Stop building worst case scenario stories. When we encounter a problem, it is automatic for many of us to fill in details that may or may not be true. For example, you have a feel at a dead end in your relationship and fear of change stops you from talking to your partner. Instead, you fill yourself with dread and invent arguments, painful losses of friends and family and a whole mess of other possibilities. You do this as reflex and because somehow, we think we can overcome pain preemptively, which does not work. Instead, what if you think, the simple thought of I am not in a good place in this relationship, wonder what my partner thinks. Let me open a conversation and be willing to hear hard things and share hard things to see what is actually happening.
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 Robin Hornstein.
Dr. Robin Hornstein is a psychologist and life coach with over thirty years of experience. Robin’s specialties include recovery from eating disorders and body image issues, working with members of the LGBTQIA+ community, supervising early career therapists, mental wellness and anxiety issues. Robin is based in the Philadelphia area but works remotely across the country.
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’m a queer, Jewish baby boomer born and raised in Philadelphia. I went to school at Temple University and have worked in the mental health field since the early 80’s. I owned an insurance-based private practice for 21 years, and I am now focusing on my roots as a therapist. I’m a proud mom, step-mom, cat-mom, and partner.
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take always’ you learned from that?
I share this with people I train as it is a “cautionary tale” about being honest and not hiding things from clients, in this case, not gaslighting them, which can and does happen at times. In an early practicum I was working with a client who was struggling to manage voices, paranoia and dissociation. He used therapy, along with medication, to reality check and to understand himself better. My office was sheltered from the rest of the staff’s offices as practicum students were housed where spots were open, so there I was at the end of a long hallway, near a bathroom. Two staff members were occasionally having sex in the bathroom near my office which I could hear through the walls and tried to ignore it. One day my client who had auditory hallucinations could hear them and asked me if I did. I later found out, by getting in trouble for corroborating what he heard, that I should have said no, I don’t hear that. I remember saying I heard it and let’s do our work and we moved on. I was called to the director’s office for this and was told that the client could have easily been redirected or tole that I did not hear it and would have “forgotten” about it once he left the hallway. The most glaring take away: don’t use someone’s mental health to your advantage.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We recently sold our business of 21 years, and though it wasn’t an easy choice, I am happy to dedicate most of my time to providing therapy, life coaching and doing some writing.
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 would have to call out Portia Hunt, Ph.D. who was a professor and mentor. I worked with her after graduation and feel like she helped me frame a social justice mindset from the start. Working with such an intelligent, critical thinker early in my career shaped my approach to the field and to clinical work. One story that stands out is just a throw-away line Portia used when telling me to have a voice: “Do what you need to do to the grab attention of those who are damn sure they don’t want you to have a say.” That has never left me. Thanks, Portia!
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?
Resilience is flexibility, adaptation to life, the determination to find joy even when chaos or conflict arises. There is no going through life without difficulty, but to bend and not break is how resilience works. Are some people naturally resilient? I cannot answer that one, but developing the characteristics of resilience is possible for most people. I like to think of it as cognitive curiosity and mentalization, emotional flexibility, embodiment and a willingness to accept that pain is part of life.
I do want to make one thing VERY clear. It is not a good thing to ignore that we ask people to be resilient in the face of oppression. If societal constraints and outright oppression is part of the equation, a person does not need to dig down for their resilience to get better while nothing changes, that is actually adapting to cruelty and trying to rise above what you cannot. I often think of the Kurt Vonnegut quote: “A sane person to an insane society must appear insane.” It’s important to note that resilience is not about adapting to our circumstances, or ignoring what is wrong in our lives. However, there’s no one example of what resilience looks like.
Courage is often likened to resilience. In your opinion how is courage both similar and different to resilience?
Courage feels closer to quick decisions and facing fear head-on. I think I differentiate the two as acute versus chronic. Resilience looks more like how you handle longer term issues, setbacks and heart aches and still find a way to smile and find joy and laughter in your life. Courage feels like running into the fire. Resilience, to me, refers more to how we approach the results and consequences of that same fire.
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
I first tried to think of famous people who I see as resilient so the example might resonate, but it occurred to me that resilience is intimate. Based on the actions we can see others take, we can’t necessarily surmise their resilience. I instead recall memories of folks who are terminally ill who decide, without concession, to live to see their child graduation from college. Whether or not they succeed in postponing the inevitable, they held onto the joy and managed the pain. To me that is an example of resilience.
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?
My high school college counselor had way too many students to handle, too many years under her belt and was fond of kids with more influential parents than I had. She told me not to go to college. There is even a Facebook group from my high school of kids who were told the same. There are almost 600 followers. I have a Ph.D., so you were wrong CH.
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 understand your question, but to me, resilience isn’t about bouncing back stronger than ever. We don’t want to set expectations that the response to struggle must be “beating the odds” or “proving others wrong.” I think about a time in my life where I was informed by a doctor that I was infertile. While this did not end up being the case, I felt despair and went through a period of depression. I did not bounce back stronger, but I found a new rhythm, I accepted that my body would have difficulty completing a task I very much wanted it to perform, and I moved through my depression and heartache. I did not bounce back stronger than ever, but rather I simply arrived on the other side of my emotions. For many people who are diagnosed with infertility, the grief can be overwhelming. Resilience in that case isn’t about being stronger than before, but rather about continuing forward.
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 always think of myself as a rational optimist. Despite a lot of early childhood chaos, I always found the helpers. Some were friends and some were adults who were willing to love me for who I was and help me find solid ground. The rational part is that I evaluate situations and people for what they are, not blaming myself for everything that goes wrong. The optimistic part usually guides me to the best solution I can have given circumstances I may or may not have power over. There is a story that helped build my resilience that I don’t usually talk about. I went to a middle school dance at a rec center with a good friend and when we met outside, she told me I needed to leave as there were a few boys who had planned to harm me in some way (she alluded to sexual or physical assault) because I was Jewish. We walked towards where the bus would get me, but passed a phone booth (yup, I’m that old) and called my dad who told me to wait at the bus stop across a boulevard that would put a lot of space between me and the rec center. That was a scary moment which bolstered my belief in friendship while dealing with a very pronounced moment of anti-semitism.
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.
- Make sure that you understand what is actually in your control and what is not. Do not take blame for a systemic injustice that makes resilience less relevant and activism more important. I can speak as a white, queer woman here. LinkedIn had a report in 2021 that indicated that 31% of LGBTQ+ employees have had to deal with microaggressions and discrimination at work. To be resilient may be important here as people need jobs, but the greater issue becomes not adapting to a negative circumstance, but working to change it. I suppose the activism is resilience in action, but not accepting it is just as important.
- Take a good hard look at things you can change and reinvest in empowerment. When a problem that is in your world, try to imagine it “solved”. What had to happen to get the solution to manifest? What steps did you have to take? Did you have to look at it from another vantage point? Was it important to pull in a trusted helper/advisor?
- Stop building worst case scenario stories. When we encounter a problem, it is automatic for many of us to fill in details that may or may not be true. For example, you have a feel at a dead end in your relationship and fear of change stops you from talking to your partner. Instead, you fill yourself with dread and invent arguments, painful losses of friends and family and a whole mess of other possibilities. You do this as reflex and because somehow, we think we can overcome pain preemptively, which does not work. Instead, what if you think, the simple thought of I am not in a good place in this relationship, wonder what my partner thinks. Let me open a conversation and be willing to hear hard things and share hard things to see what is actually happening.
- One step to resilience is to add in curiosity. For each time you encounter something that stops you in your tracks and you are filled with anxiety or symptoms that line up with depression, start to work on a new core belief. People come to therapy with core beliefs that say they cannot face certain things, or that they are going to break if they try, or that they are failures. Curiosity and some self-CBT (plenty of great apps) can help you change those beliefs by actually looking step by step at what is happening, what you did in the past that worked or did not work and what you can do now to be curious about how you will face the current situation. It takes as much energy (if not more) to weave a story of success or managing the difficulties we all face as it does to tell a story of failed attempts.
- Finally, be patient with yourself. Changing parts of your life, your reactions and your thoughts takes a bit of time. If you encounter a situation that is hard and find an automatic reaction occurs, don’t judge, just notice. Use an app to learn to do some deep breathing (like Insight Timer) and just imagine a few different ways you could cope. If one of those ways appeal and it is not something you are used to doing, why not give it a try?
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. :-).
Ironically, this made me think of a Patti Smith story. When my oldest was in college, she took a class on the music and poetry of Patti Smith. Like most people in the class, she took it because a parent loved Patti. The final part of the class was lunch with Patti, who came to receive an award at the University and who met this group of freshmen. Her most important message was to brush, floss and go to the dentist. Basic health that should be affordable to all and is preventative of many other problems. In that message, she clearly alluded to her own lack of money in the early years and inability to get the dental care she needed. The movement I would start is either the complete revamping of health care or a buddy system where you could add someone who cannot afford health care on to your own insurance at a reduced rate that you pay for them. Obviously, this is tailored to asking people with wealth to help others stay well and reduce death, grave and avoidable illness and the overuse of the ER as regular care is cost prohibitive. That is my movement.
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 :-).
Please tag Patti! I would love to have coffee with Patti Smith. She is, and always has been, a mentor of mine (no, she does not know this and no, I am not alone in this) as she lives her feminist, social justice agenda in her words and actions. Love you, Patti!
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Right now, I am putting my energy into IG @robinmindfulcounseling and Linked-In: https://www.linkedin.com/in/robin-hornstein-51b7523/
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!