Focus on others: Focusing outside of yourself to be with others helps you to feel resilient. When I had cancer, I was, at times, able to continue working. When I would listen to others, be there for them, I was transported beyond my own illness. This was also true when my husband died suddenly. When I gave attention to others, heard their stories, I would feel connected to something other than my own grief. I was reminded of my own strength and resilience.
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 Cheryl Krauter.
Cheryl Krauter, MFT is an Existential Humanistic psychotherapist with over 40 years of experience in the field of depth psychology and human consciousness. Her own cancer diagnosis brought her to her work with people who have been diagnosed with cancer and other life-threatening illnesses, their partners, family members, and caregivers. She has published three books: Surviving the Storm: A Workbook for Telling Your Cancer Story (Oxford University Press 2017), Psychosocial Care of Cancer Survivors: A Clinician’s Guide and Workbook for Providing Wholehearted Care (Oxford University Press 2018) and Odyssey of Ashes: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Letting Go (She Writes Press 2021).
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?
Well, I’m 70 years old so there’s quite a bit of backstory at this point and I don’t believe you want an autobiography so I’ll try to hit the high (and some low) notes.
I was born in Washington State where my family lived on an island and I roamed about in the forest and on my bike, enjoying the freedom of a child during the 1950’s. My father, an FBI agent, was transferred to the Los Angeles office in 1962 and we moved to California. I was raised in Los Angeles as well as the beach town of Corona del Mar in California and, without question, am a child of the 1960’s both ideologically and politically. Reflecting on my younger self, I also roamed about during my late teens and early 20’s. My first career was in acting but the LA scene proved too seedy and disgusting so I decided to embark on my second career as a psychotherapist in 1975. Even though I was a tried -and -true beach girl, I left Southern California for graduate school in Northern California in 1976 and I have lived in the San Francisco Bay Area since that time. I’m in private practice as an existential humanistic depth psychotherapist and work with artists, performing artists, creative people as well as those who deal cancer and life-threatening illnesses. I am a consultant, a teacher, a group facilitator, and an author. I have practiced Buddhist meditation since 1984.
The major turning points in my life that have taught me resilience are my struggles as a younger woman with severe endometriosis and ovarian cysts, the birth of my son in 1992, my mother’s sudden death in 1994, my father’s battle with Parkinson’s Disease ending with his death from Lewy Body Disease in 2003, my diagnosis of an aggressive breast cancer in 2007, and the sudden death of my husband in 2016. The past two years of the Covid-19 pandemic have taught me about my own resilience both personally as well as in my work as a psychotherapist as I have guided, and continue to guide, people through the multiple layers of trauma that this world event has brought about. I do believe that, despite the darkness the pandemic has caused in people’s lives, we have an opportunity to learn about ourselves and others as we begin to emerge back into the world. I believe that the human spirit in its essence carries the strong light of resilience and courage beyond what we sometimes can imagine.
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 depth psychotherapist, I spend every day being with people who open up their hearts and minds, honoring me with their trust. I have sat with thousands of people in the 46 years of my career, some for a short period of time and others for decades. Each person brings their unique world into my world and together we create our own world. I am deeply fortunate to walk alongside people who are committed to the hard work of consciousness. This question allowed my own reflection of the many interesting stories of my career and it was difficult, if not impossible, to choose the most interesting one. As I reflected, the voices and faces of those I have spent time with arose around me in a montage of memory. All of their stories were interesting and important but because of the confidential nature of my work, these are stories that do not belong out in the world but must remain in my own heart and mind. I am so grateful for the astounding number of lessons I have learned about myself, life, people, love, sorrow, joy, and the whole shebang! In my twenties I was an actor in Los Angeles and went to one of the first Renaissance Fairs which, in the early 1970’s, was free and held on land owned by the actor, Will Geer. There was the requisite fortune teller amongst the wandering minstrels and buxom damsels and I figured, what the heck, and sat down to have him read my palm. The young man held my hand, palm up, and began to speak to me, “Later in life, you will return to an earlier career, work that you let go off will reemerge.”, he said. Then he spent a long time looking at the lines in my hand that represented children, he was turning my palm from side to side, a confused look on his face. After a while, he looked up and said, “I don’t understand. There are thousands of children in your hand, you could not possibly have that many children.” I would not understand until years later that what he saw was my work as a psychotherapist, the work I would return to was writing and that I would become a published author when I was in my sixties.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Well, I AM my company as I am in private practice as a psychotherapist. I chose to work on my own in 1984 when I left my job at a crisis unit to concentrate on developing my own business. I wanted the independence, the freedom to create my own structure, to branch out from the more traditional work world into something that I built on my own. Since 1984, I have never worked for anyone else except in the role of an independent contractor as a teacher, a workshop facilitator, a supervisor at a university counseling center. I think that what makes me stand out is the creativity I bring to my work, my willingness to think outside the box, and my commitment to offering fees at a lower rate than my colleagues so that therapy can be more available to everyone. My hope is that what really stands out is my kindness and the care that I have for the people I work with. That is the most important thing I want to offer. While I cannot share specific stories, again out of respect for confidentiality, I will say that I have saved notes, letters, and now emails, from former clients, years after our work, who share the continued growth in their lives and express gratitude for me and our time together. I treasure these communications.
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?
I have been fortunate to have had wonderful teachers, supportive friends, and a supportive partner throughout my life. But the person who stands out as someone who was one of the most instrumental in my personal and professional development is Dr. James F.T. Bugental, PhD. I was a young graduate student with no money when I found his book, The Search for Authenticity, in my university library. I was studying in a humanistic psychology program after fleeing from a more traditional psychology program at a major university that was just not working for me. I was directed towards a small college that offered a pioneering program in humanistic psychology and was now in the phase of my master’s program when it was time to write my thesis. I did my research and checked out books from the library because I didn’t have money to buy books and it was in the mid-1970’s before the internet created access to resources that are now available, indeed, perhaps even taken for granted. The Search for Authenticity spoke deeply to me and I read and reread it. It became obvious that I was going to have to turn it in at some point or get into trouble that might result in fines so I craftily and systematically began to spend time at a Xerox machine in a deserted library location that was not well traveled. Page by page I began to copy the book until I had my own copy. Material from this book was heavily quoted in my thesis. Seven years later I was at a small meditation gathering consisting of only ten people when the man sitting next to me introduced himself as Jim Bugental! I told him how much his book had meant to me and he was very gracious. I don’t recall telling him that I had Xeroxed it …
Three years after our initial meeting at that meditation gathering, a friend invited me to join a consultation group that was facilitated by Jim Bugental. I jumped at the chance to work with him! I worked extensively with Jim for over the next fifteen to sixteen years. Jim was known for his keen perception and his ability to focus in on the deeper issues with laser-like concentration. During one consultation session I was discussing my issues with a difficult client whose negativity towards me was making any kind of therapeutic process nearly impossible. This person monopolized the sessions and negated nearly all the comments that I ventured forward in our time together. As I was describing this, Jim abruptly stopped me saying, “do you want to try something?” “Of course.”, I agreed. He had me close my eyes and visualize this client sitting in the chair opposite me. Once I had done that, he instructed me to turn my gaze around and look at myself sitting in my chair. When I mentally turned my vision around to view myself, I saw a tiny little person sitting in a huge chair. I burst into tears as I recognized the ways in which I kept myself small and minimized myself as a person. This powerful moment was life-changing for me as it was a foundational piece in the building and strengthening of my own recognition of my personal power and inner authority. By inviting me to be as big as I really am. Jim Bugental gave me one of the greatest gifts of my life. Although he died in 2008, his presence, his mentorship, remains alive in the therapy office with me every day.
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?
“Fall down 7 times, rise up 8” — -Japanese Proverb
The capacity to recover from crisis, to find the inner capacity to remain open in the face of tragedies, stressors, and sorrows is about being resilient. Resilience comes from within us, it is about being not doing. People are sometimes encouraged to learn resilience from the outside by doing things that are supposed to help them feel stronger and more powerful. Today’s culture encourages toughness, being a “bad ass”, mistaking that behavior for true resilience which is an inner strength that is developed through being grounded in the body. When we are grounded in ourselves, we can be fluid and remain flexible when the storms of crisis rock our world. I believe that resilience is responsive, not reactive.
In times of distress, resilient people are able to focus on others, to care for others even as they are facing difficulties of their own. In this way, I find that the foundation for resilience is compassion for ourselves as well as compassion for others. In my own life, I have found that grief has been one of my greatest teachers of resilience.
The great Buddhist teacher, the monk Thich Nhat Hanh died on January 22, 2022. When I think of someone who embodied resilience, he comes into my consciousness. One of his teaching stories relates to the Vietnamese boat people trying to escape to freedom from an oppressive regime. Boat people were refugees who fled Vietnam following the end of the war in 1975 in small boats that were often over -crowded, attempting to sail in rough waters in the dark of night to seek asylum. Like today, many countries were unwilling to help these people so some courageous activists, including Thich Nhat Hahn, risked their own lives to organize secret, illegal, passages that were very dangerous for all concerned. Thay’s message was that when the Vietnamese boat people were in treacherous situations, if just one person remained steady and calm, it was enough to guide the others to feel their own steadiness. It is that kind of strong, inner calm that defines the true nature of resilience. It is an inner light that shines from within and touches others.
Courage is often likened to resilience. In your opinion how is courage both similar and different to resilience?
Courage is the choice and willingness to confront agony, pain, danger, uncertainty, or intimidation. Courage is often only thought of as bold, as fearlessness, facing danger — yet sometimes it takes great courage to be vulnerable, to love, at times finding the courage to walk away from the battle. The root of the word courage is cor which is the Latin word for heart and courage is often referred to in terms of a brave heart, a strong heart, the heart of a lion. What I find interesting is how the original meaning of courage was “to speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart”, yet in our modern world, courage is referred to as a heroic act, a behavior in the face of adversity rather than an inner quality.
While I think that courage and resilience are related, my opinion is that courage relates more to taking action in or during specific situations where we face fears, doubts, and great difficulties such as loss, illness, tragic events beyond our control. Most of us do not need to find courage in our day to day lives. In this way, I think courage differs from resilience as it is likely to be a situational response rather than the inner quality of resilience which develops continually throughout our lives through our experiences. Resilience is the inner quality we bring to courageous moments in our lives. In this way, courage and resilience are intertwined, woven together as pillars of support and encouragement within us.
The ancient sage, Lao Tzu, wrote “Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.” This quote circles back to the original meaning of courage already mentioned. In essence, it is the courage to speak from the heart, to speak authentically, especially when confronting difficult conversations. This can be particularly significant in regard to thoughts and words that are controversial yet are truths that need to be spoken. Lao Tzu also refers to the courage it takes to love deeply, the courage to be vulnerable both within yourself and with others. I think resilience grows from being loved and loving over time, through joys and sorrows, in good and bad times. Does courage come from resilience or does resilience come from courage? Looking at this with a non-dual mind mindset … it is both/and.
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
When I was working at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) Education Extension in the 1970’s there was a young man who would come to sign up for classes in person. He met with one of the co-workers who sat across from me. This man had severe neurological disabilities that rendered his speech nearly unintelligible, his body shook and twitched uncontrollably. I would watch him sign up for classes and marveled as my co-worker somehow could interpret his language. At that time, I also attended classes at UCLA in psychology and when I was walking to my classes I would see this man literally hurling himself through the campus towards the classes he had registered to attend. I was afraid that he would fall but he stayed on his feet and just kept going. This was a really difficult time in my own life and when I saw him, I was reminded of the tremendous courage it takes to navigate life for some people, people far more impacted by pain and struggle than I was. He moved me deeply in the resilience he showed in the face of unimaginable adversity. When I read this question, the image of this man immediately came to me as vividly as the experience I had witnessing him now nearly fifty years ago. In truth, I still remember his name. The lessons he taught me about the resilience of the human spirit inspired me then and inspire me to this day.
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?
I have been extremely fortunate to have mostly received support and encouragement from others. Of course, not everyone has been or always is a fan of me and I have had my share of rejection but that feels different from being told something is impossible. I have heard horror stories of people who were told that they shouldn’t pursue something that they wanted for themselves. The worst of these stories often involved teachers who told a kid that they weren’t smart enough, talented enough, in short, good enough to go after their dreams. Some of these kids collapsed and grew into adults with regrets while other brave, and probably defiant, souls bucked the advice and went on to achieve their goals. Sometimes these messages come from parents who do unimaginable damage in their lack of encouragement toward their children.
The one person who has not always believed in me is myself. I have told myself that things weren’t possible for me and then had to fight against those beliefs. However, mostly I have beat back those demons and forged ahead. I haven’t always succeeded but that attitude has left me with fewer regrets than if I’d given up. Abandoning ourselves is far worse than anyone abandoning us.
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?
As I young woman I spent some time in Hollywood trying to break into the film industry. I studied acting since I was in high school and majored in theater in college. I was usually successful in getting cast into the roles I auditioned for, both in college, community theater, and even some professional companies that would give roles to non-union actors. Although I could sing, I was too shy to audition for musical roles but once in college, the director took me by the arm and marched me into audition, telling me that he could not cast me if I didn’t show up. Another actor who had shown up for each scheduled audition was understandably furious at the favoritism. I was a member of an ensemble improvisation group that performed regularly at a small theater and also participated in numerous experimental theater pieces that were part of the theater culture in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. But I had dreams of a film and television career so I moved to Hollywood and began to literally pound the pavement, carrying my headshots and meagre resume for scrutiny by agents and casting directors. In the days before the internet, actors would go to one of the newspaper stands on Hollywood or Sunset Blvd and purchase the weekly edition of a casting newspaper advertising auditions, cattle calls, opportunities to explore jobs in the industry.
I did manage to get an agent for commercial work on my own and landed a film agent at a major talent agency as a result of a family connection. I met this family connection, an associate of my father’s, in his penthouse office one late afternoon. He poured me a stiff drink and as the “appointment” went on into the dusk of evening, his son appeared at the door to the office to suggest that it was time for Dad to head on home. Suddenly this appeared to be a familiar situation and I began to feel uncomfortable. Son left and I stayed. I was twenty- three and completely intimidated but still had the presence of mind, and enough personal power, to push him off me when he grabbed me and tried to kiss me. I accompanied him to an expensive restaurant but couldn’t really eat anything. I don’t remember when or how I finally got away but I did manage an exit. I never told my father this story but my mother eventually guessed what had happened. I don’t know if she ever told him. This powerful man did, however, introduce me to an agent at the top talent agency in the world. This agent turned out to be one of the only decent men I meet in Hollywood. Through this agent, I got a small part in a film that would be my ticket to the coveted Screen Actor’s Guild Card. Filming was about to begin when the man who was to play the main character died and that killed the film. After that I was in negotiations with another casting director for a film that might also open the door. I was on my second interview, he seemed very impressed and encouraging, I was excited, to say the least. As that interview ended, he said to me, “I’d like you to return for a third interview but I need you to understand that when that happens, you’ll need to take off your top.” I walked out of that office and threw my portfolio into a trash can. That was it.
I spent the next year in a depression over my failure as an actor. But gradually I pulled my head back up and started to study psychology which led me into a successful career and life work that has been sustaining for over 45 years. As I was leaving LA, I had a garage sale and sold nearly every book, every script, that was associated with my time as an actor. The young man who bought the collection looked up at me and said, “Well, there’s a story here.” Yes, a story of broken dreams that litter the streets of Hollywood but mine is one with a happy ending. I become a stronger person for going for my dream, an even stronger person for realizing that my dream needed to change. I truly believe that had I continued my pursuit as an actor, my life would have turned out badly. I made a choice for meaningful, ethical work that serves others and I have never regretted it.
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?
When my family moved to Southern California, we lived for a few years in an apartment building. There were other families there with kids who were around my age. Most of them were a year or two older but I was only eleven and the difference between an eleven year old kid and a thirteen or fourteen year old is pronounced. For the first year that we lived there, this group of kids bullied me. The apartment complex was built around a pool which is where most people would hang out. When I first got there, I ventured out to the area when this little gang was there. I sat in one of the pool chairs and within minutes, the entire group got up and left me sitting there alone. The humiliation was so penetrating that I felt paralyzed, it took a while to get up and return to my own apartment. This cruel little group of kids not only shunned me but would at times actively tease me. Two of the girls were particularly horrid and I became reticent to leave my apartment for fear of their verbal attacks or, even worse, their rejecting, shunning behavior toward me. I retreated to my own little world. I lived in a world of fantasy, rock and roll music, books, and television. Since then I have gone through traumas and tragedies yet I remember this time as the most painful period in my life. Fortunately, a single mother and her two daughters moved into the complex and the youngest girl and I became deeply close friends. Life had dealt her some blows and her older sister didn’t treat her well. She and I bonded with both of us protecting each other when we were in trouble. This relationship, along with the creation of other close friends from school, brought me back out into the world. Thinking back, I actually cannot remember if the mean gang was still around or not at this point. Their bullying no longer had power over me.
This is a story of the healing power of relationship. I don’t know where that girl is today but I hope she knows that I still carry her within my heart. I hope that a kid who is being bullied today might find solace in knowing that there are people who will love you and treat you well, sometimes you just have to wait for them to arrive in your life. Look for these people yourself and turn away from the bullies!
In retrospect, I learned to be on my own as a kid by creating a strong, imaginative inner world. That lonely, creative child still lives within me and contributes to the original ways that my mind works. This experience made me independent and able to strike out on my own even when no one would join me. I not only learned resilience but the importance of compassion and kindness toward others.
I also learned that people can change as some years later, the girl who had been the worst to me sent a letter apologizing for how she had once treated me.
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.
- Presence: Learn to live in the moment. Don’t get too far ahead of yourself. Don’t spend too much time dwelling on the past. When we feel connected to ourselves in the present we bring all of ourselves to whatever situation we are working with and this strengthens resilience. This can be practiced by first noticing when you are distracted and then bringing you awareness to where you are. You might listen to the sounds around you, look at the tree outside of your window, or do some stretching and movement to connect with your body
- Focus on others: Focusing outside of yourself to be with others helps you to feel resilient. When I had cancer, I was, at times, able to continue working. When I would listen to others, be there for them, I was transported beyond my own illness. This was also true when my husband died suddenly. When I gave attention to others, heard their stories, I would feel connected to something other than my own grief. I was reminded of my own strength and resilience.
- Developing a strong sense of self: Resilience is an inside job! When we feel that we can rely on ourselves we give ourselves a place to land, we trust our own capacity to be resilient. Learn ways to thrive that work for you, that will support you regardless of what is happening in your external world. You might choose to engage in psychotherapy, hire a coach, or find whatever structure works for you in making the commitment to know yourself. By believing that we are capable, we can support ourselves through the challenges we face.
- Spiritual exploration: A spiritual exploration can be anything that speaks to the bigger picture of life, the mysteries we cannot fully understand, connections that move far beyond our limited scope of understanding. I have practiced Buddhist mediation since 1984 and continue to find my practice an essential component of my own resilience. This has been particularly true when I have dealt with illness and loss. Mindfulness practices now come in all shapes and sizes and you can explore these resources through books, tapes, and apps on your phone. Some people discover that their spiritual practice is a walk in nature. It’s important to find the path that you want to walk, one that inspires as well as comforts you, one that connects you with your soul.
- Breathing exercises: The embodiment of resilience is our breath. When we learn to use our breath as a tool to ground our energy, we feel an aliveness within ourselves. Our aliveness supports our capacity for resilience. The following is an excerpt from my book, Surviving the Storm: Telling Your Cancer Story, that give examples of how to work with your breath.
Simple breathing exercises can help you to soothe and reconnect with yourself when you are feeling triggered by traumatic thoughts, feelings, or images. You can practice working with your breath no matter where you are or what you are doing. These exercises are designed to help you regulate your reactions when you feel overwhelmed. You can do these breathing exercises with your eyes closed or open. The simple act of using your breath helps you to connect with yourself and the more you practice, the easier it is to remember to check in with yourself in this way.
Breathe through your nose
Breathe into your center( your belly) and inhale all your energy in.
Breathe out from your center and exhale all energies, distractions, anything that you don’t want to carry, breathe it out.
Sit down comfortably, or lay down in a comfortable place, whatever works the best for you.
Place one of your hands on your stomach, just below your ribcage. Place the second hand over your chest.
Breathe in deeply through your nose letting your first hand be pushed out by your stomach. Notice that your chest doesn’t move.
Breathe out through your lips, pursing them as if you were about to whistle. Gently guide the hand on your stomach inwards, helping to press out the breath.
Slowly repeat between 3 and 10 times.
A simple breathing exercise to help you sleep:
Lie down and make yourself comfortable
Let yourself sink into the bed or floor and bring awareness to your body
Feel how you are supported, relax any tension and soften with each exhale
Focus on your breath and notice where you feel it in your body
Take a deep, even breath into your center, hold for a couple of seconds, and exhale
Continue this breathing pattern quietly and gently
Allow yourself to soften and relax into your body
Let your thoughts go with each exhale
Continue your focus on your breath
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. 🙂
I would inspire a movement of loving kindness.
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 🙂
President Jimmy Carter because I admire his integrity and his resilience in the face of his political struggles as a president and his courage in the face of his battle with cancer. I think he is a remarkably wise, genuine human being and it would be a great honor to be in his presence. Maybe I could help him build a home for Habitat for Humanity!
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Facebook: Cheryl Krauter@tellingcancerstories
Cheryl Krauter, Author@cekcrazywriter
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!