Strengthening the Muscles Around the Backbone

            A few weeks ago in yoga class (yes, yoga class. Regular readers of my blog know that many of my best life lessons come from yoga class.)  So anyway, a few weeks ago in yoga class, my teacher mentioned posture. She explained that the key to good posture—and to being able to sit in backless chairs for long periods of time—is building strength in your core and your back. Her comments resonated with me.

            I just finished Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant. I've been a fan of Sandberg since I saw her TED talk about why we have so few women leaders and then read her book Lean In. After Sandberg’s husband died suddenly of cardiac arrhythmia in 2015, I saw her occasional Facebook posts about the struggles of coping with grief and loss, and I was eager to read her new book. Option B combines Sandberg’s personal story of struggling to move forward after her husband’s death with insights from psychological research about how people deal with loss and develop resilience.

            I’m really interested in the topic of psychological resilience. Over the years I’ve watched family, friends, students, and colleagues face setbacks and grief, and I’ve wondered why some are able to recover from loss or failure while others seem to get stuck. I’ve found that my own resilience waxes and wanes.

            Sandberg and Grant define resilience as the “strength and speed of our response to adversity,” and they maintain that we can build our resilience. I loved one mental image they used. They said that resilience “isn’t about having a backbone. It’s about strengthening the muscles around our backbone.”

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            That image—of building the muscles around the backbone—made me think of a lesson from my nine years of practicing yoga. I went into yoga assuming that there were limits to my strength and flexibility and that I just had to work within those limits.  But I’ve learned again and again that if I keep practicing—if I keep building those muscles around my backbone and in my core—I grow stronger and more flexible. Practice builds strength which in turn builds resilience. 

            Just as strengthening my back muscles makes my body more resilient, facing setbacks and losses in a mindful way can make my psyche more resilient. One of the ways my clients become more resilient is through practice. One client works hard to prepare for a job interview—only to be told the company hired another candidate. She tries again and again, each time growing in confidence, until finally she lands a job that she wants. Another way of building resilience is by reaching out to a community for support such as the client who was struggling with a diagnosis of illness. Reaching out to others who were farther along in their treatment helped her see possibilities beyond her immediate medical challenges. With the help of the folks in her support network, she was able to believe that she could move beyond her illness.

            What about you? What wisdom can you share about building resilience in the face of setbacks?