Kate Rae Davis, Director of Resilient Leaders Project, examines metaphors of resilience and three essential components of resilience in this 4-part video series, available on YouTube. Scroll down to download the free small group discussion guide to pair with this series.

What is Resilience?

Often when we talk about resilience, we focus on our deficits – the things we don’t do enough, the things we want to do but don’t find time or motivation to do, the ways that we feel broken or fragile. Given the layers of personal and collective crises we’ve continually experienced over the past months, it’s natural to feel like we’re constantly pushed to the limits of our capacity. Many of us feel exhausted by our work, disillusioned with our systems, and on the verge of burnout – if not beyond it.

When you feel worn down, it can be easy to lose sight of the truth. The truth is that you are already resilient. To have survived the past year, to have survived this far in life, you had to have developed ways to cope with loss, change, and uncertainty. You are an expert on your own experiences, your own context, your own internal resources, and your relational support system. You already have resilience, whether you realize it or not.

Rather than focusing on supplementing, filling in, or fixing our shortcomings, I want to invite you to focus on the resilience you already have, and on what you can do to grow it.

What Resilience is not

Resilience isn’t digging in, holding on, and surviving our circumstances — that’s perseverance or fortitude. It isn’t developing toughness or grit, building up defenses that will ultimately crack under pressure – that’s toughness, which might help us cope, but won’t bring us to fullness of life. And it isn’t trying to “go back” or “spring back” to a previous, pre-stress state – that’s simply recovery. Perseverance, toughness, and recovery are all good skills when faced with challenges in life. They will help us survive, but they won’t get us to full, abundant flourishing.

Resilience as Growth

In Resilient Leaders Project, we understand resilience to be growth. Resilience is to go through adversity, and come out stronger as a result. True resilience occurs when we grow in meaningful ways in response to challenges or suffering — our growth comes not in spite of challenges, but because of what we learn from having gone through hard situations.

That may sound overly optimistic, but it’s not a new concept to your body. When a muscle is exercised, it experiences micro-tears — tiny rips in the muscle tissue. Later, as the muscle rests, the immune system repairs those tears, and the muscle is bigger and stronger as a result. Healthy exercise and rest is a process of controlled damage and repair. When the stress isn’t controlled, it leads to injury. But if done well, it leads to increased capacity — the muscle is stronger for having gone through the stress, and better able to take on the next challenge. That’s resilience: not resilience as a simple return to a previous state, but as an increased capacity to handle stress. And increased capacity means that we’re more likely to be ready for the next challenge.

Resilience is not a new concept for your body, and also not a new concept for your soul. Try this reflective exercise: Draw a timeline arrow to record your responses to these two questions:

1) What periods of your life were most challenging? Challenges can be personal, professional — define it as broadly as your life

2) What periods of your life did you grow the most? Consider many aspects of your growth: personal, professional, relational, spiritual.

Now, look over your timeline and notice the relationship between these two. Is there overlap between challenges and growth? When we do a similar exercise in the Certificate in Resilient Service, we find that oftentimes the most challenging times in our lives are when we grow the most.

Many of us are grateful for the growth we have experienced, but wouldn’t want to replicate the stressors of the circumstances that led to that growth. For a muscle, the difference between injury and growth is how much stress it’s under, and whether it receives rest and nourishment to repair. Our souls, too, need rest and nourishment to recover from stress.

So: what is rest and nourishment? What in our lives leads to healing and increased capacity? The team of Resilient Leaders Project identified three essential components of resilience: people, practices, and purpose.

Purpose is about creating a cohesive narrative that makes meaning of life and work – including meaning from the difficult moments. Practices includes activities for physical, emotional, spiritual and mental fitness — often an activity benefits multiple aspects of fitness. People is the most important, consisting of both personal and professional communities of supportive relationships.

We examine each of these components in more depth in our Resilience 101 video series on YouTube. We also created a guide for small group discussion to pair with these videos available for download here. Both the series and the group discussion guide are a free resource for a limited time.