Cultivating Resilience

Resilience is a practice, not a trait.

Sometimes people express surprise that despite living almost on the borders with Scotland I grow my own grapes (admittedly in a greenhouse) It is an unheated greenhouse however, with a vine that each September is laden with a harvest of sweet grapes, golden amidst the autumn leaves.

The vine is also a very useful tool for exploring the idea of resilience with people who have come to believe that it’s a quality you either have or don’t, and there is nothing you can do to change which group you belong to.

If I want a bumper crop in Autumn, the work starts in the spring, ensuring the new buds are healthy, fungus free and strong. In order to do this, I have to know what to look for, and what the warning signs of future problems are. If you want to cultivate resilience you need firstly to be able to spot when things are starting to deviate from normal. More tired than usual? Snapping at workmates, friends or family? Finding routine tasks more of a struggle than usual? Resilience means being aware of changes in your moods, your reactions, your energy levels, your responses to stress, not once they become an issue, but before hand.  Journaling, checking things out with a trusted friend, or counsellor can help identify these changes.

Come July I have to do one of the hardest tasks if you grow grapes, I have to ruthlessly cut healthy, growing, clusters of young grapes. If I don’t the vine will try to grow all of them and I will end up with nothing worth harvesting.

So it is with cultivating resilience. A myth that we can do it all, have it all, has grown up, often leading to burnout. Look at those things in your life which sap your energy, which prevent you achieving your goals, which ones might need to be trimmed so you can reap the harvest you want?

Resilience isn’t a trait some are born with, but a set of life affirming behaviours which all come together to mean you can weather the storms, survive the winters, and just like my vine, produce great fruits year after year.


Is forgiveness necessary?

Many of us will remember as a child being told to say sorry, and mouthing the words with little understanding of what they meant. It is one of the first sets of rules we teach toddlers to help them navigate the world. If you hurt someone, say sorry. If someone hurts you, they must say sorry, then you both must put the hurt away. Sorry is an ending, a line drawn, and must be accepted.

What is good manners, and good behaviour for three year olds is not always the best advice for adults. However, often around contrition and forgiveness we have learnt those early lessons so well it is hard to move past them. This can be made even more difficult if those around us try to reinforce the narrative that an apology has to be accepted, and that a line is then drawn under and harm done.

This blanket erasure of harm, under the rule of “they said sorry” can be incredibly hard to resist. It is not uncommon for survivors of child abuse, domestic abuse, and other harmful behaviours to be told they are the abusive one. Refusing to forgive, to accept the sorry, is framed as selfish, or childish. Often family members can use gaslighting (where those with power tell those without that their experiences/feelings are not real) blackmail and emotional pressure to make a survivors accept the sorry, and to forgive. Abusive partners can use similar tactics, especially within coercive control. The victim is framed as hurtful, and causing harm, because they cannot “move on” or “let things go”.

Those two phrases, moving on, letting things go, lie at the heart of forgiveness and contrition in a therapeutic context. Recently I wrote a piece for Welldoing which discussed letting go of resentment at failures our parents had made. It is important to understand that this is not for their benefit, but for our own. We let go so we can look more dispassionately at the past, and so anger and resentment do not eat away at us, like the invisible worm of Blake.

Working on this anger, finding a place for it, an outlet, can be incredibly healing. It is not the same as forgiveness however. It may lead to forgiveness, that is each individuals choice, but that is not inevitable. Nor is forgiveness necessary to heal. You can refuse to forgive from a place of peace, where the anger has washed through, and over you. It is of course a very personal decision, and one a client may need time to reach. The final point is about what works best for them, not others.

As it is with letting go of emotions, so it is with moving on. There are many different ways of expressing this. For a while, the term closure was popular. However, that suggests a neat ending which is perhaps not realistic to how humans actually are. It is rare that something which harmed us in the past stops ever causing hurt. It can fade, like an old scar, which we forget most of the time, but it never goes away. This can actually be reassuring to some survivors, who do not want to feel that their past is closed off to them. In some ways it resembles the work done when we are grieving. A client can feel that not feeling the pain of grief is disloyal to the loved one who has died. Finding a path which acknowledges the past without overwhelming us can take time but it is possible.

Forgiveness is a personal choice, it may also be a moral, or religious one. It must always be a choice, and one which we do not feel pressured or coerced into. It is not necessary to forgive an abuser to heal. We can let go of anger, move forward with our lives without saying “I forgive you”.

By the same token, someone does not have to accept an apology, or that saying sorry makes everything OK. Some survivors want to hear that sorry, for others it might help, but it will not erase the harm done. Sorry does not make everything OK, and if someone is genuinely contrite, they will understand that, There are many programs that people who feel genuine remorse can enrol on, they can embark on therapy themselves, and work on their accountability. All of these are good, positive things someone should do if they are sorry, but none of these have to change how the survivor feels, or acts.

Is forgiveness necessary to heal? Despite what you might be told, no, it is not. Healing itself might bring forgiveness, but that is a process which happens at a survivors own pace, and in their own way.

First published by @CounsellingKaz 

Surviving Christmas

We are told that it is the season to be jolly, however for many Christmas is not the most magical time of the year, but the most difficult. Sometimes it brings back memories, it can be an exceptionally difficult time when we are grieving. For others the memories are of people they would rather forget. The obsession with family at Christmas is painful for those whose families are abusive, who have cut off contact, who have to remain apart for their own safety and sanity. Then there are those whose families have rejected them, who would love the Hollywood movie ideal of sitting round the table together, but for whatever reason are excluded from the list.

Those with chronic mental health conditions can find all the old clichés coming out. People asking them what they have to be depressed about, or telling them to cheer up, its christmas! As if an illness has a calendar and will go into remission when it notices the date. Comparisons between mental and physical health issues can be problematic. For one thing it reinforces the idea that one can only have one or the other. Even so it is telling that people in hospital for physical ailments over Christmas are seen as needing special treatment, visited by celebrities and news crews, while those struggling mentally are seen as letting the side down.

Continue reading “Surviving Christmas”