Celebrate yourself. Taking a moment every now and then to pat yourself on the back is key. Being resilient isn’t automatic. Getting up each day and working at something hard or trying something new doesn’t just happen. It requires conscious effort, courage, and of course, a little luck every now and then. Sadly, we seem to forget about the importance of treating ourselves gently and with kindness. Whenever you work hard for yourself and/or for others, it only gets easier to keep going when you reward yourself with the intangible, such as affirmations like “you did it!” versus nights out or physical gifts. Don’t get me wrong, a toast with friends or a present of any size are good too, but long-lasting intrinsic reinforcement is more likely to come from positive self-talk.
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. Michael Mazius.
Director of North Shore Center, Dr. Michael Mazius specializes in the treatment of children with Attention Deficit Disorder, Academic Underachievement Syndrome, and stress and mood disorders. Dr. Mazius also provides marital and family therapy. Dr. Mazius is active in working with school systems providing teacher consultation and is active in the community, speaking to parents on a wide variety of topics pertaining to child development, parent-child attachment and neuroscience-informed parenting. Dr. Mazius is an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Psychology at UWM-Milwaukee.
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?
The backstory starts with the following: I’m a law school dropout. Early on, I realized that going against the grain when what you want to do feels right is important. After testing out my hypothesis and pursuing psychology, working in psych hospitals and joining the ranks of semi later-in-life graduate students, I earned my PhD. (way back) in 1990 and have been going full tilt ever since. I direct a mental health clinic (18 therapists and counting) in Milwaukee’s North Shore working with human beings poised to live meaningful lives. I see children, adolescents, adults, couples, and families. The truth is, I love it all and find it fascinating. In my years of living and learning, I believe that being resilient is an essential life skill.
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?
This was a defining story for me. Approximately 10 years ago, my assistant director was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, passing away very shortly after the diagnosis. Initially, I, like most people, felt shaken. Someone I leaned on and depended on was no longer around, and it happened suddenly. That was a moment in which I found my resilience.
There was so much to process simultaneously; I was stricken with grief and I didn’t have perhaps the luxury of examining it. Instead, I had to move quickly to address practical but important issues pertaining to my partner’s clients, his family, and our clinicians and staff. It wasn’t easy. In the process I learned that I could do it.
The experience taught me resilience comes from within… but develops within a community. Whenever I’ve been shaken, I’ve followed the science, meaning I look to trusted friends and colleagues who provide support, inspiration, and advice. Social contact drove my resilience in this moment. The research not only has shown that social contact breeds resilience, but step-up experiences do too.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Our clinic, North Shore Center, has earned its stellar reputation because of the people who occupy it; this might sound trite, but it’s true. All of our clinicians do what they love and love what they do, they treat their clients like family members or best friends. To be clear, they recognize their clients are clients, but they care deeply about their mental health. In my view, we go above and beyond the office. Our clinicians meet with teachers, educators, prescribers, clergy, etc. We believe in collaborative problem-solving and expending 100% effort making sure clients get exactly what they need. In addition, several of us speak frequently to parent groups and educators on cutting-edge mental health topics. These days, I’m back speaking to educators and parents about the topic of creating (fricken’) growth opportunities in difficult circumstances (read: the pandemic!).
A recent example in which my group demonstrated clear resilience came at the start of the pandemic. In the middle of March 2020, everybody cleared out. My administrative staff received laptops and began working remotely. All of the therapists signed up with Doxy (a HIPAA compliant platform), doing all their work virtually, even with young children. The group seemed happy to be of help. No one complained, no one panicked, we all put our heads down and worked. I suspect the transition felt relatively smooth because we sensed our work was purposeful and we were helping people.
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’m fortunate to have a handful of role models who have been instrumental in playing important roles in my growth over the years. My father-in-law in particular has informed and reminded me over the years when life hands you a bowl of lemons, make lemonade. He came to this country at the age of 5 not knowing any English and ultimately finished law school and ran a highly respected law firm in our town. He gave me two vital bits of advice; the first was that even the best of marriages sometimes become difficult and challenging, and when that happens, that’s your cue to double down and make things work. Secondly, he told me that work is difficult at times no matter what you do — if you have the bug to start your own thing, it’s a mistake not to try. He told me how important it is to keep in mind that if you try and fail, the worst that can happen is you’ll have an opportunity to get up and try again (read: FGO!). His advice came early in my career and clearly hasn’t left the building. It has enabled me to stay steady and strong during periods of adversity. I attribute my resilience in part to his advice.
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?
When talking about resilience, I like the word trait. Trait is a variable that exists within people and has bandwidth. One can have high resilience and one can have low resilience, and where one ends up in my view is to a small extent a function perhaps of genetics and to a large extent a function of knowingness and effort. What is resilience? In a word, I say, perseverance. And staying active even when the going gets tough (as it always does from time to time).
People who are resilient don’t believe in the words “quit” or “fail.” They expect to succeed as a function of effort, knowing full well the path inevitably will contain twists and turns. Resilient people are patient (because you have to be), optimistic, realistic, and better have a sense of humor. Being resilient has nothing to do with your personal financial wealth or even with likes on Instagram. It’s all about the effort one expends at whatever one wants to be good at and maybe, the way in which one feels about oneself and one’s efforts.
Courage is often likened to resilience. In your opinion how is courage both similar and different to resilience?
Courage is a mulit-faceted construct. One can show courage just by sitting quietly with someone who is grieving, that is resilience. Alternatively, the resilient individual also is showing courage by taking on a difficult and risky venture where “failure” intermittently is inevitable. Being resilient requires that one do something that is hard. Stepping up and doing hard work, similarly, takes courage. In both ways, the person at the wheel has to have some degree of fearlessness and self confidence. That said, taking on difficult and possibly risky ventures often elicits fear and self-doubt. The end product of the journey leaves one with a better sense of what one was capable of doing, setting the stage for future growth-producing endeavors.
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
Rather than name one person in particular, I find as a group, children who struggle academically or socially in school as a resilient lot. Take a moment to consider what it must feel like having to show up to work every day only to find the tasks you’re asked to complete often publicly are confusing, slow to complete, and even at times uninteresting. Even though kids sometimes get a bad reputation for being entitled, immature, and lazy, for every one child for whom that may be true, I encounter many many more who each day roll up their sleeves and work for success. Those kids inspire me. And those kids, unlike kids for whom school comes easy, are more likely to become resilient adults doing important work for themselves and others.
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?
This might come as somewhat of a surprise given that the person I’m throwing under the bus was a novice psychotherapist who I saw, thankfully, briefly, but upon telling her I had decided to quit law school (for the second time) and apply to graduate school to do what she does, she perhaps understandably told me that it was a foolish idea. She told me I would be better served staying put and becoming a lawyer, and that my chances of getting into graduate school and becoming a Ph.D were not necessarily none, but slim. I’m not quite sure why, but for whatever reason, my blast-off of her interpretation helped me begin my journey, and am I ever glad I did. Perhaps she was using paradoxical intention, but I don’t think so. Psychologists are human, too, and getting it wrong (occasionally!) comes with the territory.
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 grow older and talk to more people, sadly, I learn that some people, maybe more than some, have career regrets. They tell me that they wish 5 years ago, 10 years ago, 15 years ago… when they were unhappy in their work and wanted to do something that felt like a better fit, they chose what they thought was safety over risk. Today, they regret that. Dropping out of law school for the second time wasn’t an easy hit, but I knew that I would be better served doing something different. Even though the outcome was uncertain, I’m grateful that I took the plunge and never looked back. That is a lesson, perhaps why I always encourage people who want to do whatever they want to do (as long as it’s safe and legal) to go full board. I lived it, I believe it. From clients to my own family, that lesson is always in the forefront. As my father-in-law said, why be afraid? What’s the worst that can happen?
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?
Resilience grows or doesn’t grow over time, starting from toddlerhood, maybe infancy, through older adulthood. Whenever one experiences a challenge or a “fail,” one is likely to recoil, even for a moment, and consider one’s next steps. It’s in a child’s best interest for the parents to be his, her, or their greatest cheerleader. You don’t want to lie to your child about his, her, or their abilities, but you also don’t want to discourage your child to “go for it,” whatever “it” is. That kind of messaging is critical for growing resilience. However, I don’t want to imply that if a child grows up without that, he, she, or they will be incapable of finding resilience later in life. We learn from our successes and probably learn even more from our mistakes. It doesn’t matter when you become comfortable challenging yourself and with fails, what’s important is that at some point in your life, it happens.
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.
- Create and face challenges: Building resilience occurs when one perseveres in the face of a challenge. If you’re consciously growing your resilience (or if you’re a parent and you’re working on growing your child’s resilience), put a challenging task in front of you, him, her, them. Make sure the challenge isn’t insurmountable or overly simple. You want to make sure you break a sweat, but the sweat isn’t profuse.
- Grow your grit. The brain is a vital but sometimes difficult organ with which to live. Whenever the brain perceives novelty, it also can signal ‘DANGER!’ In the face of whatever the brain perceives as dangerous, our brain automatically pauses or reacts automatically. When we pause, we may find ourselves considering, seriously, exercising ‘RETREAT’ mode. Our brain wants to be well intentioned, but our instinct to retreat, signalling safety, actually can be regressive or hindering. We must develop the practice of knowing how we feel and taking a breath or two to steady ourselves when what we feel is fear. We can’t move on and take on challenges when our instinct is to avoid. Grit comes when you have the language of moving on. Grit is a nifty word for the practice of perseverance. Remember, in the words of Robert Frost, the best way out is through.
- Know thyself and negotiate with thy brain. When our brains want to hit ‘RETREAT’ mode in a limiting way, we have to have a language to propel us forward. Examples include, “what’s the worst that can happen?” or “I got this” or “I don’t want to do this… so that means I probably should”. The secret is, the first step, activation, is the hardest. “Just do it” is an oversimplification, but it’s not wrong; it’s missing one thing, “MAKE yourself do it”. With practice, you’ll learn how to employ grit, grow resilience, and start negotiating with your brain to move toward action in the face of challenges.
- The win is in the try. Failure is inevitable and even should be welcomed. Clearly, we enjoy our successes, but we learn more from our fails. When we fail, it’s imperative that we are kind to ourselves; when we put ourselves down, it only makes it harder to get up and try again. After the tears or the pity party, we must remember to reflect on our previous accomplishments which signal more clearly who we are and what we bring to the actual party (so much more than pity). Failure doubles as a fountain of growth to help us and whisper to us, “try again.” Shifting the emphasis from the outcome and celebrating the win of simply (or not so simply) trying after failing IS the win.
- Celebrate yourself. Taking a moment every now and then to pat yourself on the back is key. Being resilient isn’t automatic. Getting up each day and working at something hard or trying something new doesn’t just happen. It requires conscious effort, courage, and of course, a little luck every now and then. Sadly, we seem to forget about the importance of treating ourselves gently and with kindness. Whenever you work hard for yourself and/or for others, it only gets easier to keep going when you reward yourself with the intangible, such as affirmations like “you did it!” versus nights out or physical gifts. Don’t get me wrong, a toast with friends or a present of any size are good too, but long-lasting intrinsic reinforcement is more likely to come from positive self-talk.
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. 🙂
That’s easy. Making the world better requires givingness. This may seem different from the concept of resilience, but the two complement each other perfectly. When we are out there every day persevering, we’re more likely to find our gear if what we do gives to us and gives to others. Giving to others is contagious; if people feel our energy oftentimes they feel inspired to give too. When people are giving to each other, the world works as it was intended to. That may be the most important aspect of resilience.
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 🙂
Since we’re getting lofty, if it’s possible, please arrange a meeting with President Obama. He, among most leaders, embodies the spirit of resilience. He takes on challenges every day and survives with a smile, keeping the bounce in his step. He’s someone from whom I have much to learn. So if it’s possible, make it happen, and I’m buying.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
You can find me on Twitter @DrMichaelMazius
You can learn more and find resources at my clinic’s website: www.northshorecenterllc.com
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!