Last spring my Instagram was awash in photos of friends romping in the “super bloom” of fire poppies, a species that depends on flame to germinate. It’s a nice metaphor for resiliency, one that comforted me when wildfires recently surrounded my home in Los Angeles.
Just like those poppies have evolved to thrive in adverse conditions, we get there pretty naturally at middle age as well. Life experience toughens us up and bolsters our resiliency through things like improved emotional regulation and developing concern for future generations. (Plus who wants their self-obsessed rigidity to make them the butt of a generational joke? Not me.)
Still, when the fires are raging, metaphorically or literally, it’s hard to rely on inner strength alone to recover. While rugged individualism and grit are half the battle, you also need to rally your resources for long-term success.
The secret to sustaining resilience
Of course there are loads of ways you can make yourself more resilient, including becoming rationally optimistic, not taking things personally, and habitually pushing past your comfort zone.
All of that kind of self-help prep work is useful, but it won’t necessarily save you from going down with a sinking ship — especially when you’re at an age where reinventing yourself doesn’t seem so simple.
Beyond that, research shows that effective rebounding isn’t done in a vacuum; it requires the right circumstances to propel you forward. As long-time resiliency researcher Dr. Michael Ungar points out in his new book, Change Your World: The Science of Resilience and The True Path To Success:
Studies of resilience are very clear that long-term change requires us to not only change ourselves, but to also change the world around us. These external changes create a positive feedback loop that ensures any personal transformations we make are sustainable.
In other words, no matter how hard you try to get past life’s obstacles, if an external force is hell-bent on holding you back — like an unfair boss or an antiquated system — something else besides you has got to give.
Change your world to change yourself
For example, if your workplace is toxic but you can’t afford to quit your job, consider a lateral move to another department while you figure out next steps. Decrease your stress by seeking out places where you are respected and by spending time with people who reinforce your power and purpose.
While massive changes take time, it’s the incremental moves to create supportive environments that best boost your coping capacity. Bottom line: if you want to have the strength to rise from the ashes, it’s worth making sure there’s nothing left fanning the flames of your repeated demise.
Are You a Self-Help Skeptic? (Psychology Today)