Leaders as Learners: From Surviving to Thriving — The Role of Resiliency (Part I/III)
[Editor’s Note: A world-renowned speaker on organizational, business and personal resiliency, Eileen McDargh shares powerful stories and offers key insights on how we can cultivate a spirit of resiliency in our lives, moving from a mindset of survival to truly thriving.
Divided into three parts, this is the fourth interview in the series, Leaders as Learners, that invites global thought leaders to take a deeper dive into the 16 principles of the Global Girls Project and their application to women and girls’ empowerment.]
(Sharon): As I reflect on my own journey and the challenges I’ve had to overcome, I have tended to view resiliency as a marriage between both strength and perseverance. In your writing and speaking, you define resiliency as not only the ability to find the inner strength to survive a setback, but to ultimately grow through and beyond a set-back, challenge or opportunity. How do we shift our mindset from one of merely surviving to actually thriving? How does resiliency enable us to move from a mindset of victimhood to empowerment?
(Eileen): Let’s first go back and look at this whole notion of resiliency. The traditional notion of balance is that you bounce back; that life looks like it did before. That might be great for a piece of steel; that might even be great for an ecosystem, but it’s never enough for a human system. Whatever experiences we have going on in our lives, we will never go back to the way it was.
When I am faced with a challenge or opportunity, the first thing is to say is, “What will move me through this so I end up better on the other side?” So often we say, “How can I get things back to the way they were?”, when we need to say, “How can I grow to a better place?” It’s rather like thinking I can step in the same stream twice. You can’t. Life has moved on. If we want to shift our mindset, the question then becomes, “What do you want in your life? What is no longer acceptable?”
For example, our brains talk to us all of the time, and our thinking will determine our actions and emotions, so the first step is to question whether what I am telling myself about a given situation or opportunity is true. “What am I telling myself about this? Is it true? What is within my control?” By asking these questions, you begin to see some patterns. Negative self-talk is disempowering, rather than empowering, so what is a more powerful way of thinking? What actions can I take that would allow me to feel more in control? What are some steps I can take to do something about it?
(Sharon): So in effect, reframing the circumstance.
(Eileen): Absolutely. That’s the most valuable thing that any of us can do when faced with an opportunity, challenge or setback. How can I look at this in a different way? That is not easy.
Maybe at times what we need is another voice. Someone who cares about us – a parent, spouse, a best friend. It could even be an imaginary person. When I say an ‘imaginary’ person, perhaps you don’t have a spouse who is supportive or a parent who can listen to you. Perhaps you find that the people you thought were your friends aren’t your friends. You want someone who can say, “This is what I see in you Sharon…let’s reframe it.”
One of the people I use to reframe things is a teacher I had years ago. I loved that teacher and I learned so much from her. She’s been gone now for almost 30 years, but in my mind I say to myself, “What would Sister Pat Sexton tell me?” and I listen to the words she would say. She helps me reframe it.
(Sharon): I know there have been a couple of moments in my life when I hit a low spot…when I felt powerless to change the circumstances. This happened during the time of my divorce and again later, after an unforeseen layoff only four months into my new job. I felt hopeless (and scared). I remember one of the most helpful things I did was to reach out to people I had worked with successfully or people who had known me through different phases of my life over a long period of time and ask them to mirror back to me, “What do you see?” I was so trapped in my negative thoughts at the time that I wasn’t able to see myself or the circumstances objectively or in the same way that others were able to see them.
(Eileen): That’s a perfectly beautiful thing to do. What’s fascinating about us as a human system is that we remember more of the negative things about ourselves than the positive. Research says that for every reprimand you need a 1:50 ratio – 50 things positive before you forget the one thing you did negative or the 1 negative thing you were reprimanded for, which is why praise and positive feedback in the workplace is so essential. We want to do that with our kids, too. So when you asked someone, “Tell me what you see in me?”, that was a marvelous way of getting back in touch with the great thing about you.
(Sharon): Where does resiliency come from? Is resiliency an innate trait or can it be cultivated?
(Eileen): There’s some research that suggests there is a genetic pattern related to resiliency, but it’s only a portion of our make up. I taught school for a number of years and I would see some of the most incredible kids come out of the most horrific family situations, and on the flip side, I would see some very troubled kids come from family situations that at least from the outside, looked like ideal situations.
I’ve come to believe that there’s so much about us that we can influence, including how we step back and look at things and having someone help us remember that wonderful saying, “God does not make junk.” Everyone has a place of value and importance, though we don’t always believe that. In my deepest soul, I believe that everyone has intrinsic value and good, but I can’t empower and reach out to others unless I start saying, “what is it that’s good about me?” For some people, it’s a lifetime journey of overcoming all of the negative things that were thrust at them, but I do believe it can be done.
It first starts with the affirmations – I am worthy. I am a good person. I have value within this earth. I think part of the self-talk is to actually say these things, even if we don’t believe them. You need to physically say them over and over and over again. It’s really a self-empowerment pledge. It’s a promise to yourself that if you do it on an on-going basis, how you think can begin to change your life.
(Sharon): Let’s imagine you have siblings raised under that same difficult circumstances and one ends up thriving and one doesn’t. How much of that is innate versus a thought pattern they can implement…changing their negative self talk.
(Eileen): The fact that you would have one that chose one path and one that chose another would begin to say to me that it’s not innate…that it’s the willingness of an individual to proceed in one direction versus another.
I have some very special people in my life. When they were born, they were a set of illegitimate triplets. The mother said. “I don’t want you…I never wanted you in my life.” They lived on welfare stamps. When the children were 12, the mother was put in a mental institution and the boys had to fend for themselves. They were broken up and put into foster homes. One of the triplets was angry and spiteful, got into the wrong crowd and died tragically in an alcohol-related auto accident at the age of 17. The other two 17 year olds went on with their lives. One got a Master’s degree in psychology while the other became an incredibly successful business person. At the same time, the one who became a successful businessman went through another horrific thing in which his only remaining sibling was tragically killed in a construction accident. He was now the only one left, with a mother who never wanted them, and yet the way I think he found strength, first and foremost, was through forgiveness. He forgave his mother and then he said, “What is it that I want in my life?” When I look at what his life pattern has been, he could have chosen other avenues. Fortunately, he also had someone in his life — a woman who cared for them who constantly reinforced and said, “you have worth; you have value.” But until he could accept and hear that for himself, it wouldn’t have made much difference. You must first hear it, then you have to internalize it.
Editor’s Note: In Part II, we’ll explore the role strength, courage, hope, faith and purpose play in building resiliency, and how resiliency enables us to move from a mindset of victimhood to empowerment. The third and final part of this interview will explore how we build collective resiliency to advance the rights of women and girls and specific steps each of us can take to begin to develop resiliency from within, necessary to live our own voices out loud.