself stemmed from my fears of perpetuating generational trauma.
This way of thinking wasn’t constructive—it was making me miserable. Slowly, I began noticing when these tendencies showed up, and instead of feeding them, I’d just watch them come and go.
Mindfulness allowed me to move through negative thoughts and memories instead of getting stuck in them. I would observe what was going on inside my mind, breathe through the turbulence offering myself compassion for my struggles, and remind myself that I was doing the best I can. Over time I stopped being so hard on myself, and eventually shifted out of the habit of ruminating for good.
Enjoying Something That You Do Well
Spending time doing something that I can do well reminds me how it feels to succeed.
I have always enjoyed gardening. It is my escape from the hustle and stress of today’s fast-paced world—my garden is my sanctuary.
Watching my garden transform over the decade from a lot of dirt to where it is today—with all the fruit trees, veggie boxes, shrubs, grasses, and blooming annuals—brings me a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment.
Finding something that you do well, and practicing it regularly builds confidence, self-esteem, and fortifies a healthy ego. It is imperative to have hobbies that you excel at and can turn to in times of stress or unpredictability.
Spending Time in Nature
We live in a world of chronic stress and anxiety. We are always plugged in and on the go, constantly planning, thinking, and doing, all the while feeling disconnected from ourselves and the world around us.
Modern-day life means living in our heads a lot. To counter that, we need a practice that will ground us and bring us back to balance. And nature is one of the most grounding elements that we have.
Being in nature down-regulates our nervous system and brings about relaxation. Even a short walk can improve our mood and reduce anxiety. Disconnecting from our daily grind this way—all the responsibilities, worries, and electronics—rebalances our body, mind, and soul. Our problems become less significant and impending. We can exhale, if only for now.
There are many ways we can ground ourselves in nature this way. Gardening, walking, or even taking care of houseplants can be grounding. I like watering my garden in the evening, repotting plants on Saturdays, and long walks around a lake on Sunday mornings. Find your own natural zen. Soak in nature’s energy as often as you can—it’s healing.
Caring for and Nourishing Your Body-Mind-Soul
We can’t be resilient if we are depleted.
When my kids were little, I barely had time and energy for self-care. I neglected my needs—whether physical, emotional, or mental—just like I was raised to ignore them growing up. Self-neglect is a trauma response, and years went by before I realized I was just perpetuating old wounds.
As a result, I felt chronically depleted and anxious. Every little mishap or challenge would stress me out, whether it was a kid’s tantrum or packing up for a weekend trip. I was living in a state of chronic overwhelm, emotional dysregulation, and low-grade depression.
As kids grew older and more independent, my healing turned a corner. I could finally go beyond basic self-care like showers and eating well, and focus on truly nourishing my body, mind, and soul. I now prioritize self-care like my life depends on it because it does.
Focusing on the basics, I prioritize sleep, movement, and practices that nourish and relax me—long baths, longer walks, healthy food, reading, gardening, music. I rely on boundaries to protect my energy and inner peace. I practice mindfulness and do things with intention. I plan ahead to avoid rushing or multitasking. I fill my own bucket.
With so much out of our control, caring for ourselves—body, mind, and heart—is the one thing we can do.
While challenging times are a given in life and we can’t always change our circumstances, we can have a different relationship with what’s going on outside of us. We can learn to surf the waves if we stay mindful of practices that strengthen resilience. And that is empowering.