How to weather a storm
Resilience and empathy form a real power couple in difficult times.
Picture the scene: my office, the Monday morning after an ice storm walloped our city. As I was turning on lights and resetting servers, my phone pinged with a text message from a colleague.
“Glad your power is back on!” she enthused, and then went on to ask if there was any chance of receiving a deliverable that was due the Friday before.
With annoyance, my initial reaction was no, there was zero chance of getting it delivered. After 90 hours without power at my office or home, I was trying to pick up the literal and figurative loose ends from Groundhog Day, the day before the storm disrupted everything.
My colleague did not lose power. Life, for them, had marched along as usual between Wednesday and Monday, interrupted only by being unable to reach the people, like me, who had spent four days in limbo.
That text exchange was indicative of a broader theme that was in full bloom by Monday afternoon. While some of us were in “repair and recover” mode, others were impatient to move on.
Looking through social media feeds at posts describing experiences similar to mine, two words came to my mind: resilience and empathy.
Resilience, a word that’s become a kind of pandemic darling, is the ability to bounce back after an incident or interruption. Though it’s often presented as the strength to endure, resilience is not simply the ability to muscle through hard times. It’s the ability to regain equilibrium after being knocked off balance. It’s recovery.
Think about a foam mattress or stress ball. Press your thumb into the foam, and if the material is in good condition, then it will bounce back into shape when you pull your thumb away. That is resilience. And like that foam mattress, psychological resilience can lose some of its bounce back ability over time or as a result of excessive wear and tear.
This is perhaps why some people may have struggled more than usual to get back in the swing of things after the recent ice storm. After two years of near-constant turmoil and change, even the most resilient people are finding it challenging to recover after seemingly small interruptions, because resilience reserves are depleted.
I’m reminded of something a friend said last year: “I just can’t seem to keep my battery charged.”
She’d just returned from a week’s vacation – long overdue rest, for her. But after only a couple of days back at work, she felt exhausted again.
The “battery” is another good metaphor for resilience. My friend had gotten a good surface charge, as it were, from her vacation, but after months of stress with only intermittent breaks, the battery’s memory – its ability to take and hold a full charge – was gone.
Enter the second player in this power couple story: empathy. This has also become a more popular word in recent years, and like resilience, it is sometimes misrepresented. Empathy is not surrendering one’s own priorities or values in favor of someone else’s. Instead, it’s the ability to acknowledge feelings and perspectives that are not our own, to accept that other people have different experiences, different emotions from ours.
Here’s where the two players, empathy and resilience, come together as a dynamic duo. Showing empathy to others helps build resilience – for both people. Having a deeper reserve of resilience enables an empathetic response instead of an emotional reaction during stressful situations.
My initial reaction to the message from my colleague was to wonder how they could be so clueless and out of touch. After a pause and a deep breath, though, I was able to consider things from my colleague’s perspective. They felt responsible to complete tasks and keep projects on track. They weren’t being rude or unprofessional, and the request wasn’t out of line. I was reacting, not responding.
And in that moment of considering the other person’s point of view, I felt my own strength returning.
Like the glamorous, real-life power couples parading across social media, empathy and resilience are at their best when a lot of work goes on behind the scenes. That background work can include self-care, support from friends and family, and therapy. No one builds resilience or empathy in isolation.
They are relationship skills, some of the most important skills we can work to cultivate as we navigate the storms that will inevitably come our way.
Jennifer Balink is the executive director of Kindred Place, a counseling, coaching, and education center for confident parenting and healthy behaviors.