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Five ways to build resilience: a practical guide

Five ways to build resilience: a practical guide



1. the power or ability to return to the original form, position, etc., after being bent, compressed, or stretched; elasticity.

When you have been working hard to make the world a better place, and you are often faced with the brutal realities of this world, there comes a point when you start holding back, running on empty, feeling depleted, and you get so frustrated you devise a set beliefs and strategies to cope, and to survive. Often the organisations we work for will provide training to support you in your endeavours.

In my experience, that training can miss the mark.

Much of the training that I received in my career as a development worker focused on the delivery of services, stewardship and accountability. Very little training focused on developing resiliency and the little I did receive was guided by the above definition of resilience. On the job advice and guidance was to develop a thicker skin, not let things effect me, or to get over it, the implication being that my struggles didn’t even come close to the struggles of those we work on behalf of. Deny, dismiss, diminish, and distance. Build walls, armour up, and shut down. Endure. Return to original form as soon as possible.


I have watched too many passionate development and humanitarian workers, diplomats and social change agents burn out, shut down emotionally, or simply walk away because they didn’t know what else to do. They were exhausted, exasperated. In their minds they were failing to live up to the expectation of ‘resiliency’ and were not equipped to move forward or in any other direction.

I can relate. I have been there. My own experiences led me to training, coaching, reading, studying, and lots of personal reflection. Through this, I have come to redefine resilience. Resilience is not about bouncing back. It is not about returning to original shape. Resilience is a set of competencies that help you to constructively move through your experiences in ways that allow you to maintain your authenticity and grow from your experiences. Resiliency enables you to do your great work in the world for the long run.

As a development and humanitarian worker you have the privilege to shape and influence lives. With that privilege comes the responsibility and daring to let the world shape and influence yours. Resiliency helps you expand, integrate, and take a new form.

Developing resilience requires caring for and knowing yourself first and foremost to be of service in the world. It also requires tools and practice. This is one process that has helped me develop my resiliency as I strive to make the world a better place.

1. Know your pain.  Don’t deny your suffering whatever form it comes in. Cultivate your ability to be present to your own pain while trying to alleviate the burdens of others. That starts with naming it. Are you frustrated? Hurt? Angry? Disappointed? Aching? Shattered? Overwhelmed? Devastated?  Don’t deny, dismiss, diminish or distance yourself from it. It wants to be known. Commit to two minutes of head-on acknowledgement. Set a timer. Two minutes to be whatever is rolling through your world. Be angry. Be disappointed. Be shattered. Whatever it is, be all in. It’s only two minutes.

2.  Get curious.  Once you have named your pain point, befriend it. Commit to two more minutes of attention and focus. Close your eyes and get curious. Suspend disbelief. Explore. Ask yourself what wants your attention? What is this pain pointing to? What does it want to show you? What’s your truth in it all? Listen.

3. Self-compassion. If you have allowed yourself to know and befriend your pain, 99% of the time your brain will kick in with deep resistance and start to demand that you put walls back up. Your mind will remind you the only way to survive is to deny, dismiss, diminish and distance. Your mind might tell you things like “it’s your fault,” “stop complaining. You have it so much better than most,” or “man up” and “cut this out. Everyone will think you can’t handle the job.” This is when self-compassion is crucial. And it also requires a cease and desist strategy. The magic formula looks like this.

‘You are so weak.’

Response to yourself. ‘I am. And I am strong.’

‘You should be ashamed of yourself.’

Response to yourself. ‘I am. And I am courageous.’

Disengage your brain by saying ‘I am.’ It’s ready to rumble. Don’t go there. Cease. Disarm. Then add your ‘I am’. It’s easiest to do this when you have an ‘I am’ list at hand. So set your timer for two more minutes and write as many compassionate statements about yourself. Say or write ‘I am’ and let the sentences finish themselves.

If you are stuck, ask a friend or colleague or family member to tell you the #1 thing they love or admire about you. Write it down. Refer to this list frequently and give yourself daily doses of self-compassion. It strengthens the self-compassion muscle and makes it easier to flex during trying times.

4. Gratitude. This is a tricky practice. It is an incredibly powerful tool but it can also be a tool used to diminish, dismiss or deny your painful experiences and challenges. Finding the silver lining without naming and knowing your pain doesn’t build resiliency. It leads to suppression. Be mindful to practice the first three steps before moving into gratitude. Resist fast forwarding. Transition with intention.  Use gratitude to frame your experience, to bring the scales back to balance and to cultivate a wider perspective.

To practice gratitude pause and reflect. Look around. Look for the obvious. Look for the hidden. Sometimes it will all be apparent. Sometimes you will have to dig deep. You may only be able to muster gratitude for the breath you take. Be grateful. Write it down. Speak it out loud. Keep it as a silent prayer. However you get to gratitude is your way.

Like self-compassion, if you practice gratitude daily, it becomes a powerful reflex during times that demand resilience.

5. Soothing. This step is often skipped over and not even recognised as critical. But it is. We all need comfort, balm for our wounds, reassurance for ourselves. Just when you think you are finished with your pain, turn towards it. Take comfort.  Leaving yourself vulnerable, your wounds gaping, your pain bare, or worse suppressing your needs, leaves the process incomplete. If you do that, the need will express itself and seek comfort, likely in all the wrong places – addictions, pushing people away, isolating yourself, and mood swings to name a few. So practice giving yourself what you need.

Comfort can come in many forms. Ask your pain what it needs. What wound needs salve? What part of you requires some tenderness? What form would it like it to come in? Maybe it’s a hug, or enjoying your favourite tv show, or reading words that inspire. Maybe it’s listening to music, or laughing with a friend, or sex with your partner. It could be a long bubble bath, a good night’s rest or simply allowing yourself a few quiet minutes to breathe deeply. Give yourself what you need.

Over to you.

How have you built your resilience? 

Jodi McMurray is a development professional, expert strategist, analyst, planner, team leader and negotiator. Jodi’s career as a development worker and civil servant took her on a very personal journey and to many places including China, Afghanistan, Montenegro, South Africa, and Palestine. Today, Jodi is a coach, mentor and strategist at The Humanity Collective, supporting seasoned, as well as the next generation, of development and humanitarian workers.  

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