‘Making lemonade out of lemons!’ What a great alternative phrase to, ‘I’m having a really hard time but I’m determined to rise above it all and make the best out of the situation, without complaining or drawing too much attention to myself,’ however, what we really mean is, ‘Be kind and understanding, show your interest and commiserate with me, tell me that you don’t know how I’m managing so well - but don’t give me too much pity, because if you highlight just how awful things are, I might just agree with you and cave in!’ In the end, just saying, ‘I’m making lemonade out of lemons’ is so much quicker.
Making lemonade out of lemons sounds like a recipe for resilience, a trait that we probably all want, but don’t necessarily like how we get it. The dictionary definition of resilience includes, ‘The capacity to recover quickly from difficulties’. To recover quickly, to stay afloat, to rise again, to be resistant to long term negative effects all require challenges of some kind to start with – so we need to accept that to grow our resilience it is going to cost us!
We know that our ability to be resilient is impacted by genetic factors, and significantly influenced by our upbringing and key figures in our childhood, however it is also a human capacity that can be learned by anyone – yes, anyone can increase their capacity to be resilient, although as far as I’m aware, it still involves lemons…………or does it?
According to Rick Hanson, in his book ‘Resilient’, 'About a third of our attributes are in our DNA, while the other two thirds are acquired through learning. This is very good news, since it means we have great influence over who we learn to become. Suppose you would like to be calmer, wiser or happier, in essence you can develop psychological resources by having sustained and repeated experiences that are turned into durable changes in your brain. You become more grateful, confident or determined by repeatedly installing in your brain experiences of gratitude, confidence or determination, and you can apply this to developing anything else you want inside yourself including resilience. Rick outlines how to achieve this in his chapter on ‘Learning’ using the acronym HEAL’, where he encourages us to look for those little opportunities each day to highlight a useful or enjoyable occurrence and consciously take it into ourselves, deliberately internalising the beneficial event.
Have a beneficial experience, which you can simply notice as it happens or create it for yourself. Take notice of positive feelings and highlight them in your awareness. Each day is like a path strewn with many little jewels, the small ordinary beneficial experiences of life like a drink of water if you are thirsty or putting on a sweater if you are chilled; these jewels are already there, why not pick some of them up?
Enrich the moment by staying with it and feeling it fully. Lengthen it for 5 or 10 more seconds; the longer the neurons fire together, the more they tend to wire together. Intensify it effects by letting it become big in your mind, as if you are turning up the volume. Expand it by noticing other elements of the experience such as related sensations or emotions.
Absorb the experience by tuning in to whatever is pleasurable, reassuring, helpful or hopeful about it and your brain will flag the experience as a ‘keeper’ for long-term storage.
Link it by using it to soothe and replace painful, harmful psychological material. ‘
You might ask, ‘How does this help to create resilience?’ The by-products of the challenges we face are often upsetting thoughts that can hang around, filling our thinking, disturbing our sleep and in time creating well-trodden pathways in our minds which we can easily revisit over and over again, shaping our outlook on life. But we also have the ability to make choices about our thought life and with practice, switching a negative thought to a positive one before we get sucked into the swamp of unhelpful thinking, can make the difference between becoming negative and critical and living more positive, hopeful and free. The more we replace an unpleasant image or feeling with a beneficial memory, the easier it can be to create pathways that lead us easily into a more life-giving way of seeing things. When the going gets tough, recall these good moments and your situation will become a bit more bearable, thus increasing your resilience.
I tried this recently, using a pleasant moment sitting in dappled sunlight by a pond, surrounded by lush ferns while listening to the babbling of water and birdsong. I enriched the sound by noticing the warmth of the sun, and pockets of shade, the ferns standing upright and bunched together in family groups, the reflections, the sounds and the timelessness of the moment. When, during the following days my mind turned to troubling thoughts, I swiftly replaced these with my little oasis experience and I found that I was able to swap a negative moment for a positive one quite easily. Having done this repeatedly, I feel more in control of my thought life and spend more time thinking encouraging and constructive thoughts than I did previously. This of course doesn’t mean that I don’t problem solve, which requires ruminating on difficulties that require resolution, but I don’t need to live at the mercy of negative or critical thoughts and I can make choices about what thoughts, images and emotions I allow to have ‘air-time'.
Finally, another writer, Paul*, wrote this from prison where he was incarcerated for his faith; he probably had a lot of time to fill his mind with bitter and angry thoughts, but instead he urges us………. ‘Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable - if anything is excellent or praiseworthy - think about such things……….. and the God of peace will be with you.’
*Philippians 4:8-9 NIV Bible