What Is a Resilient Mindset?
I don’t know of a single person in our profession who has not dealt with a personal or professional setback. While most of us have honed a few coping skills for trying times, many of us are finding that our skills are falling short during the pandemic and its aftermath – the unknowns are too vast and the tragedy too great. As we move forward, a resilient mindset may be what allows us to stay afloat mentally, emotionally, and financially in these rocky waters. Ultimately, a resilient mindset may mean the difference between holding steady with an anchor and being tossed around in the waves.
Resilience is our ability to bounce back from a setback and adapt when things don’t go as planned. It arises through a process of understanding our emotional response to the setback and by making meaning of what we learn while recovering. Our mindset is a compilation of our beliefs, attitudes, and mental states that orient us to what is going on and what we should do (or not do) about a given situation. A resilient mindset allows us to adapt our beliefs, attitudes, and mental states such that we can bounce back from setbacks and unanticipated changes. A resilient mindset is one that both allows space for “what is real” in the moment – including difficult emotions such as fear, sadness, and loneliness – and space for something new and improved to emerge.
No one yet knows what the full impact of the coronavirus and its aftermath will be; however, our mindset will determine how we remember and talk about what happened, and will determine what we make of our lives now. If we strive to have a resilient mindset, we will be able to adapt and bounce back from all we have lost and make the most of what we have gained in the past few months.
During the peak of the pandemic, I received an email from a client, Jessica Yañez, a North Carolina attorney and owner of Yañez Immigration Law in Greensboro. Her email so clearly illustrates the power of employing a resilient mindset during challenging times that I asked her for permission to excerpt from it here.
What follows is an example of someone who is thriving in difficult circumstances. Not everyone is experiencing the pandemic in the same way, and not everyone will embrace adversity like this. In fact, most people will find that they are coping well in some areas and not as well in others. It’s completely normal to feel challenged by setbacks. So if you are struggling right now, know that you are not alone. But you can draw inspiration from others’ stories, and maybe it will spark an idea that resonates for your own life.
“Hi Laura,” her email began, “I wanted to share some of my personal thoughts about the current coronavirus situation. We are definitely in unprecedented times, and lots of people are suffering. There was one day that I worried myself sick and ended up having a good, long cry because I just felt so bad for all of the people suffering and my fear of the unknown.”
As I read the opening lines of Jessica’s email, I could feel her distress and concern due to the trauma and uncertainty of the times. And yet, when I read her next sentence, I started to smile: “Once I got past that day, things have been so much better.” As I continued to read her email, it was apparent that Jessica had adopted a “resilient mindset” to help her and her family cope with pandemic-related setbacks. Her email went on to exemplify ways she and her family were adapting both their attitudes and their lives in resilient ways.
“I am embracing the unknown and enjoying so many new things,” she wrote. “I always said I wanted to work less and spend more time with my kids. Now I am staying home two days a week with them and spending so much quality time with them. I am embracing technology and all of the things it has to offer. I did a paint class online Friday evening; I started having the kids do photography scavenger hunts. Our son turned 12 at the end of March and finally learned to ride the bike we got him when he was six years old! He learned to mow the lawn, too. My daughter is doing an online art class, and we do free online lessons through scholastic and Cosmic Kids yoga together. I also signed them up for a book club called Literati and a cooking club called Kidstir. We made a home gym in the garage and work out together. It’s like we are finally able to do all the things I’ve always wanted to do, but was too tired or too stressed to do.”
Embracing the unknown is a useful approach to cultivating a resilient mindset, and oftentimes creativity emerges as a result, just as Jessica and her family discovered. A resilient mindset can also open us up to deepening our relationships with ourselves and those we love. Jessica’s email continued: “I gardened for the first time and even got a bike myself! I’ve connected more with my husband, and we have taken time to talk about things that really matter to us.”
Cultivation of a resilient mindset can be done at both work and home: When we foster a resilient mindset toward our home life, it crosses over into our work, and vice versa. The adage “the way you do anything is the way you do everything” applies to our mindset, and we can reap the benefits of resilience in both places, as Jessica’s email illustrates. “As for the firm, we are still steady, and we now have time to do everything we wanted to, but didn’t have the time [before]. At the end of this month, we are going to do a complete file review for every case in the office. We will reach out to everyone with a pending case to say hello and check in. We will use the time after that to get ahead on every case.”
Most importantly, a resilient mindset makes meaning out of what we lost and connects it with what we gained. The closing lines of Jessica’s email illustrate that she was doing that. “I know everyone processes this differently, but this has been a blessing in disguise for me. Some people may feel overwhelmed and not want to be given a laundry list of things to do, but I feel like now the world has given us the much-needed gift of slowing things down and letting us take time to rest and do things we always wanted to [do].” I was touched to read Jessica’s email and felt proud of her for investing her time in cultivating a resilient mindset long prior to the pandemic. It was clear she had “done her homework,” and her resilience kicked into gear when she needed it.
Step One: Account for What You Lost – As you process your experience with COVID-19, take a moment to acknowledge how it set you back and what you lost. Perhaps professionally you lost something that gave you security – like your job or your firm, or the benefits you receive from full-time work, or your confidence in being able to run a business. Maybe you lost something that gave you satisfaction or joy – like having a routine, writing a brief, going to court, or winning a case. Perhaps the biggest thing you lost was your face-to-face connection to your colleagues, your clients, or the people you saw in court. You may even have experienced a loss of identity as a professional as your work calendar cleared and clients stopped calling.
There may also be numerous personal losses to account for as well. You may have lost someone you know to COVID-19, or suffered another loss, like being able to attend your child’s graduation, a family celebration, or your own retirement party. Or perhaps you missed out on a vacation or travel for spring break. It’s okay to account for smaller daily losses, too, like the loss of freedom to travel, leave your home, grocery shop with ease, get a haircut, and so on.
Note that you also may be experiencing “anticipatory grief” – fear of the loss of things to come. If that is the case, account also for what you’re afraid you may lose in the future.
Make a list now of your losses and setbacks.
Step Two: Make It Manageable – Choose one of the losses from your list and focus on that as you go through the next steps in this process. You can do steps two through five for each item on your list if you’d like. Part of having a resilient mindset is giving yourself the opportunity to digest and process your setbacks in small chunks so you don’t feel overwhelmed.
Step Three: Acknowledge Your Feelings – Acknowledge the feelings that came up when you experienced the loss and may still be coming up now as you account for what you lost (or what you fear losing in the future). For example, “I feel doubt, fear, sadness, confusion, disillusionment, and/or shock because when I got furloughed I lost my confidence, security, peace, sense of accomplishment, and control, and I felt alone.” As challenging as it can be to feel the uncomfortable feelings that accompany your loss, doing so is a key step to being able to process your emotions and move through the grief that arises from the loss.
Step Four: Give Yourself Support – This is one of the most important steps, even though it can be the most difficult for us as lawyers and judges to seek and receive support. Giving yourself support can be as simple as saying something kind and understanding to yourself like, “Ouch. That hurt. Of course I feel all of those feelings because that was a big loss and it set me back.” Taking a deep breath, sighing, or going outside may also help. You may want to find additional support by talking to a friend, colleague, or loved one about what you’ve lost and the feelings that come up when you think about it. If you feel inconsolable after trying a few different avenues for self-support, reach out to a mental health care provider and/or the Oregon Attorney Assistance Program for professional support.
Step Five: Reflect on What You Gained and Make Meaningful Connections Between What You Lost and What You Gained – This is the pinnacle step in creating a resilient mindset. To bounce back from a setback better than you were before it occurred, make a connection between what you lost and a skill, belief, attitude, or mental state you gained as a result of what you lost. For example, “I lost the ease of going to work and seeing clients in person, but I figured out how to work from home and use video conferencing to connect with clients in a new way.” Or, “I lost the financial security I got from my job, but I found out that I can budget and cut back when I need to.” Or, “Because I live alone, I lost my normal sense of connection with my friends, but I feel like I know myself better now, and I made new connections with my neighbors and learned to cook.” Or, “I lost someone I love during COVID, but I gained a greater understanding of how to cope with loss by reaching out to a therapist virtually for support.” If you can, see if you can feel gratitude or appreciation for what you’ve gained. Don’t push it, though: If feelings of gratitude and appreciation don’t naturally arise, it’s okay. You may be too close to the loss and setback right now to feel much appreciation. In that case, just stick with what you gained and its meaning for you.
As you rebuild over the next few months and find yourself looking for an anchor, check in with your mindset. Try on a resilient mindset for an hour, or a day, or a week, and see if employing it calms the waters and improves your perspective, well-being, and productivity. If you like how it feels, keep at it. The more you practice, the easier cultivating a resilient mindset becomes, and the sooner it turns into a habit that improves your whole outlook on life’s setbacks.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2020 issue of the North Carolina State Bar Journal. Republished with permission.
Thank you to Jessica Yañez and her family for their willingness to share their experiences with the Pathways to Well-Being readership. Laura Mahr is an Oregon lawyer, a North Carolina lawyer, and the founder of Conscious Legal Minds LLC, providing mindfulness-based wellness coaching, training, and consulting for attorneys and law offices nationwide. Her work is informed by 13 years of practice as a civil sexual assault attorney, 25 years as a student and teacher of mindfulness and yoga, a love of neurobiology and neuropsychology, and a passion for resilience. Find out more about Laura’s work at consciouslegalminds.com. If you would like to bring Laura to your firm or event to conduct a cutting-edge resilience-building training, contact her at info@consciouslegalmindscom.