Be patient. Cultivating resilience is, as you mentioned, like building muscles in the gym. It takes time and practice. You are changing your behaviors and thoughts when you cultivate resilience and sometimes, you’ll want to go back to feeling powerless — that’s ok and totally part of the process.
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 Dr. Karyne Messina.
Dr. Messina is a licensed psychologist and psychoanalyst at the Washington Baltimore Center for Psychoanalysis and am on the medical staff of Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland (an affiliate of Johns Hopkins University). She also maintains a full-time private practice in Chevy Chase, Maryland and is the author of three books on the psychology of manipulation.
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?
Growing up in the Florida Keys, my favorite pastime involved hopping into my little boat and exploring nature. Each island was a world unto itself, as were the hidden treasures I explored among the coral reefs. Similarly, I was curious about the people who found their way each winter to my ocean isle. Some seemed to be searching for something they hadn’t found elsewhere, others appeared to be running away from problems. Learning about those whose lives were different from mine was exhilarating. These interactions led me to realize that we are each the sum total of what we have experienced in life. I understood early that our past informs many of our decisions and actions in the present.
My carefree and safe environment, shaded from the tropical sun by palm trees and cooled by ocean breezes, was made into an intellectual haven by my ever-patient parents who answered my questions when I exhausted my own resources.
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 think the person who influenced me the most in life was my mother. Having a strong attachment with a primary caregiver attuned to the needs of her child is priceless and can’t be replaced. This is something I had as a child.
My mother allowed me to explore while setting appropriate limits. She was always available to me when I needed her; when I fell and skinned my knee or had a problem with a friend, she was there to listen. She didn’t force her views on me or try to make me think as she did but inspired me to develop my own ideas.
Above all else, both of my parents loved me unconditionally. This is essential to parenting. It helps children develop into confident people who can make valuable contributions to society. I feel fortunate to have had that, and part of what I do as a psychologist is to help patients create and repair broken family bonds.
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?
Having secure attachments and relationships with others is key to cultivating resilience. Resilient people can face difficult situations and work through them. Resilience does not make a situation easier, but it allows someone to negotiate obstacles without falling to pieces. I like to think of it as seeking calm through the chaos.
Courage is often likened to resilience. In your opinion how is courage both similar and different to resilience?
The two ideas are related but different. Courage, to my mind, suggests bravery — a willingness to face challenges without fear. Resilience doesn’t require bravery but an ability to recover or adjust to adversity. Resilience is a mentally cultivated quality. Courage is a personality trait that suggests confidence. Someone can be courageous without being resilient; for example, a soldier may courageously step onto the battlefield to save a wounded comrade, but whether that solider have the mental fortitude to overcome the traumatic experience requires resilience. Resilience is more than merely bouncing back after trauma; it can be the fruit of deep personal development as well.
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
My father comes to my mind when I think of resilience. He had many crises in his life but was never defeated by any of them. During a ferocious hurricane in the Florida Keys that washed away bridges, he lost his restaurant that was destroyed in the storm. He also was critically ill several times when I was a child; half of his stomach was removed at one point. In both situations he rebuilt; his restaurant in the first instance and his health in second one.
These serious events in my father’s life did not deter him from moving forward. He just did what came natural to him which was to keep going. While he felt badly about both situations and many more, his troubles never overwhelmed him.
This attitude proved to have a major influence on me. It made me realize that the way to achieve things in life, despite setbacks, is to stay on track while not accepting that something can’t be done. If one way proves to have too many roadblocks, there are other ways to achieve one’s goals.
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?
When I was an adolescent, I remember my chemistry teacher saying that no one in my high school would ever go to college. That statement floored me. While it was in the back of my mind for a number of years, I wasn’t deterred by it, perhaps because my parents assumed that I would go to college and graduate school. Later, my father talked about my doctorate. They believed in me and never doubted that I would achieve what I wished to achieve in life.
In a less-than-rigorous academic environment, what mattered was the support and encouragement I got from my mother and father. Neither of them ever entertained the possibility that I would stay in the Florida Keys. As hard as it was for them when I left for college, it was a certainty they had accepted for my entire life.
Their sense of what I could do became part of my character. When I have thought one thing or the other would be too hard to accomplish, I always said to myself, “Once you do it, it won’t seem difficult at all.” This is a message that I got from my parents and one I try to convey to my patients who often are anxious about being successful for a myriad of reasons. I also am delighted when they own their achievements and think the inspiration for attempting a once difficult or impossible task or goal was their own. It doesn’t matter if they credit me with the gains they have made. As long as they achieve their goals, I am satisfied. Their success is what matters to me.
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?
Over twenty-five years ago, I went to my doctor for a routine exam. He was someone I had known for a number of years which made the unusual expression on his face worrisome. He said, “It’s probably nothing but I think you should go for a mammogram as soon as possible.” Stunned, I stood at the receptionist’s desk while she made an appointment for me. When I got the results, my surgeon and radiologist assured me that a simple procedure was in order to remove what they said was a small, self-contained tumor. They agreed that no further treatment would be needed.
Skeptical of this advice, I decided to take the radical step of having a double mastectomy. All doctors involved in my diagnosis and treatment thought my decision was not necessary for the type of cancer I had but they got approval for it because of my family history of breast cancer.
My doctors were surprised when the pathology report came back, indicating that deep in my breast tissue I had another type of very aggressive cancer that would have spread rapidly if I had not insisted on the type of surgery that I chose. I had an instinct that I needed to do the most radical treatment I could find. If I had chosen the recommended surgery, it is very likely that I would not have survived.
The message I am trying to convey is that it is important to get expert advice but ultimately it is equally, if not more important, to listen to yourself.
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?
Patience and practice. Some of us are naturally more resilient than others, but if we don’t work on it, our ability to “bounce back” gets flabby. An early example of cultivating resilience comes from my childhood. I grew up in Marathon in the Florida Keys where hurricanes were frequent. One storm was quite devastating; parts of bridges were severely damaged, houses were blown to smithereens, and seaweed filled the inside of my piano. As I recall, only the shoes I put on a cornice over the drapes in my house were not seriously damaged.
During the hurricane, I remember thinking this must have been what the three little pigs felt like as the big bad wolf blew their houses in. I even imagined what it would be like to die in a storm.
The winds died down after a few hours, followed by an eerie calm. This was the eye of the hurricane. The worst was yet to come. Within thirty minutes, the winds returned. We heard the exploding of the transformers being struck by lightning, and soon our house was bathed in darkness. Each minute felt like an eternity. That was the darkest night I recall spending in the Keys. We retreated to the bathroom because rainwater was seeping into the living room, but soon, seawater gurgled up through the toilet. I thought we might drown.
Eventually, the water in the bathroom receded to the sea. Soon, the rain stopped.
At daybreak, we emerged from our house to fine our car flattened by a fifty-five-foot palm tree. The yard was flooded with several feet of standing water where stranded fish gasped for breath next to toys flushed out of neighbors’ homes.
Once the winds subsided, the National Guard set up tent shelters, creating a sea of blue plastic tarps. We were unable to leave our house for another three days, during which time we were still without running water and electricity. Our food stores dwindled, but we were lucky — we still had a roof over our heads. We did what we could to help neighbors who had lost everything. There was a sense of togetherness that was invigorating despite the massive destruction.
In a twist of fate, my parents had been entertaining houseguests when the storm hit. Their car had survived the storm with minor dents, and they had had the good sense to top off their gas tank when they arrived in town. It was time to abandon ship. Our houseguests invited us to join them on their trip back to their home in Washington, DC.
I stayed longer than my parents, perhaps a little over a month. When they returned to Marathon to repair the house, I finished out the rest of the summer with my aunt, Maryanne Alexander, in Alexandria, Virginia. Never again did we tempt fate by staying in the Keys during a storm of that intensity.
This experience helped me develop resilience early in my life; I had survived a hurricane, and though we weren’t so foolish as to think we could ride out another direct hit, my family and I summoned our inner strength to stay strong in the days after the hurricane hit, during which time we were effectively stranded until the National Guard said the roads were passable. That’s when I learned that I had the capacity to recover and, eventually, thrive after catastrophe.
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.
Five steps to cultivate resilience:
- Accept the feelings you’re having as they occur. You may be feeling overwhelmed by the pandemic, for example, and wondering how you’re going to get through the next month. Anxiety may set in — that’s ok. Accepting your vulnerability is important to help you realize your inner strength.
- Reframe your fears. Know that you’re not alone in your fears. We all face some kind of adversity, and there is solace to be found in that recognition.
- Be patient. Cultivating resilience is, as you mentioned, like building muscles in the gym. It takes time and practice. You are changing your behaviors and thoughts when you cultivate resilience and sometimes, you’ll want to go back to feeling powerless — that’s ok and totally part of the process.
- Help people, places, or things in need. That could mean volunteering at a food bank or participating in a neighborhood clean up. For example, people who express eco-anxiety over the climate crisis can cultivate resilience
- Avoid toxic groups. That could also include people who espouse
“toxic positivity” — people who might say that everything is going to be just fine, stop worrying, chin up! Cultivating a positive mindset is important, but false positivity is a denial of reality and will only set you up for revisiting feelings of unhappiness later. Find people who will listen and understand without judgement. Being able to talk through your feelings will let you process them and know that it’s ok to not always feel ok.
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. 🙂
Let’s all use our brains and join together to stop the climate crisis. Humankind got into this mess, and we can fix it, too — we’ve got to be willing to look past our differences and realize that we all breathe the same air, drink the same water and share the same planet.
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 🙂
My fly-fishing invitation to Rachel Maddow and Noam Chomsky remains open.
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This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!