On my days off of work, I love a slow breakfast accompanied by birdsong. The house wren couple are still frequenting the backyard and I recognize their songs now. This morning, as Mr. Wren croons to his mate, I take a bite of a fried green tomato and let that crunchy tartness melt in my mouth. It’s early in the season for this special treat, normally I wait until my tomatoes are all but spent and use the unripened ones off the vine for frying. But yesterday, when I was watering my garden, I saw a small green tomato had fallen off the vine, probably knocked off by a curious bird. Not one to waste, I brought it into the kitchen and this morning, sliced it into thick rounds, dredged them in flour and fried them in bacon grease still hot in the pan. With each savored bite, I am tasting a memory. For a brief moment I can see my mother, clear as day, standing in front of the stove in her housecoat, fork in hand, flipping tomatoes in the cast iron skillet. With this vision, an unnamed sweetness floods through me and I am young again, sheltered and loved.
Hold on to this, hold on to this, I remind myself. Be with, let go, let in. It’s the three-step mantra Dr. Rick Hanson repeats over and over in his book Resilient: How to Grow an Unshakeable Core of Calm, Strength, and Happiness—a process of internalizing valuable resources to increase our inner fortitude. Last week, in our book club, we talked about recognizing what’s true. In this week’s portion of Resilient, we look at resourcing ourselves as a way of meeting our needs. We’ll look specifically at ways to grow our grit, gratitude, and confidence.
Hanson describes grit as “dogged, tough resourcefulness.” One way to add to our reserve of grit is to increase our sense of agency. Agency refers to our perception of control—that we have choices, and are not helpless to impact the outcomes of certain situations. The power of agency is one I am well familiar with. Every day I work with individuals who struggle with physical losses—survivors of stroke, spinal cord injury, brain injury, amputation, and many other traumatic injuries that require learning a new way of interacting with the world. Part of my job as a rehab counselor is helping these individuals recognize that despite the loss of physical function they sustain, they still have many choices about how to move forward in life. Research supports the fact that individuals with a greater sense of agency are healthier emotionally and have more successful outcomes.
Dr. Hanson discusses the challenges of overcoming the negativity bias in developing a stronger sense of agency. He indicates it takes many episodes of successful agency to overcome one experience of helplessness. To combat this, he coaches us to notice often overlooked expressions of agency—the small ways we assert choices everyday—and celebrate those instances. He emphasizes that even when we don’t have power to change things in our external world, we always have a choice of how we respond internally. He cites one of my favorite quotes from Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl as an extreme but poignant example.
We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
An article at Mindful.org discusses some other practical ways to increase your sense of agency. Other qualities that help strengthen our grit include determination and vitality—specifically how we feel about and treat our body. Hanson gives us a good discussion about nurturing our body and appreciating it just the way it is.
Gratitude is a second inner resource that contributes to resilience. Hanson notes that having a strong sense of gratitude is a way to feel good in the present rather than striving for future rewards. He discusses several ways to internalize a greater sense of gratitude, including giving thanks, taking pleasure, feeling successful, and being happy for others. I loved his suggestion to keep a pleasure diary, a new twist on the tired gratitude journal. He suggests we take note of sensory pleasures, mental or emotional pleasures, and social pleasures. A recent research study supports the importance of seeking our short-term pleasurable activities.
One of the things I appreciate about this book are the simple exercises Dr. Hanson includes to help us master the concepts he explores. I loved engaging in the “Being Thankful” exercise. Here, Dr. Hanson walks us through giving thanks for a specific person, good fortune, nature, common objects often taken for granted, and even the galaxy. As I followed his guidance, I immediately felt the benefits of a grateful state of mind in my body. Focusing on thankfulness relaxed me from the inside out.
Dr. Hanson notes that all our early experiences of relationships are “woven” into our nervous system and give us a “sense of being cared about, worth, and self-assurance that helps us cope with challenges.” If these experiences are positive and affirming, we develop a good level of confidence in ourselves and others. Confidence is a valuable inner resource on the road to more resilience.
Hanson conducts a brief discussion of attachment styles and how these contribute to our confidence level. Attachment style usually develops by age two and grows out of our needs for empathy, caregiving, and love. When these needs are met in a healthy way, children develop a secure attachment style. Hanson says, “They have a feeling of being loved and worthy, as well as strong capacities to soothe and regulate themselves. People with such an internalized secure base are able to explore the world, tolerate separations, and recover from hurt and disappointment. They’re comfortable saying how they feel and what they want, since they’ve had many experiences in which this went reasonably well. They don’t cling to other people or push them away. … They are confident.”
However, if the needs for empathy, care, and love are not met effectively, children may become insecurely attached. “People with this attachment style tend to feel inadequate and unworthy, and unsure if they truly matter to others.” As you can imagine, this can cause many problems in relationships throughout a person’s life.
The good news, Hanson says, is we don’t have to be stuck with a dysfunctional attachment style. “The plasticity of the nervous system that makes us so affected by bad experiences in relationships also enables us to heal and grow from good ones, and to become more secure … over time.” Specific ways to move toward a greater sense of security include “taking in” feeling cared about (use the HEAL method from our first discussion to internalize these feelings), developing a narrative about your past that promotes clarity and self-compassion, and finding reparation in helping others attach securely to you.
Other tools to help enhance confidence include minimizing “second darts” (unnecessary negative reactions to the “first dart” of unavoidable physical or emotional discomfort), standing up to our inner critic, and finding refuge in the knowledge you are a good person.
Whew! There was a lot of information in this section. With each inner resource Hanson discussed, he reinforced the three-step mantra I used to enhance my fried green tomato experience: Be with, let go, let in. Remember, we’re trying to change our brains for good so let’s keep using this strategy to engage our minds and carve out new neural pathways that will lead to resilience.
Next week we discuss part three: Regulating.
1) Did you practice staying with the moment this past week? Tell us about it.
2) What was your favorite inner resource Dr. Hanson discussed in this portion of the book? How are you working to build greater reserves of that resource within you?
3) Have you felt any changes in your mental outlook as a result of practicing the techniques from the book? Tell us about it.
Here’s the book club schedule:
August 12: Part One: Recognizing
August 19: Part Two: Resourcing
August 26: Part Three: Regulating
September 2: Part Four: Relating
In September, Callie Feyen will take us to the theatre with Sonia Barkat for Winter Stars: Three 10-Minute Plays: From Tragedy to Fantasy to Comedy. These compact little plays carry deep truths we’ll explore together.