We define survivor's pride as the well–deserved feeling of accomplishment that results from prevailing against hardship or adversity. It is a bittersweet mixture of pain and triumph that is usually under the surface, but is sometimes readily visible in many youth and adults who have overcome difficult circumstances. It develops over time in the course of a struggle that typically goes unnoticed in professional and lay circles more likely to document problems and deficits in people than their strengths. It is not a rare feeling; nor is it limited to those with dazzling success. In our work, we have been able to find survivor's pride even in young people with on–going struggles and whose claim to a satisfying life is far from secure.
Identifying and acknowledging survivor's pride, more constructively, focusing on strengths rather than on pathology or what is wrong. This motivates positive change by:
• conveying respect and honoring the struggle, seeing behavior and choices made in the difficult lives lead.
• shifting the self–image from ”damaged goods” to ”one who prevails.”
• providing evidence of the ability to meet challenges in the past and to do so again.
• uncovering the method used for succeeding in the past that he or she can duplicate in the present.
Emotional resiliency comes from developing the following attributes:
• Be curious, play, and laugh . Life's best survivors have a child–like curiosity. They love to learn how things work. They play and laugh like children. Playing with what you are curious about is the best form of learning. In a survival situation an ability to play and laugh at what is happening improves your chances of coping well. Your mind, rather than being overwhelmed, is able to absorb useful information rapidly.
Action plan: Ask more questions, be curious, experiment, and laugh more. Learn how to make yourself laugh so you don't have to rely on outside sources. Counter–balance a tendency toward seriousness with a spirit of playfulness.
• Learn from unpleasant experiences. We were all born with the ability to learn directly from experience. It is as if the original equipment came from the manufacturer with an installed software program that constantly up–grades itself with use.
Action plan: People tend to react to an upsetting or distressing experience with either a victim/blaming reaction or a learning/coping reaction. To develop the learning/coping habit, first accept responsibility for your reaction to what other people do or say. They are not ”making you angry”, for example, you feel angry when they act or talk a certain way.
Second, if you understand that the challenge is dealing with strain, rather than external stress, you can treat a difficult situation like a workout at the gym. You do your very best, pause afterward to reflect on what happened, and ask ”What can I learn from this?” Then imagine yourself doing better next time and look forward to embracing it fully with your best energy.
If you repeat the learning process over and over for weeks and months, you develop confidence in yourself. You anticipate either handling something well or, if you don't, you expect to earn something useful. You become stress resistant. What used to be stressful becomes an invigorating workout for you.
• Practice empathy for difficult people. Mentally healthy people can see how things look from other points of view besides their own. Empathy is easy with someone you know and like. But how do your react to difficult people? Give them a negative label? Labeling others is a sign that you are judgmental and emotionally fragile.
Let's look, for example, at your reaction to someone who is negative all the time. If you are like most people you have labeled the negative person ”a pessimist” and think ”if only they would change, things would be much better.” Do you recognize this? It is a victim reaction to something you can't handle well. The problem is not that the person is negative. The problem is that you have a negative reaction to their negative attitude.
Action plan: When someone acts or talks in a way that upsets you, take a deep breath and work to comprehend how things look from their point of view. The ability to understand ways of acting, thinking, and living that you disagree with is a high level skill. Empathy does not mean, however, that you agree with or approve of the other person's views or actions. It means only that you comprehend.
Try thinking of a difficult person as your teacher. This person knows how to do and say things you can't handle. The way to learn and gain strength is to through curiosity and empathy. Stop blaming them. Ask yourself ”What advantages, benefits, and payoffs do they gain from talking as they do?”
• Value your paradoxical traits. Interviews and surveys show that life's best survivors value being flexible, resilient, and adaptable above any other quality. Paradoxical traits are, at the psychological level, like the opposing muscles in your body that contract and extend. Your ability to control how you move and react comes from being at the choice point between counter–balanced forces.
Action plan: Make up list of all the ways in which you are both one way and the opposite. The more the pairs of opposites the better. Validate opposing qualities. Tell yourself, for example, ”It is all right to be both optimistic and pessimistic.”
• Develop strong self–esteem. Self–esteem works like a thick skin or blanket of energy around you. If someone is critical you can compare your opinion of yourself with theirs, decide that you like yours better, and shrug off the barb without feeling wounded.
Action plan: Make a list of all the things you like and appreciate about yourself. Practice positive self–talk about yourself.
• Expect good outcomes. People who are hardy and resilient expect and need to have things work out well. They expect to handle adversities in a way that leads to the best possible outcome. Pilot Scott O'Grady, for example, constantly scanned his situation in Bosnia to determine his best course of action for surviving and getting rescued. In personal conflicts psychologically healthy people look for resolutions that have all sides benefiting and ”winning.” This synergistic motivation saves energy. Everything works better; you create good ”flow” when everyone benefits.
Action plan: Orient yourself to a challenging situation with the question ”How can I interact with this so that things turn out well for everyone, including me?” Then work in a gently persistent way to make it so.