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Are We Born with Resilience or Can We Learn It?

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I’m sure that my story is no different from any other woman who has hit multiple traumatic bumps in the road, in succession. By our very physiological makeup we experience all the tough things that come with being a woman, right? But this is my story and I hold it close and with pride. I choose now to reflect on the difficulties I’ve faced head-on as my path to experiencing resilience, strength, and overcoming adversity rather than see them as a series of things to feel bitter or sorrowful about.

I’m no better than the next person; I just discovered how to tap into my resilience resources at a time when I didn’t know how I was going to come up for air. My journey has me really curious about the concept of resilience, was I born with it or did I learn it?

Let me take you with me back to 2010 in the blissful stages of early marriage. I discovered that our dreams of having a family was going to be a difficult road. And that it was. Five years of pretty punishing fertility treatment and repeated heartbreak thankfully ended in delight when our baby girl arrived in 2015. Nothing could take away from the joy that this brought but we were left emotionally and financially depleted. During these years’, my dad was going through some serious health issues (mainly cancer-related) which were some of the most trying times for our family. As I live in the UK and my family in Ireland, I would regularly embark on the ‘airport dash’ terrified about what I would find at the end of the journey. I would travel with a rucksack filled with ice blocks to keep my IVF injections at the right temperature. I’d have to inject myself in public toilets or in the confined space of an aircraft loo. My determination to have our baby never wavered. I’d then show up and muster the strength to support my dad and family through some very tough times. Where did this strength come from, and for such a sustained period of time? 

Now picture me in 2019. I had just landed the ‘job of my dreams’. This was the one I was waiting for. Three weeks into that role I was diagnosed with invasive breast cancer, and it had spread to my lymph nodes. My world collapsed. I can still feel the rush of dizzy heat when the doctor uttered the words: ‘I’m so sorry but you have cancer.’ So, once again I had to dig deep and find some way of surviving, physically, emotionally, and mentally. I had a pity party; don’t get me wrong but I chose to not let it engulf me. I knew I had to be brave and stay strong for my family, especially my little girl and my husband.

On the day of my cancer surgery, I faced yet another blow. A routine pregnancy test ahead of the anaesthetic came up positive. That same dizzy heat rushed in. This couldn’t be true as we had tried for years to conceive naturally and never had success. By a huge cruel twist of fate, I was three months pregnant with our much longed for second child just as I was about to go into surgery. I had no idea. The chances of the baby surviving the dose of anaesthetic needed were slim. Four days later we lost the baby. I had to immediately find strength to get through breast surgery, months of chemotherapy and radiotherapy all the while carrying this grief. 

How did I cope during this time?

  • I leaned on my family and allowed myself to be vulnerable.
  • I set myself a goal each day, primarily to just show up, get out of bed and bring my daughter to school.
  • I exercised throughout my treatment no matter how ill or sad I was. I had to see what was left in the tank. 
  • I meditated daily and at night when dark thoughts would come and try to lure me away from positivity.
  • I stayed connected to my friends and family. 
  • I tried to help others in similar situations as this diminished my feelings of self-pity.
  • I leaned into my grief and discomfort, with the help of a coach and therapist.
  • I journaled and made a video diary of my journey. 
  • I worked really hard on self-compassion which took me out of my comfort zone.
  • I allowed myself to feel sad, angry and helpless when I needed to and without judging myself for this.

I realised pretty quickly that being resilient isn’t about being the strongest person in the room or emotional stoicism. It’s about all of the points above. To ask for help and be vulnerable is being resilient. For me, it was about being in touch with my emotions and willing and ready to lean into the pain and trauma that I was experiencing. 

So, if I could, one last time, take you with me to March 2020. I finally found the strength to face the professional working world again. Wearing a wig, and feeling anything but confident I walked into my office. A week later COVID-19 hit. I was furloughed and then I was made redundant. 

Redundancy is a pretty big life shock at the best of times; throw in a global pandemic after a year of cancer and it feels pretty terrifying. Who was I now? Life seemed to have thrown me nothing but challenges, but I chose to reframe the situation and ask myself what is the universe trying to get me to do here? How can all of this become an opportunity for my life? I adopted the same approach as I did when I was dealing with cancer and miscarriage. I leaned into the feelings and accepted them. I then set some clear goals and I’m extremely thankful that this brought me to a career where I am now helping others as a resilience and recovery coach. I know that my own life experiences enrich my skills as a coach and for that, I am grateful every day.

To answer my own question, I believe that to an extent we are born with a certain amount of resilience. I do know, however, that I learned a lot about coping mechanisms and my own resources by living these experiences. I also believe that resilience is a choice. Do you choose to stay on the ground when you fall, or get back up and say, ‘that hurts but I’m going in again’?

Sinead Scott-Lennon is a resilience and recovery coach. You can connect with her on Twitter @scott_sinead.

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