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Four traits of resilient people: How to bounce back when plans go awry

Life's little upsets help us prepare for the big ones.

Last night I watched a documentary about extreme weather. There was a clip of an Australian man standing in the shell of what used to be his home. It had been completely destroyed by a category 5 hurricane. He looked at the camera and shrugged his shoulders: “In a few days we’ll go fishing; we’ll catch a few Reds, and it’ll be great.”

I’ve seen people, including myself, fall apart when their WiFi goes down. Why are some people able to bounce back after a significant life detour, while others can barely handle a slight bend in the road?

My senior year in college, friends and I put together a ski trip out West. We saved our pennies, planned, and looked forward to this trip for months. Every day of the week-long adventure was meticulously thought out. The flight, hotel, car rental, and ski passes were reserved. I remember the excitement of waking up the morning of our scheduled departure. The day had finally arrived.

And so had a major snowstorm. One of those momentous weather events that shuts down airports and wipes out flights across the country.

I’ll never forget that sinking feeling as our plans unraveled before our eyes. Surely there was some way to fix it, to make it all work out. But in the end, we realized there wasn’t a thing we could do, except wait for the next available flight, two days later. Our seven-day adventure would be trimmed down to five.

It’s interesting where our minds go when our plans fall apart. First, we’re mystified: how could this happen? Then we try to fix it: surely there’s a way to re-gain control of the situation. And then we fixate on the negative: Oh, woe is me; this is just terrible. In the case of the ski trip, the flight delay meant that we were “out” two days and two nights of skiing and lodging. We couldn’t recuperate the money or the missed experience.

It’s really easy to get hung-up in this cycle of negative thinking. The more we consider all the implications of the new reality, the more upset we get. In fact, we can get so mired down in the “disappointment phase,” that we never recover. We turn one bad day into many.

Four traits of resilient people

Life is filled with minor and major upsets. Changes of plans that are beyond our control.

And some people handle them better than others.

We’ve all seen it happen. That person, red in the face, staring down the ticket agent who just announced a flight cancellation. The traveler, next in line, who receives the same news, shrugs, and cracks a joke. How do we become more like the second person?

I tried googling this question, but didn’t find anything that resonated. So I started thinking about resilient people in my life. What characteristics do they share in common?

  1. They recognize that some things are beyond their control.
    To be able to “let go,” we first have to accept that hanging on won’t make any difference. Some things are simply out of our hands. Desperately trying to assert our will over a situation doesn’t do anything but make us, and everyone around us, miserable.
  2. They keep a global perspective.
    In frustrating situations, resilient people see the link between their own lives and the people around them. Instead of getting lost in their personal drama, they keep the needs of others in the forefront of their mind. Even if it’s as simple as noticing the fatigue in the ticket agent’s eyes and thanking her for her efforts.
  3. They look for opportunities to turn a negative into a positive.
    Instead of sitting around and brooding about plans gone awry, they make new plans. Where other people might see only loss, they look for what is to be gained. I know a man who, during cancer treatment, made friends with everyone in the hospital. Every week he got a kick out of surprising the receptionists with bouquets of flowers.
  4. They trust that things will work out, somehow, someway.
    Sometimes we don’t know what’s best. Just because we planned for an event to unfold a certain way, doesn’t mean it’s the only way, or even the ideal way. Life detours can take us to wonderful places that we may not have otherwise visited. Resilient people seem to know this.

In the 20-plus years since the delayed ski trip, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to practice my “life upset” recovery skills. I wish I could say that I’ve mastered them. But I’ve turned minor hiccups into major incidents because I resisted the change of plans, over and over again in my head. And I’ve had significant upsets that have taken me years to recover from, because I simply couldn’t accept that things didn’t turn out the way I had anticipated.

In the grand scheme of things, a cancelled flight is a “hiccup.” These bumps in the road are the perfect grounds to practice our recovery skills for the major shake-ups that await us all. Because the way we react to the little things is a pretty good indicator of how we’ll handle the big things.

Take the homeless Australian man who’s looking forward to his next fishing trip. My guess is, he doesn’t blow a fuse when he spills his morning coffee or the bus is running late. He realizes that life really does go on, and what a shame to miss it.

Originally posted on ourmerryway.comFor more posts on what it means to “live deeply” (a day-by-day look at all of the small, everyday things that end up being the big things), visit ourmerryway.com.

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