The role of personal evolution in cultivating resilience.

The candour and courage of many other people in confronting their own mental health challenges encourages me to reflect on my own experiences. Specifically, how a mindset of adaptation and evolution has helped me – and will hopefully help others – cope with setbacks and poor mental health in the aftermath of adversity by building true resilience.

My own challenges have their roots primarily in military service; I had some fairly difficult times in Iraq initially and then Afghanistan, which culminated in being blown up by a Taliban IED in May 2010. Although my injuries – a badly broken foot and some minor brain damage – were mercifully limited compared to many others, they and other experiences conspired to change the course of my life quite considerably.

As is quite common, the psychological effects started to appear quite some time after the obvious physical wounds had started to heal and I experienced considerable difficulties in adjusting after I was medically discharged from the army. Not only did I have to contend with processing some abnormal human experiences, but I also had to come to terms with an abrupt end to a career that had become an all-consuming vocation. Going from being part of an established team to an individual with no direction or sense of purpose caused a grieving process to set in. Looking back, I now know that this was the catalyst for a period of major depression and anxiety, sprinkled with a number of post-traumatic symptoms for good measure.

In Dispatches, his vivid recollection of reporting the Vietnam War at close quarters, Michael Herr recounts how he went into real despair and a deep paralysis upon his return home. Reading this felt like reassurance; reassurance that I hadn’t been losing my mind but just dealing with something that I wasn’t designed to encounter. The sense of isolation is one of the most frightening and alienating aspects of living with poor mental health and any insight into other people’s experiences goes a long way to reducing that feeling of solitude.

After almost two difficult years of living on the edge of a psychological precipice, I began the road to recovery and developed a sense of optimism for the future. I recently read that while hope is passive and relies on the passage of time, optimism is active and requires positive action. By this stage I had eventually got myself to a position where I felt that I could begin to take responsibility for my future again and that I was able to steer my own path, along with the inspiration, help and guidance of others.

The crippling paradox of poor mental health is that the desperation for circumstances to alter – to escape the anguish and torture – is stopped in its tracks by an inability to initiate positive change. This can often be compounded by a treatment system that can seem impenetrable and daunting; recovery becomes a very personal goal while the journey can seem anonymous.

This is where personal evolution comes in. In nature, evolution provides solutions emerging from failure; it’s a biological response that uses trial and error against an ever-changing set of problems. Whilst ill, I felt like everything was tainted with failure. Nothing seemed to work out and I felt that life was always going to be an uphill struggle and tinged with disappointment. With the benefit of hindsight, I have identified that the ability to evolve is the only way to move on psychologically, to leave behind that sense of permanence – which convinces you that things will never get better – and begin to build the foundations of success. A key part of this process is accepting the past and that life will change as you move forwards. This can be especially problematic if you previously had a sense of purpose and identity that was dependent on being part of an organisation or close association with other members of that organisation.

As with many endeavours, I have only truly understood my progress towards recovery in reverse, when I have had a sense of distance and perspective, reinforced by the support of trusted friends. At the time, I had no plan and certainly no vision; I felt like I was clutching at straws at the same time as undermining myself with constant negative self-talk. Now, at a time when I feel like I have come through the other side, I can reassemble the process into a journey that begins to add up.

Reflection led me to the conclusion that the two factors that allowed me to move forwards and ultimately come out stronger were:

  1. The realisation that I needed to take personal responsibility for my own recovery. Despite the good intentions of friends, family and charities, it became apparent that unless I was personally invested and accountable, no sustainable change would be made.
  2. The acceptance that my psychological recovery was no different to my physical recovery; it would mean learning new ways, practicing and embedding them in a way that meant my mental fitness was treated just like my physical fitness. An ongoing routine that I needed to commit to if I wanted to see results.

If I were to offer myself any advice in the immediate aftermath of hardship, it would be to cultivate true resilience in myself using a strategy that includes the following steps:

  1. Recall your inner strength. The likelihood is that you were once a well-functioning human, with family, friends and a career. Poor mental health can destroy all that, either instantly or over time. I went from being a confident army officer to someone who couldn’t get out of bed for days on end. The previous you is not gone and illness can’t rob you of your accomplishments, although it feels like that they may never be repeatable. I found re-reading appraisals from my army days to be extremely helpful; re-establishing in my mind how I had been perceived by colleagues went a long way to rebuilding my deficient self–esteem and the realisation that I could function like that again one day. This will prove crucial in the next step, giving you a sense of your remaining potential to build on.
  2. Sow the seed.If you have been forced off a certain career path, it can be an overwhelming task to try and identify other avenues that offer the same sense of purpose. Talk to people and you will find that this is not uncommon but you will also find that after some persistence, most of them find something that fulfils their ambitions. Identify a catalyst to move forwards and take the first small step; I always found that this was the hardest part but when recalling your inner strength, it is the only certain way forwards and is the crucial difference between hope and optimism. The likelihood is that one small action will lead to more action, and that confidence will grow in turn. You will be reminded of your own potential and begin to see the prospect of a positive future.
  3. Be prepared to adapt. Depending on the adversity that you have encountered, it may well be that you can no longer pursue objectives that once were the focus of your existence. An evolutionary mindset will help you accept that you may have to do different things or just do the same things differently. Nobody can tell you what the right decisions are – which can be lonely – but committing to your own evolution with tenacity will be the end of the beginning. Once you have identified options, be prepared to make mistakes and grow from them through trial and error.
  4. Learn how to fail well. Even without facing adversity, change and failure are inevitable for everyone. Recovery from hardship adds an extra element to the concept of failure, making it difficult to examine it objectively. This can mean that the smallest experience of failure can seem catastrophic and be the beginning of a downward spiral. The key to avoiding this is being able to separate out your perceptions of failure; just because I have failed in one aspect of life doesn’t mean that everything else is going to immediately fall apart. The most successful people I know expect a certain amount of failure and plan for it; it’s a crucial part of evolution. When it does occur, they are able to learn from it, compartmentalise it, put it down to experience and shrug it off. There is a really fine balance between persisting with failing choices and knowing when to cut your losses; consciously choosing to stop pursuing a certain path, having evaluated the reasons for doing so, is always preferable to just allowing things to peter out.
  5. Find an anchor. Developing resilience in one area of life, be that family, career or sport, will go a long way to creating mental strength – and the feeling of being able to cope well – in others. Whatever helps you to prevent backsliding can only be helpful. Like fear, hope is contagious and it will grow if you feed it. Work out how best your own sense of hope responds to nourishment and make a point of sticking to it diligently so that you are on a path to optimism.
  6. Take responsibility– When struggling with poor mental health, free will doesn’t seem to exist – life seems to happen to you, and usually badly. But by this stage you should start to feel like you are taking back control, even in small ways. This doesn’t mean that you have to go it alone. Make sure you seek help from people you trust but don’t rely on them to deliver a silver bullet; ultimately the only person who is going to make this evolution work is you. Use technology to help you set and achieve your goals; let it nag you and ensure you remember why you wanted to achieve those goals in the first place. Crucially, don’t be too hard on yourself and learn to ignore the negative self-talk. You will then start to feel less like a victim of circumstance and more a product of your own decisions.
  7. Learn when to listen to yourself. It’s quite possible that you have learned not to trust yourself; hardship and stress can cause you to question your own most basic faculties and ability to make the simplest of decisions. Even more confusingly, a debilitating lack of self-belief can quickly morph into manic over-confidence with potentially disastrous consequences. As part of personal evolution, there will be decisions to be made. These will be accompanied by internal voices, sometimes positive but frequently negative. By evaluating the outcomes of decisions and linking them to the mindset that they came from, you can begin to learn what is helpful internal dialogue and what is not. You can further validate these thoughts by talking them through with a friend, coach or mentor. Often, the simple fact of externalising them will help you to judge whether you are making the right decisions. Over time, you will learn to trust yourself again and be able to differentiate between the voices that hold you back unnecessarily and those that are suggesting sensible caution.
  8. Remember it is a journey. The likelihood is that this process is going to be gradual and success is going to be achieved in increments; there’s no one day that everything will magically drop into place. Make sure you harness what free will you can and take small steps. Resilience will grow and you will begin to see and feel progress towards the goals that you have set for yourself. It is quite possible that there will be setbacks – few people have smooth paths to recovery – but developing coping strategies will make sure you can absorb these and even learn from them. Although you will be carrying your own baggage, don’t pre-judge how others will perceive you; you have more control over your outward appearance than you think. In the early days of my recovery, I found myself telling new acquaintances about my injuries shortly after meeting them; it became an excuse and a way of justifying myself in the event of any problems that came up. Now that life is as normal as I can expect it to be, I no longer feel the need to qualify myself through injury or misadventure; it feels okay just to be me.
  9. Acknowledge progress. Ever since I came across the idea of post-traumatic growth – the idea that positive psychological change can come about as a result of adversity – I liked the idea of it. However, I quickly came to see it as another reason to beat myself up, something else to fail at. So, instead of aiming too high I found it a useful concept against which to measure progress from my lowest point; after all, we can never know how we would have turned out without the trauma and most of us will face some kind of adversity over the course of a lifetime. What is useful is the ability to develop a perspective from which we can identify the positive consequences of a certain path, successes that wouldn’t have been achieved without a certain set of actions; this will.
  10. Pay it back.Since my own evolution became embedded and established a (more or less) one-way road to stability, the most fulfilling thing I have done is to mentor people in the same position that I found myself in. This gives them the opportunity to turn their hope into optimism by understanding what might work for them and help to accelerate their own evolution back to a sense of normality and growth. My own experience has shown that those in need of help often benefit from working with others who have been through similar experiences to their own. The opportunity to see themselves in a place of optimism is often the catalyst that they need to commit to their own journey.

In summary, none of us know how our lives will pan out and the best we can hope to do is to keep moving forwards. The most painful lesson I learned is that time spent trying to re-build the past is only going to be wasted. Once I had accepted that, I felt free to pursue – and fail at – other options in the knowledge that, even in some small way, I was going forwards and never backwards. I now know that true resilience is not just bouncing back from hardship but growing through pain and making the struggle worthwhile.

At The Eleos Partnership, we use the hard-won insights from our own challenges to cultivate mental fitness in individuals and organisations. If you think that your team would benefit from working with us to improve performance through building resilience, get in touch at enquire@eleospartnership.com or visit www.eleospartnership.com