Practice accepting reality, including your emotional experience. Remember acceptance doesn’t mean you have to like reality; it just means you are making the conscious choice to stop fighting against it. We cannot control our thoughts, emotions, sensations, or memories, but we can work on how we are going to respond to them. When we don’t understand what our emotions are trying to communicate to us, that can feel like a threat to our nervous system. Especially if we have experienced trauma. By naming our emotions to ourselves we help our nervous system make sense of our experience and help our brain come out of fight/flight/freeze mode. Try to be as specific as you can. If it’s hard to name your emotional experience think of emotions like a spectrum from unpleasant to pleasant and activated to calm and try to name them that way.
Resilience has been described as the ability to withstand adversity and bounce back from difficult life events. Times are not easy now. How do we develop greater resilience to withstand the challenges that keep being thrown at us? In this interview series, we are talking to mental health experts, authors, resilience experts, coaches, and business leaders who can talk about how we can develop greater resilience to improve our lives.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Adrienne Clements, LMFT.
Adrienne Clements, MA, LMFT is a licensed psychotherapist, resilience educator, speaker, and consultant who is passionate about exploring the intersections of stress, trauma, chronic illness, neurodiversity, and relationships. Her passion stems from the fact she has had to navigate incredibly adverse experiences herself, from surviving relational trauma and a debilitating neurological disease, to unexpectedly losing a parent to undiagnosed cancer in the middle of the pandemic. She believes the more we know about how our nervous system works, the better we can be about supporting ourselves and our relationships to navigate the truly tough parts of being human with more resilience.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory?
I have always been a sensitive person who experiences the world intensely and feels deeply for others. I was a shy kid and I often found myself gravitating towards those who were left out, hurting, or different and wanting to help them feel less alone. I knew ever since I was in elementary school that I wanted to do something with my life that was going to help others. I started my career in environmental education and as a high school teacher, and while I loved teaching it was there that other staff recognized my ability to support students going through incredibly tough situations. Teachers would often send their students to talk with me, as we did not have a school counselor, and would report how surprised they were that the students were able to return to class more present, regulated, and ready to move forward. I didn’t think I was doing anything special; I was simply being myself and holding space the way I hoped others would have done for me. My colleagues helped me realize this was a relational skill that not all people cultivate. It was through this role that I discovered my calling to become a psychotherapist, though as I look back now, I feel life had been guiding me towards this career all along.
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
As a therapist I have the privilege of witnessing people’s lives and hearing their stories every day, and it’s the most interesting work I have ever done. Confidentiality prevents me from being able to discuss that further though. What I can say is that bearing witness to people’s pain, trauma, loss, and relational dynamics; along with their healing and growth has taught me so much. A huge lesson I have learned through my work is that everyone’s path to healing looks different and it’s far from linear. Therefore, it’s important to practice self-compassion, acceptance, and flexibility with ourselves and others as we strive to cultivate resilience.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
The practice I founded, Head & Heart Integrative Psychotherapy, has been providing secure online therapy to Texans since it’s foundation in 2016, long before the COVID-19 pandemic. This is because we believe that access to effective therapy should be available and accessible to everyone, as disabled, mentally ill, neurodivergent, chronically ill, and folks living in rural areas need these types of accommodations all the time — not just during a global emergency. I truly hope that many therapy and medical practices continue to offer telehealth options after the pandemic, as the need for these types of services has always been there.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
One of the people I am most grateful for who has helped me to get where I am today is my father, Steve. Our relationship was incredibly difficult at times while I was growing up, but really started transforming into something beautiful in my adulthood. When I got sick with a debilitating illness at 27, he really stepped up to help support and care for me, no hesitation. When my mother was unexpectedly diagnosed with stage 4 terminal cancer in summer 2020 and then suddenly passed within a few weeks, my father, who had been divorced from her for over 25 years, dropped everything to be there for me and my sister. To say he has been an emotional rock for me throughout my adulthood would be an understatement. I know that his caring support has been an essential ingredient to my resilience. I am so grateful for how our relationship has transformed and for all the love and support he has given me over the years.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?
In my opinion, resilience isn’t what many people think it is. Resilience doesn’t mean we are always positive about our pain or challenging circumstances, or that we never feel or express unpleasant emotions or overwhelm. Our culture has created a myth that avoiding our emotions and only focusing on “good vibes” is what makes us resilient, but that is a form of emotional bypass. Avoiding our emotions is not resilience, in fact our emotions are going to keep showing up until we give them space and let them move through us.
I define resilience as our capacity to stay truly present, in our mind and nervous system, with the difficulties of life. Resilience is our capacity to truly accept reality, even with incredibly unpleasant and painful circumstances, and find a way to move forward. As a trauma therapist I know that the longer we can stay with discomfort while within our nervous system’s window of tolerance the better we can help ourselves integrate the experience and complete the stress cycle. It is the integration and completion that allows us to “bounce back”, and this is especially important in trauma healing. For trauma isn’t in the event, it’s in our nervous systems response to it. That’s why two people can go through the same traumatic experience and yet only one may develop PTSD. Developing PTSD is not a sign of weakness, it simply means our nervous system was pushed past its capacity to feel safe enough to complete the stress response; so, our bodies are still carrying it. There are lots of barriers that can get in the way of the natural integration process, and that is something therapy can help us to uncover.
I believe everyone has the capacity to cultivate resilience. I also believe that it looks different for each of us and that there are unique invisible barriers that can get in the way of our resilient nature, including many systemic barriers. Therefore, there is no one “right” way to be resilient. However, some of the skills I see practiced by those who have cultivated their resilient capacity include — being accepting of reality and of their emotional experience, mindfully connecting with the present moment, self-awareness of their locus of control, self-compassion and self-regulation, willingness to ask for and accept help, letting their values guide their actions, and flexibility with their thinking.
Courage is often likened to resilience. In your opinion how is courage both similar and different to resilience?
To me, courage and resilience are interrelated. To be resilient we must cultivate our courage, as courage is our ability to feel our fear and still act anyways. Some of the actions required for resilience can bring up anxiety or discomfort that parts of us may want to avoid. It takes a lot of guts to stay present with the pain and discomfort we are navigating in our lives and do what is necessary to help ourselves heal and move forward.
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
I think there are a lot of good examples of resilient role models in the world, but someone that comes to mind that I feel recently took a very courageous action for her own resilience is Simone Biles. When she decided to pull out of some of the events at the Tokyo Olympics, many people ridiculed and criticized her. Later she then explained that she was struggling with her own mental health and was still processing and integrating her own trauma as a survivor of Larry Nassar’s abuse. Turns out, even elite athletes are human! I saw the difficult choice she made in the face of public scrutiny as a radical act of resilience and self-care in saying no to obligation and yes to her own wellbeing. We can’t be resilient if we push ourselves past the limits of our nervous system’s capacity, and from my perspective she did an incredibly brave thing and listened to her own body, mind, and values. Sometimes saying no is the most resilient choice we can make.
Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us?
The most impactful experience was when I was first developing a chronic illness with numerous unexplained physical symptoms at age 27 — including severe chronic fatigue, fainting, neuropathy, chronic pain, executive functioning challenges, severe anxiety and depression, insomnia and more. I was referred to an endocrinologist who within five minutes of meeting with me stated that all my symptoms were “in my head” and that I simply had Major Depression and didn’t want to accept it. She told me this was something I was going to have to deal with the rest of my life and just needed to get over myself. Mind you, this is when I was in graduate school training to be a mental health professional and had already been working with a psychologist who agreed that I didn’t just somaticize all my symptoms. Medical gaslighting like this unfortunately occurs every day and can have terrible consequences for people.
So, while I did accept my reality, I did not accept that diagnosis. I kept searching for answers to explain the rapid onset of my condition and lack of family history of similar conditions. I did tons of research and had to learn to navigate our dysfunctional healthcare system and advocate for myself within it. Low and behold, a year later I was finally diagnosed with Late-Stage Neurological Lyme Disease, a diagnosis that made sense given my long history of being an environmentalist and outdoor educator at the time. When I started treatment for Lyme Disease my mental and physical health symptoms slowly decreased over time, and I am grateful to say that after 2 years of intensive treatment I have been in full remission since 2016. I was told this was impossible and that it was “all in my head”, but because I listened to my intuition and honored my own lived experience instead of a doctor’s flippant diagnosis, I was able to take the necessary actions to keep fighting.
Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?
Becoming primarily homebound due to Lyme Disease in my late twenties was one of the greatest setbacks I have ever navigated. I had just started graduate school and was so passionate and excited to begin my career as a psychotherapist. I had also just started dating my now husband that same year. I was looking forward to the future and feeling hopeful to finally be able to live the life I desired. Then, things radically changed as I started experiencing more and more debilitating symptoms that eventually led me to having to take a sabbatical from graduate school because I was too ill to function.
I was primarily homebound for two years as I completed treatment and couldn’t work or go to school. So, navigating the isolation we have all experienced during this pandemic was unfortunately nothing new for me. This was incredibly emotionally challenging, as I was passionate young professional and so much of my identity was tied up in my career. Not being able to work and navigating the uncertainty of if I would ever be able to work again led to a period of great anxiety and depression, and the fact my illness affected my brain didn’t help my mental wellness either. The ambiguous losses that those navigating illness must face are numerous, and our sense of identity is a big one.
At some point I realized if I was going to get through this, no matter what that looked like, I needed to make my “job” taking care of myself. Not in the capitalistic sense though, it’s that I realized I had to channel that career passion that had nowhere to go into focusing on my wellbeing. So, I practiced radical acceptance of my reality and started to figure out how to create compassionate systems and accommodations for my support needs. I created visual self-care plans to remind my healing brain about the actions I needed to take. Having a plan reminding me to take my medications, to do my treatments, to eat regularly, to practice self-regulation and self-compassion skills, to rest, to attend my doctor and therapy appointments might not have been sexy, but it was what my struggling brain needed to help me get through and get through I did. I also found a sense of purpose in sharing my story and connecting with peers via social media who were navigating the same illness. We provided much needed relational support to each other, as many of our friends and family didn’t understand what we were navigating.
As I healed, I was able to finally return to graduate school, and came back with a renewed sense of purpose for entering the field of psychotherapy. This was a lifechanging experience and I knew in my bones that my purpose was to walk alongside those navigating the truly adverse experience of being human, and to support them as they find their unique way towards healing, in whatever way that means for them. I am proud to say I now get to do that is my work every day.
How have you cultivated resilience throughout your life? Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?
For the first 8 years of my life, I grew up in an incredibly stable and supportive home. Then, my parents got divorced and everything changed. For the rest of my formative years, I had to navigate overwhelming circumstances and intense dysfunction at home. I knew I couldn’t control my parents or anyone’s behavior so I realized very early on in life that if I wanted my life to be different, I had to focus on what I could control — the actions I took and the choices I made. Of course, as for many growing up in that type of environment, it was a rocky back and forth journey with a lot of struggles. The guiding light that helped me to keep moving forward no matter what was having clarity on my own values and committing to take actions to live those out, even if those choices were very different from the folks around me.
That is when I committed my life to be of service to others. For there is an adage that goes, “when you can’t help yourself, help someone else”. Little did I know then that as an adult I would become a practitioner of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, where a foundational part of the process toward resilience is acting based on your values.
Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Practice accepting reality, including your emotional experience. Remember acceptance doesn’t mean you have to like reality; it just means you are making the conscious choice to stop fighting against it. We cannot control our thoughts, emotions, sensations, or memories, but we can work on how we are going to respond to them. When we don’t understand what our emotions are trying to communicate to us, that can feel like a threat to our nervous system. Especially if we have experienced trauma. By naming our emotions to ourselves we help our nervous system make sense of our experience and help our brain come out of fight/flight/freeze mode. Try to be as specific as you can. If it’s hard to name your emotional experience think of emotions like a spectrum from unpleasant to pleasant and activated to calm and try to name them that way.
- Practice self-compassion. Research shows that self-criticism does not motivate us towards change the way our culture likes to think it does. In fact, it often makes things much worse and certainly does not help us become more resilient. Self-compassion has been shown to be a lot more effective to help us take resilient action and move forward. To get the self-compassion muscle going we can ask ourselves, “how would I treat/speak to a friend going through this?”. If self-compassion feels unusual to you, try tip toeing in with gentle self-talk like “What if I am doing the best I can?”, “What if I am more resilient then I give myself credit for”, “May I try to be kind to myself as I navigate this”.
- Build a self-regulation toolbox. Our bodies hold our emotions, sensations, memories, and all our stress. Therefore, to soothe our mind, we must soothe our nervous system. The vagus nerve is the longest in the body and wraps around all our major organs. It is the nerve where the fight/flight/freeze and the safe/social signals get sent down. Therefore, tapping into its power can help us regulate. Body focused practices such as vigorous exercise are great options and super helpful in completing the stress response and increasing our vagal tone. Yet, so are simpler practices such as tensing and releasing your muscles group by group, shaking out your body limb by limb, using cold therapy by placing an icepack on the back of your neck or face, singing or humming out loud, crying, and breath work practices.
- Get clear on your values and what aligned actions move you towards meaning in your life. As humans we are always seeking meaning and fulfillment, and we need that more then ever when going through tough times. No matter what we are navigating, our values can act as a compass guiding us towards actions we can take to create meaning. For me, compassion and acceptance are two of my most important values, and these were instrumental in guiding me to take the necessary actions to support myself as I was healing from Lyme Disease.
- Foster relational connections with those who can hold space and support you, and that you can support in return. Healing cannot happen in isolation, and we need a sense of connection and community to help us move forward. Whether that is focusing on deepening current relationships, building new ones, or cultivating a support team of trusted practitioners — relational care is incredibly important for cultivating wellbeing and resilience. It can be uncomfortable but asking for help and support is a sign of courage and it gives people in our lives the opportunity to experience meaning and fulfillment through caring for someone else.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
As an advocate and therapist, it’s been incredible to see the growth of the mental health advocacy and trauma awareness movements on social media and how they are leading to deeper conversations around the concept of self-care and self-acceptance. Goodness knows, self-care when you are struggling isn’t always glamorous, so I really appreciate the authentic vulnerability to promote de-stigmatization happening! Over the past two years it seems like these movements have taken off in ways that they never have before, and I believe this is because we are all going through this collective trauma of the pandemic. There is nothing quite like being isolated to remind us of the impact that relationships have on our mental health, well-being, and resilience.
In fact, I think that is the conversation that isn’t discussed enough and that I would like to see catalyzed — how relational care is an essential ingredient for both resilience and self-care. Our culture has fostered a “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” myth that resilience happens individually and in isolation. However, our nervous system is wired with the need for connection, especially when we are going through stressful, adverse, and traumatic experiences. While relationships can be sources of stress and even trauma, they can also be great vehicles for healing and resilience. People need people, and that’s a fact. One way empathy is defined is our capacity to feel with someone. I truly believe that if we all were empowered with the relational skills to be able to hold space, show up, and compassionately support those around us when they are going through the truly tough stuff of being human — the world would be better off.
However, this doesn’t often happen when it comes to the truly tough and painful parts of being human. It is easier to get people to relationally show up when the stressor is a pleasant one — like the birth of a new baby. When it’s something like trauma, chronic illness, neurodivergence, or loss people tend to not know what to do or how to help; especially when it’s not something that can be “fixed” but only held. Many people opt to do nothing in these cases for fear of making someone uncomfortable or the situation worse, and often to avoid their own discomfort around another’s suffering. However, this relational avoidance only compounds the isolation and pain for those struggling and can exacerbate the stressor’s impacts. Therefore, we as a human society need to be empowered to learn what relational care is and what is looks like in practice because we all need it.
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂
If I could spend time with any thought leader, I would love to be able to grab some tacos with Brené Brown. As a therapist, fellow Texan, and human who strives to live life with authenticity I have always felt a kindred connection to her and her work. As a type-A recovering perfectionist myself, her work on shame and perfectionism changed my life. I like to imagine that if I had a therapist “family tree” of those who influence my work Brené Brown would be my cool Aunt.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
You can find me on Instagram and Facebook at my handle @therapywithadrienne and my website www.adrienneclements.com .
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!