Nurture relationships. Social connections are a key to resilience. Strong social ties enable you to feel supported and loved in good times. Then, those individuals are there to support you in crises — they listen when you share your feelings, can share insights and suggestions, and offer other direct support, like bringing meals or giving you rides to appointments, in your time of trouble.
In this interview series, we are exploring the subject of resilience among successful business leaders. Resilience is one characteristic that many successful leaders share in common, and in many cases it is the most important trait necessary to survive and thrive in today’s complex market.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Manya Chylinski.
Manya helps people whose lives have been touched by trauma understand how resiliency and compassion are part of the path to healing, to enable them to live their best lives. She’s an entrepreneur and communications specialist who used her experience as a survivor of the Boston Marathon bombing to help others recognize the psychological impacts of violence and understand the importance of trauma-sensitive leadership. She has spoken about the importance of validating the invisible victims of trauma on stages around the country including the National Homeland Security conference and SXSW. Her website is www.manyachylinski.com
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory?
I’ve always been curious. I was the kind of child who wants to know why everything is happening and that has carried through to adulthood. From earliest memories, reading has been a favorite pastime, it fed into my curiosity about the world. You could travel anywhere and learn anything in a book. I remember how exciting it was to order books from the Scholastic Book Club. The day the books arrived was such a thrill; I have happy memories of opening up boxes and seeing books just for me, feeling the crisp covers and pages, knowing I was going to be the first person to crack open that particular copy of a book.
One summer, I read several of L. Frank Baum’s books about Oz, including the Wizard of Oz. They were so fascinating to me, I think I spent a lot of time on the sofa in the living room. My parents had to force me to go outside every once in a while. What I loved about those books was the fact they were a series — I’d finish one book and wish I could learn more about the characters or the land and, ta da, there was another book about them.
In college, I studied American history. At the time I didn’t really know what I wanted to do for a career, but I knew I liked history. Studying history meant doing a lot of research and thinking critically. It turned out to be something I was pretty good at and enjoyed. After I graduated, I still didn’t know what I wanted to do for a career, and I decided to go to graduate school to study library science.
That choice was based on reading the catalogue for the program. I have a vivid recollection of exactly where I was sitting in the library — on the floor in a small alcove filled with printed college catalogues. Once I started reading the course descriptions for library school, so many of them focused on research and reference, I was hooked.
Looking back over the path of my education and career, I realize that so much of what I like to do revolves around communication — research, disseminating and sharing ideas, stories and storytelling. The journey wasn’t always planned out, but it has centered on that core concept.
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
My career has included a lot of different jobs. I started out as a research librarian, worked in publishing for a while and now I have three different roles — writer and marketer, founder of an online publication about women’s friendships, and a speaker on the topic of trauma-sensitive leadership and resilience. The through line in this story is that I made career choices by following my heart. Each time I made a move, it was because I felt I’d reached the limit of what I could do in the current job, and I wanted to take the next step. In my case, that often meant switching not just jobs but also careers.
Even after I left the corporate world to work on my own as a writer, I’ve made changes in the work I do and the kinds of things I write. In addition to marketing and business writing, I also started working on other ideas as they came to me, including the trauma-sensitive leadership work and the online publication. Both of those came about because there was room in my work life, working for myself I simply added these to my to-do list, and because I felt called to do the work. Each decision felt like a natural choice given the circumstances.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
What makes my company stand out is my dedication to helping people. As an independent contractor and outside resource, whether in my marketing work or educating others about trauma and resilience, I have a unique relationship with clients. I’m not an employee (let me add that I definitely do not miss the annual review process!), so any project manager or event planner puts their faith in my promise to them — that I will deliver a report on a specific day, or show up on time and speak on a particular topic.
That has always been so important to me, meeting deadlines and arriving on time. I communicate with my clients so they know where we are in the process. It is also my habit to show up early — in person for speaking gigs I check out the venue ahead of time and arrive at the room well before my start time; for virtual events, I log on early. So, it was a quite a surprise one day when a marketing client of mine emailed me to say thank you, and included his appreciation that I actually submitted my work when I said I would. In following up with him, he indicated that it isn’t a regular occurrence with others he had worked with. Of course, I have missed deadlines, I’m not perfect; when it does happen I make sure it isn’t a surprise to the client. It’s intriguing to me that delivering on a promise, which is what a deadline is, isn’t a basic tenet that everyone shares.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
The best I can do to narrow it down is to say it’s a three-way tie with my best friends — I’m grateful for their support always, but particularly in the last several years. Each in her own way has supported my recovery from trauma. That trauma is not my whole life, but getting through that experience is a big part of what makes me who I am today. And any success I have now is directly traceable to so many of the steps I took to recover. My memory is very fuzzy about my life in the first couple of years after the bombing, but I know these women stuck close when I needed them most, and they are still such a big part of my life.
One incident I recall was just a week or two after, when one friend validated and supported me. We were in a restaurant, the first time we’d seen each other after. I cried talking about what happened to me. Not movie star pretty, with tears glistening on their way down my perfectly made-up cheeks. It was loud sobbing and snuffling, many tissues required, not a chance in the world that anyone in the restaurant missed it. Yet she sat across from me, patient and calmly listening, she dealt with our server and got me water, she just let me do what I needed to do. I still remember what restaurant it was and exactly where we were sitting.
Another of my best friends met with me every week or so and let me play with her new dog. Though we definitely talked about what was going on in my life, there was something so normal, so steady about being together, talking and playing with her big dog in the backyard. Even when the topics we were discussing were very deep, we’d still be tossing the toys for him to fetch or trying not to get knocked over when he ran back enthusiastically with the toy in his mouth. Her companionship and the shape of it grounded me, at a time when I needed that very much.
The third friend I’m thinking about also helped to ground me, in a different way. She was such a presence in my life that all the early memories post-bombing have essentially become one big memory, of her love and support. Her friendship and support took different shapes on different days — phone calls, email check-ins, daylong outings, movies and popcorn, holidays together, riding in her car on the way to something — but my overall feeling is that she built around me a bubble of support, and held me up when I needed it most.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?
I think resilience is the ability to bounce back, to use our internal resources to overcome something difficult. For individuals, that means finding constructive ways to deal with adversity and get back to a level of functioning like before the event. We all have some level of resiliency, even if it doesn’t feel like it. The thing is, it kicks in without you having to think about it. It’s something you build up without really knowing it and it doesn’t reveal itself until you face adversity.
We often see the stories of those who have found a way to thrive after something bad happened. And it can make those of us not feeling resilient, those of us who are not recognizing our own abilities to heal, feel inadequate. When I first heard the word resiliency in the sense of recovery from adversity, I hated the word. At that time, I was in the depths of my recovery after trauma. I didn’t feel resilient, I felt knocked down, fragile, scared. In that moment, thinking about people who were resilient was akin to saying those people were strong and I was weak, because I wasn’t yet thriving.
It took me a long time to recognize my own resilience. It also took time for me to realize there is no value in comparing my resiliency level to anyone else. We are all on different paths, with different histories and experiences — someone else seeming more resilient than me doesn’t mean I am not resilient or that there is something wrong with me.
One of the traits that make people resilient is relationships. People with strong social ties, even a small group of friends or family, get support from their network in good times and bad. This is critical to overcoming adversity and there is research on the protective nature of strong social ties. Another key to resilience is being self aware — having a sense of your own emotions and behavior. This enables people to recognize when things are not within their own normal range, and knowing that something is wrong can help you choose to take steps to repair what is broken.
I also think a lot about community resiliency — the ability of a community to use its resources to deal with adversity. It seems like leaders sometimes use the word as a way to gloss over what happens on the individual level, to avoid doing some of the tough work of helping individuals heal after a tragedy that impacts many members of the public. Claiming that a community is resilient doesn’t mean it is; and for those not feeling resilient, hearing that from the highest levels isn’t the most helpful message. It can come across like individuals aren’t doing it right — the community is resilient and has bounced back, why haven’t I? It is a nuanced conversation to talk about community resiliency, especially after a specific trauma; it’s important to find a way to encourage resiliency in the community, without also invalidating the individual experiences and individual levels of resiliency that may differ from the message leadership wants to project.
We are having important conversations about persistent racial and economic inequality and how that impacts resilience on a community level. I’d also like us to have those kinds of conversations about how trauma impacts community resiliency There is certainly some overlap with those conversations, yet I still see communities talk about resiliency on one hand and, on the other hand, aren’t dealing with trauma specifically in a way that respects the experience of survivors.
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
Chanel Miller, who wrote the book Know My Name. She was first introduced to the world as Emily Doe, the victim of a sexual assault, who wrote a victim impact statement that went viral. It was so poignant, and was a keen observation on how our system puts the burden on victims of sexual assaults to prove that what happened to them was real and not their fault.
The book recounts her experience going through the system after an assault she does not remember — where she got support and where the system failed her. Sharing a personal story like this starts with wanting to make a change, and wanting that more than a desire to keep something private. Her victim impact statement, and her book, demonstrate her resiliency. She was aware enough of her own feelings, was able to work through her emotions and understand them enough to write about them in a way that feels universal at the same time the story is so personal. And it ends with her looking forward, seeing what happened to her as a setback, a difficulty, not the shape of her whole life. The fact that she wrote a book is a way to make meaning from what happened to her, to share her story for those without a voice. It’s a cri de coeur for systemic change.
Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us?
There haven’t been a lot of times when someone looked me in the eye and told me I couldn’t do something. Rather, I suppose, it’s more a feeling of times when I’d been undermined or didn’t have support I expected or, frankly, deserved. I’m thinking specifically about a work experience.
I used to work in the corporate world, had my computer and cubicle and was solidly a worker bee in the middle ranks of the companies I worked for. At my annual review in one of these jobs, my boss told me I was in line for a promotion. It was the natural next step for someone in my role and I was excited. We discussed the specific milestones I needed to achieve by the next year’s annual review to get the promotion. I focused on these goals, tracked my progress and by the next year’s review, I was ready to take on my new role. Except, I didn’t get promoted, even though I had achieved all the goals. And my boss never gave a good reason. Around the same time, however, that same boss promoted a colleague and teammate of mine, that person’s second promotion since I’d started working with him about 18 months earlier. You may not be surprised to learn that was my last corporate job — about a month later, I quit and started working for myself as a freelancer.
Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?
The biggest setback in my life was the Boston Marathon bombing. My life was pretty ordinary before that and has taken on a completely different shape since then.
My friends and I were spectators in the bleachers at the finish line when two bombs exploded twelve seconds apart. The first one was directly across the street from me. We evacuated the area and I thought I was ok, because I didn’t have any physical wounds. Indeed, I was lucky, since people were killed and many had catastrophic physical injuries.
Yet, even though my injuries could not be treated by first responders, I came to realize that I had been wounded. As I returned to daily life, I struggled with fear and anxiety, and found myself without an appetite and unable to concentrate on work. I experienced intrusive thoughts — visions of things around me exploding while doing things like attending the theater and waiting for the subway.
That trauma itself was enough to change the course of my life. The other aspect of it that led to change is that fact that the response to the bombing was focused almost exclusively on the people who were physically impacted. I looked for validation in the media stories that what I was feeling was normal, that there were psychological impacts, and found none. The leaders of the response made no outreach to those who were there and experienced psychological wounds, nor to those who lived in the neighborhood that was bombed.
That fact, that I and people like me, were invisible, that what we experienced didn’t seem to count, is what drove me to start advocating for validating the psychological and emotional injuries after violence and disaster. Through learning about what was happening to me and telling my story publicly, I bounced back stronger than I could have imagined, and added advocate and speaker to my list of careers.
Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?
Both my parents worked while I was growing up and because of their schedules, sometimes, as older kids, my brothers and I were latchkey kids, as was pretty common at that time, coming home from school before a parent was in the house. I have memories of walking through the front door, knowing no one else was home. It was never frightening for me; and in a way I was never really alone, our pets were around for company.
Of course, at the time, I had no idea what this experience meant. It just was the way we lived, and the way many of our friends lived. Now, looking back, I feel like this gave me a sense of independence and trust that I could take care of myself. We were trusted to be home alone and take care of ourselves. We knew where our parents were and how to reach them if necessary (before such a thing as a cell phone); we had friends and family living in the neighborhood we could contact if necessary. There were no wild parties during those few hours. I usually turned on the tv or got started on my homework!
Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.
We all naturally have some resiliency and some level of these skills, and they can grow as we overcome big and small adversities. Thinking about building resiliency is a new concept for me, post trauma. I never thought about resiliency before then and never considered how to nurture it. Like training for a sport or practicing a foreign language, the more you work on before you’re in the real-world situation where you need to call on your resiliency, the more easily you will put those skills to work.
- Nurture relationships. Social connections are a key to resilience. Strong social ties enable you to feel supported and loved in good times. Then, those individuals are there to support you in crises — they listen when you share your feelings, can share insights and suggestions, and offer other direct support, like bringing meals or giving you rides to appointments, in your time of trouble.
- Believe in yourself. This can be hard for some people, it is easy to get down on ourselves, talk to ourselves in ways we would never talk to our friends. Building self-confidence and a strong sense of self-esteem enable people think more positively and trust in their own ability to solve problems, and keep things in perspective while working through adversity.
- Embrace change. Change is inevitable and even good changes can be stressful, so this is one that can take work. Learning to be flexible takes practice, but one thing I know from my own experiences is that it is critical. The serenity prayer has it right here: we benefit from an ability to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know which one we’re dealing with.
- Establish goals. During a crisis or recovery from trauma, it is very easy to feel overwhelmed. We don’t have as much capacity for coping. So, setting goals is a way to deal with the situation. Even setting and meeting small goals is beneficial. After trauma specifically people feel a loss of control and meeting small goals is a way to build back a sense of control.
- Be mindful. Mindfulness is the ability to be present in the moment. While meditation is a form of mindfulness, it isn’t the same thing. Here I’m thinking about it more in terms of moment by moment grounding of yourself — noticing your surroundings, taking a deep breath to calm down. There is an old saying about taking time to stop and smell the roses. That is mindfulness!
I think about resiliency like a bucket. Years ago, someone used this analogy with me talking about allergies and it applies here, too. Resiliency is the bucket and the stress or trauma is what’s inside. No one has an empty bucket, there are some stresses and crises in all of them. It’s when the contents of the bucket get close to the top and get heavy, or reach the top and overflow, that we suffer. If someone lives with a lot of stress, like unresolved trauma or systemic racial or economic inequities, it’s like they are living with an almost full bucket. It’s a heavy burden to carry and it doesn’t take much more stress to cause it to overflow. For others, the bucket may not be close to full, and then one big trauma can fill the bucket to overflowing.
More resilient people either have much bigger buckets, or lots of holes in them to let the stresses drain out. Each of the skills I just talked about helps manage the resiliency level — it’s not a perfect analogy, but they either poke a few holes in the bucket or swap out the old bucket for a bigger bucket, or maybe both. Whatever way, they enable a person to manage the stress they are dealing with.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
My mission is to change how we talk about and respond to emotional trauma. As a survivor of mass violence, I’m tired of the cavernous hole in how we talk in the aftermath of tragedy. Angry that the stigma and misunderstanding about mental health block clear conversations about dealing with emotions after trauma. Because we don’t help survivors understand their distress is normal, it leaves many feeling isolated, alone, ashamed, and struggling to recover. I want to change this.
The aftermath of trauma begs us for patience, compassion, and grace and let’s face it, the system isn’t set up that way. We need to change the system to treat emotional pain with the same care and intentionality as physical pain. Many of the elements of this kind of response exist but we can’t change without a cohesive, inclusive vision and systemic approach from all involved parties, including healthcare leaders, civic leaders, media.
Our civic and public health system responses are not comprehensive enough to fully account for the emotional pain of those who walk away from tragedy without physical injuries. Yet overlooking the psychological impacts essentially ignores most victims. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration there is overwhelming evidence that most injuries or trauma in disaster settings, which includes mass violence, are psychological — on the order of four to fifty people with psychological injuries for every one person with a physical injury. So why are these people invisible afterwards?
I learned firsthand what it’s like to survive violence and be publicly ignored by some of the very institutions that are supposed to take care of us. And I’ve seen how ignoring the emotional impacts of trauma leave people to fend on their own, stigmatized and not able to live their healthiest lives. This lack of public acknowledgement of the emotional trauma and a failure to deal with mental and physical health equally, means we’re creating an unhealthy community of traumatized individuals who, in addition to their distress, feel isolated and alone in their experience. As a survivor, it’s my responsibility to speak for those who don’t feel like they have a voice.
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂
Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project. I’ve always loved those books where the author takes one idea and does it every day for a year or reads the entire encyclopedia (like AJ Jacobs), or makes all the recipes in a cookbook (like Julie Powell). Gretchen spent a year focusing on happiness. Even just saying that brings me joy.
I’d love to get a peek into her life, her writing process, and learn about her podcast. And I think we could have an amazing conversation about helping people make their lives better. It isn’t an exact parallel, but in some ways our work focuses on two sides of the same coin — trauma and happiness — and I’d like to talk about that. Plus, I’ve always wanted to do one of those books like The Happiness Project. Maybe talking with her would inspire me to find an idea that could work for that kind of book. And maybe some part of my work could inspire her next book!
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This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!