A huge part of resilience is connection or spirituality. Spirituality in its most basic form is a sense of connection to others. Find a spiritual group that resonates with you. Studies show that people involved in spiritual groups, with eight or 10 personal connections in the group have greater resilience and overall well-being.
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 Rich Heller.
Trained as a therapist, coach, and mediator, Rich Heller’s focus is on family systems and relationships with an emphasis on building resilience in children through transforming conflict into communication and understanding.
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?
My brother and I grew up in a high conflict household. That’s actually an understatement. The best times were when we were alone at home, it was a little rough if one of the parents was there. It was really rough when they were both there. We were also the rich kids in the poor neighborhood so we got to be targeted for muggings and abuse whenever we left our home. After a while, I learned to fight back, he learned to stay home.
Decades later, I have a master’s degree, have been an entrepreneur for decades, and now work helping other families in conflict. I have six healthy children who all support themselves in the world and have healthy relationships.
My brother is still single. He’s a brilliant guy, I mean really intelligent. He didn’t finish college, and he works in a security company as a guard. So what’s the difference between the two of us? Why did one of us stretch out his wings while the other led a relatively restricted life?
Seeds of resilience were planted in my life and nurtured throughout it. My brother was born a few years after myself, and yet somehow, he missed that boat.
My personal mission is to help families in conflict to make sure that their children are not caught in the middle, not collateral damage, but front and center. That their parents know how to ground them in resilience so that they can thrive.
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
I have a client who came to me because she was divorcing a toxic spouse. Her husband was pretty narcissistic, raging, and had little or no empathy for their child. Having successfully divorced him, she established herself as a professional earning a high six-figure salary after being a stay-at-home mom, and has developed strategies so that she and her son could feel safe interacting with his father.
However, she came back to me.
The issue was that she had a new supervisor who was very much like her former husband. She realized she wouldn’t survive working with this guy and that she had to get away. What was interesting about this is she wanted to honor the fact that this company gave her a job when she really needed one and paid her extraordinarily well. That they allowed her to prove herself. She wanted to move on in a way that would be seen as a win by them.
After one session, she went back to work. She was called into yet another grueling 2-hour supervision meeting with her narcissistic boss. Remembering our coaching session on managing a narcissist, she realized that he needed to feel like he was winning and that his grip on reality was based on that need. She suggested to him that he had hinted that she should get a new job, that she was looking in a related but not competitive field. He latched on to the idea saying that he didn’t remember suggesting it but it was brilliant and he was going to run with it. The next day she was in a meeting with the owner of the company and her direct manager and they were strategizing how the company could help her to make this transition.
These are the kinds of stories that I live for. When clients understand the mindset of a toxic personality and how to create a win for themselves and that person.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Every couple or individual that we work with walks out of our programs with a renewed sense of purpose. It’s this renewed sense of purpose that drives them forward, that helps them to overcome obstacles.
A couple I worked with recently on an infidelity issue we’re very much at odds. She wanted to understand what happened, he thought that all she needed was an apology and a promise that he never does it again. After completing our 8-week program, they finally started to hear one another. He finally understood why he had committed infidelity which is something he hadn’t wanted to look at. She finally understood as well. He was able to communicate to her the romantic vision he had for her and their life. She was ready, willing and able to embrace it.
The big challenge for them both is that they live with his mother. She is aging and a shared value that they have is that they will support her directly at this time in her life, rather than send her to an outside institution.
In working together, they’re able to hold that romantic vision in tandem with their shared values. Even though taking care of his mother is a big strain on their relationship, they are figuring out ways to have that romantic time together and still ensure that she’s cared for. Another great example of resilience at work.
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?
There are so many people who have planted the seeds of resilience in my life, my mother and father in their own ways. My grandfather and grandmother. My cousins and uncle.
The person who’s been most influential in building resilience within me is my karate instructor, Tadashi Nakamura, who bears the title Kaicho. And you have to understand I’ve trained with this man for 36 years, so he’s been a major influence in my life since my 20s. We’re talking about thousands of classes together that are grounded in the philosophy of traditional Japanese karate.
Being martial artists, we fought and still do in a controlled environment. Even in a controlled environment, the prospect of fighting another person is very challenging to one’s amygdala, the part of our brain that manages fight and flight. I remember I was fighting a good friend of mine and we were both smiling. Our instructor stopped us and told us to stop smiling. He explained that when we fight, we need to be in a meditative state. Any other feeling would inhibit our ability to perform. This was a huge lesson for me. That when faced with confrontation, to be in a place of relative peace rather than fear, anger, or nervous playfulness.
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?
- The relationship is a four-legged stool. The first leg is self-awareness and self-understanding. It’s knowing where we come from. It’s understanding the influence of our culture and our family on who we are. It’s grounded in a commitment to understanding our subconscious mind, why it is the way it is, and how we might be able to shift it with that understanding.
- The second leg is understanding our own strengths, talents, and innate abilities. Every human being has their own unique set of talents and innate abilities that drive our interests in life. Work happiness is dependent on our consciousness of this.
- The third leg is built on the first two, it’s a sense of our purpose in the world. Call it “personal mission”. Since each of us is a unique blend of family, culture, strengths, innate abilities, and talents, each of us has a unique place in the world. The more in touch we are with how we can maximize our usefulness as well as fulfill our own personal drives through our work and/or family, the more satisfied and fulfilled we are.
- The fourth leg is practicing. The habits and traditions that we develop in our life have everything to do with how well charged our batteries are, how prepared we are for setbacks, and our response to stress. Values are communicated through traditions. The traditions that we emerge from and the traditions that we create for our families communicate values and principles. These values and principles are the backbone of holding to our vision when we’re confronted with difficulty.
- I’m often tempted to say there’s a fifth leg and that is meeting difficulty or opportunity depending on how you look at it. Maybe a fairer metaphor would be that life challenges sit on the chair of our resilience. How well that chair holds up has to do with how strong the four legs are.
Courage is often likened to resilience. In your opinion how is courage both similar and different to resilience?
Courage is related to resilience. Without the courage to examine ourselves, we become less resilient. Without the courage to face our own fears, we can’t truly move forward. Resilience is dependent on courage. Courage is not dependent on resilience, however. You can be courageous and not resilient, but you cannot be resilient and not courageous.
Resilience is a word we used to describe a conglomerate of emotions, beliefs, and a sense of a compelling future that overcomes truly challenging circumstances.
Courage is something we exercise within ourselves. We all have the seed of courage, just like we all have the seed of patience, and the seed of love. It’s something we need to exercise to grow. If we don’t exercise it, it diminishes and rots.
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
I think of several people, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, Moses, Jesus, Muhammad Ali, and so many more.
What every one of these people has in common is that they had a vision for a compelling future. Each and every one of them had values and principles that they lived by and that they would die for. Each and every one of them moved forward through truly challenging circumstances in the faith that they were going to achieve their compelling future. They all had a network of support. Each and every one of them had a sense of the greater good and willingness to sacrifice on an individual level for that greater good.
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?
In 1995, I made the decision to shift my rooftop garden company to a leader in the area of green roofs.
Pretty much everyone in my life at that time said that society was not ready for that. That I was going to lose my shirt. What they didn’t know about me was that I wrote my thesis in college on green technology. This was something near and dear to my heart. I made the decision that I would either lose my shirt and the planet would die, or people would embrace green roofs as an alternative technology as well as other green technologies and we’d move towards life.
We pioneered green roofs in New York City in the ’90s when nobody even knew what they were. We built the largest green roof in New York City at that time, and I think it’s still the second-largest today-Silver cup studios. We built more acreage of green roofs than any other company in the city ever has to my knowledge.
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?
I was never going to get divorced. My father was scarred by testifying on the stand as a child in his parent’s divorce. I saw the damage that my parent’s relationship and divorce had done in our family and I was never going to do that to my kids.
10 years into my marriage I initiated a divorce. This was a moral setback as well as an emotional and financial one. I hated myself for what I was doing to my children.
At the same time in my heart of hearts, I knew that I was in a marriage that was never going to work. My wife at the time had a mental illness and refused to be diagnosed or receive help. I had delayed getting divorced for 5 years trying to help her get help.
I knew that my children would either have their parents model a truly unhealthy relationship in which they were both unhappy, or we could get divorced and I could at least model what life can be like.
I got a lot of help with this. Coaching and therapy. The divorce ended within a year which is pretty quick. I learned to not be critical of my children’s mother to them. I learned to only say things about her strengths to them. I learned that money is a renewable resource and was flexible in giving her more than her share as we divided assets.
Today I’m happily married for 22 years. My children are all healthy, in solid relationships, and pursuing work that they feel fulfills them. I consider this the greatest personal accomplishment of my life. My passion for my work is derived from this experience.
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?
I’ve cultivated resilience through personal exploration and personal work both through self-help groups and professional support.
Additionally, I’ve continuously inventoried my own skills and innate abilities and worked to maintain creativity in everything I do.
My sense of mission and purpose has evolved as a result of these explorations. Where once I chose to reweave ecological threads to help families connect in nature, I now just work directly with those families helping them reweave their emotional and family threads.
I have built habits around personal care, building my physical, spiritual, and emotional well-being. I’ve developed practices in which I’m plugged into wider communities and have friends in those communities. I’ve explored where our families have come from and shared this with our children. My wife and I together have created traditions that helped us blend our family, and continue to keep it together as we move forward in life.
So much of this has been inspired by my extended family with whom I always had a strong connection thanks to my grandparents.
I’ll never forget visiting my uncle and cousins in the Isle of wight. My uncle bought a house in the Isle of wight where all of his adult children would go with their children. We were invited to spend time with them. He had done it by having them help him pick the house so that they were invested in it. As a result, all of his adult children gathered there regularly with their children and ensured the ongoing connection of their family. Family can be a huge resilience builder. My wife and I seek to do something similar for our children.
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.
I disagree with the metaphor that resilience is like a muscle. Resilience is the result of a blend of emotional muscles. In order to have resilience in our lives, we need courage, we need passion, we need faith, we need hope. These are more like individual muscles.
Resilience is more like an arm, with multiple muscles working in tandem together.
Here are five steps to build resilience based on the four legs I mentioned before:
- Explore your own values and principles. Having a knowledge of what’s really important to you and being willing to stand for it makes all the difference in the world.
- Seek to understand your familiar roots. You want to know about the strengths and weaknesses of your parents, of their parents, and their parents’ parents. Not only are genetic traits passed on through families, but emotional traits as well. Understanding the emotional traits going three generations back will help you understand how you came to be who you are and what your emotional challenges are in life.
- A huge part of resilience is connection or spirituality. Spirituality in its most basic form is a sense of connection to others. Find a spiritual group that resonates with you. Studies show that people involved in spiritual groups, with eight or 10 personal connections in the group have greater resilience and overall well-being.
- Just like a business, create a mission for your life. Having a sense of what fulfills you and what the difference is that you can make in the world is central.
- Building a vision for your life, and your family’s life is going to help pull you through the difficult times.
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 firmly believe that equal opportunity to the same kind of education is vital to creating a more egalitarian society. Our mind is the vehicle through which we meet the world. When we neglect to give our children access to the education they need to train and utilize their minds, we cripple them in a competitive society.
We live in the most democratic country in the world, and yet we still have not figured out how to ensure that people of all classes, races, and faiths can have access to the highest grade education possible.
Goal: systematic improvement equalization of education across all states.
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 🙂
Bill Gates, E D Hirsch, Diane Ravitch
How can our readers further follow your work online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!