You might have been led to believe that resilience is about being tough, staying strong, putting those ‘big girl pants’ on, digging deeper and pushing through.
I do not believe that this is what resilience is and the evidence for the approach I use, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), agrees. In fact, I think this view of resilience can be a one-way street to burnout. Believe me, I’ve been there.
Instead, I see resilience as being about developing something called psychological flexibility, where we have the tools and confidence to respond in a flexible, intentional way to the challenges that life inevitably throws up.
You might not think that we can learn a lot about resilience from those tiny humans whose pre-frontal cortex (the brain’s CEO, with a key role in emotional regulation) is in the earliest stages of development. However, I believe that there are three key lessons that toddlers can teach us.
1) Don’t take your eyes off your basic needs
Toddlers who are hungry, thirsty, tired and over or under stimulated are not much fun to be around. As adults, we’ve learnt how adaptable the human body can be to short-term deprivation of our basic needs, but many of us ignore the signs our bodies give us that we are stretching it too far. We have so many demands on us that our own needs come at the bottom of the list.
I believe that just like a toddler needs a voice reminding it to go to bed, or to eat its vegetables, we need to find ways to keep reminding ourselves to prioritise our most basic needs. It might be about developing habits around getting outside for a little walk at least once a day or reminding yourself that although you feel too tired to move off the sofa and turn off Netflix, you will feel so much better tomorrow if you get yourself to bed.
2) Keep a sense of wonder
Going for a walk with a toddler can be slow going, stopping at every leaf, flower or stone to observe, pick up or play with it (hopefully not to eat it, but we’ve all been there!).
So often we are present in body but not in mind. In an effort to try and keep us safe, our minds often replay situations which have hurt us or run a disaster movie preview of something we have coming up that we are worried about. This is perfectly natural, and an experience shared by all humans, but it can be very painful and can mean that we miss out on the things that are happening in the present.
If, like a toddler, we can direct our attention to where our senses are taking us, then we can break our thought cycles and consciously bring ourselves into the present moment. Every time we do this, we strengthen our ability to step out of our thinking mind. Over time, this skill can help you to recognise when your thoughts are being unhelpful; step back from them and choose a more helpful next step.
3) Give yourself permission to feel what you’re feeling
I'm not suggesting that you go full-on ‘toddler melt-down’ and start screaming and banging your fists when you don't get what you want. However, as adults, our efforts to avoid and control the discomfort of negative emotions can cause more issues than the emotions themselves.
It always amazes me how a toddler can be screaming one minute and then running around happily the next. For the toddler the emotion has been let out and they are able to move on. When we as adults try to control our emotions, we can become stuck in them or we find that they are buried for a while and then come to bite us when a seemingly small thing upsets us.
Taking a moment to accept what we’re feeling, maybe even giving ourselves the same words we would use to comfort a child and then finding a way to process them can help us to move through our emotions in a lighter way. For me, this can look like putting a hand on my chest and saying to myself “it’s ok to feel sad/ angry/ scared”. I then write down how I’m feeling to get it out of my head and then go for a short walk.
Toddlers might often be one of the many forces in our lives that test our resilience but they can also show us beautifully what it is to be human and what we need most.
This article was written by Hazel Anderson-Turner, Business Psychologist and ICF Accredited Coach (PCC). Hazel is passionate about supporting clients to break free of thoughts and behaviours that hold them back and help them live the life they really want. You can get in touch with Hazel at hazelandersonturner.co.uk or via her coach profile page.