Author Archive for carole

Shame: an enemy of resilience


We all lose access to resilience at times. It may come through a significant life event, or it may be the cumulative effect of lots of small knocks or the relentlessness of pressures.  Those destabilisers are well recognised  but  little attention has been paid to another influence on our resilience – shame.

Shame is one of the most primitive and universal of emotions. It is the intense painful feeling or experience of feeling we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance or belonging.  It is when we use words like unacceptable, diminished, small, embarassing or rejected to describe ourselves. It is separate from guilt which relates that how we have behaved. We can be guilty because we lied in order not to be found out, we failed to do something we know we should have done or were mean towards someone who was vulnerable.   Shame does not have links with how we have behaved, it is linked to how we feel about ourselves. We can feel shame about our age, our appearance, our weight, our accent, our education.

As a child I felt shame about being in a single parent family when everyone around me had 2 parents. I felt shame when I went to university and found that the norm for other students was to have had dinner parties at home, when an invitation for a cup of tea was all I knew. What I did not know was that much of the shame we put on ourselves is based on cultural expectations, or our perception of cultural expectations.  I sensed that I should know how to eat a Jerusalem artichoke when I had never seen one in my life.  I believed that if I spoke with my Liverpudlian accent I would be thought stupid, and the impact of those feelings gnawed at my fragile confidence. Where I could have judged those who made me feel small, I judged myself and felt shame.

Brene Brown whose writings on vulnerability are well known, also did early work in her career on shame and concluded that there are 3 main outcomes of shame:

  • A sense of being trapped. The feeling of there being expectations on us that we cannot meet. The expectation to be:

Successful in career

In a relationship

A good parent




  • A feeling of powerlessness. It is sometimes difficult to even recognise the feelings of self judgement or fear as being those of shame. It is also difficult to believe that you can do anything that would change the feelings. Power is the ability to produce an effect. Shame can feel like a hidden secret over which we have no power to make a change.


  • A feeling of isolation. A feeling that because of the cause of your shame you are disconnected from others. They do not know your shame is caused by eating too much, or too little, feeling different because of your appearance, class origins, income or education but it creates a barrier between you and those you perceive to be shamefree.

The question Brown explored was what is it that causes these feelings of shame, which remain a taboo subject of conversation, and yet affect how we show up to others, and eat away at our resilience.

Her answer is that it is a spider’s web of cultural expectations based on what you feel you should be and how you feel you should be.

What you should be is influenced by:

  • The messages that the media and particularly social media promote as to what is acceptable (and then the shame when you do not match up).
  • The overt and covert messages that families give as to what they want for you (and the shame if you cannot deliver on their expectations).
  • The images in films and advertisement of what masculinity and femininity are (and the shame when they do not match with your sense of self)

How you should be is also influenced by:

  • Your friends
  • Colleagues at work
  • Books
  • Music
  • TV programmes
  • Your own messages to yourself

Fail to meet up to what others want you to be or what you think you should be and shame is there to show you up.

When we cannot live up to what we believe is being asked of us then shame drives us to behave in ways which we believe will meet those expectations and reduce the feelings.  We try and become like the ‘them’ who we have allowed to make us feel shameful. We hide parts of ourselves which we feel are not acceptable.

But the answer is not to build shame resilience by doing what we feel is being asked of us – whether that is to lose weight, have a successful career, find a partner, or to deny who we really are,  but by decreasing the feelings of being trapped, being powerless and being isolated.

Key to this shift Brown discovered in her research was replacing shame with empathy.  Rather than hiding one’s feelings about oneself, sharing them with someone you can trust so that:

  1. You see yourself as another person sees you (which is often very different from how you see yourself).
  2. Feel listened to without being judged.
  3. Feel understood by another person (and perhaps learn they have similar feelings).
  4. Having that person show that they understand your feelings.

That evidence is that empathy is a powerful catalyst in reducing the sense of isolation, of being trapped and of being powerless. The outcome of that shift is an increase in resilience.

If  you cannot find that person, then offer some kindness to yourself.  Be your own friend and ask yourself what would you say to someone who said to you, ‘I feel shame because I am. . .  overweight, jobless, have no partner, am from a working class family, don’t have a university education etc. And accept the loving kindness you would give to another.

Shame is powerful and toxic because it is hidden.  It has to be kept out of site because others would think badly of us, if they knew how we feel, and yet whilst it is hidden it does not disappear. What Brown’s work shows is that it is being able to talk to someone that shame shrinks and resilience grows. And, if you cannot find that person then befriend yourself.


Reference:  Brene Brown, 2006, Shame Resilience Theory, The Journal of Contemporary Social Services.















When Resilience is an Interview Question

An article in the Journal of Vocational Behavior*  has reported that in selection processes, those who can show examples of their resilience are more likely to get a successful outcome. The premise employers are using, is that resilience is a personality trait that a candidate either will or will not have. It also assumes that it will always be available to them.

The truth is more complex. Most resilience is not defined by your genes but what you have  learnt from the difficulties you have experienced in your life. It does not matter if those difficulties were in work or in your personal life, resilience is about how you recovered, but also what you learnt from that disruption that you have taken forward with you.  It is also true that no one is resilient all of the time. In the course of a day, a week or a year we may have times of sailing through difficulties and times of getting overwhelmed

But, given selection processes may not know this and still believe that resilience is something that you were given as part of your genetic makeup, how do you answer the question:

Can you tell me about a time when you have had your resilience tested?

In answering it, you can go to any part of your life:

  • When you failed to get the right results for the university course you wanted.
  • When your parents got divorced
  • When you had a major illness
  • When someone close to you died
  • When an important relationship ended.
  • When you had a setback in your career

The key part is not the episode, it is how you approached recovery:

  • What was the immediate impact on you e.g. loss of confidence, feeling lost without any purpose, feeling alone, being unable to make a decision?
  • What did you do that helped you move forward e.g. I started talking to people, I signed up for things which took my attention away from my feelings, I set myself challenges such as running a half marathon, I volunteered, I looked at what I could do rather than focusing on my failure, I acknowledged my part in what had happened rather than denying it.

And what you learned from it:

  • I learned that life does not have certainty and that I am adaptable.
  • I learned that connecting with others when in difficulty is better than being miserable in silence.
  • I learned that absorbing myself in a challenge helps me to move forward
  • I learned that everyone has difficulties and that having my own, has made me more able to be empathic when others have theirs.
  • I learnt that leaning into difficulty rather than denying it or blaming others is a better way of moving forward.


It is not the example that matters, it is what it says about you that will show up whenever life or work throws you a curve ball.

Rather than resilience being a fixed quality, it is a quality that grows throughout our lives as we face into difficulty and learn. It is also more than mental toughness. Sometimes toughness can be armour that prevents learning.

The interviewers may not know that, but you can show you do by how you answer the resilience question.

*D King, B Lyons and C Phetmisy, Perceived resiliency: the influence of resilience narratives on attribution processes in selection, Journal of Vocational Behavior, October 2021.




Good Grief in Organisations


It is being called the turnover tsunami: the evidence that faced with returning to work people are looking for new roles in unprecedented numbers,. This is more than the annual reflection that often takes place when people go on holiday. It is an indication that the demands that the past 18 months have impacted on how people see their work and the organisations they work for. Something has been lost and they hope it will be restored by moving on. The word grief has been used to describe the sense that COVID has changed not just many personal lives, but also work lifes.

Death has been brought to the front of our minds because a global experience  has impacted on every community. Loss has become more than a personal experience it is a community experience. The word grief describes not just the individual pain of losing a person we love, of time with loved ones, of what we once accepted as normality, and now the word is being used to describe what people may feel in returning to the workplace. That grief may be for the ending of the life that has been created during lockdowns. It may also be for the recognition that the workplace is changed.

Personal Grief

When we grieve we are acknowledging the loss of what we valued.  When we grieve for an individual we are recognising what about them was important to us.  To get through that process and be able to create a different life requires that we adjust and move forward accepting that change. Both of those truths are difficult and our instinct is to resist: to yearn for what has gone, to be angry at the unfairness of what has happened, or to numb ourselves so that we feel nothing as a form of self protection. We may even as Joan Didion wrote in ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’ imagine that nothing has changed, that the person is still there just waiting to reappear, and that the death has not really happened.

All of those personal reactions to the loss of someone we care for can be played out again in how we see the organisation that is emerging as we move through COVID.

  • A sadness and yearning for how things were before we knew the word COVID.
  • An anger at the organisation for what it has done in response to COVID which changes what we do, where and with whom.
  • A numbness towards work that leads to disengagement.
  • A denial that anything has changed in the hope things will return to how they were

In any major change in our lives there is loss, so looking to what we know about the grieving process can be helpful in the context of work as well as in our personal lives.

What does grieving mean in a work context

It would be easy to look towards the Elizabeth Kubler Ross model of the stages of grief, because it has been used so many times as a change model, but the model has limitations.


  1. It was never intended to be seen as stages that people have to go through sequentially, but it often is interpreted that way.
  2. It was based on research on those who were dying, not the responses of those who lived after them. Neither was it designed for change in an organisational setting.
  3. Many people don’t recognise themselves in the stages and sometimes feel angry at the sense that they are only doing grief properly if they follow stages.


More helpful to looking at grief in an organisational context is the dual-process model.

This model captures the process that we live on a daily basis. Humans oscillate. We oscillate between breathing in and out, between rest and wakefulness, between the desire for stability and the desire for adventure.  Looking at grief as a necessary process of oscillation means:

  1. Allowing for sadness
  2. Ensuring that there is also a focus on restoration and of creating something new.

What does this mean in a work setting?

  1. Acknowledging the changes that people are finding difficult. Grief is an internal process of sadness that leads to self reflection and over time a resetting. It is also externalised in being able to talk about what has been lost.  Going back into the workplace, it is going to be important to allow for talking about what people are experiencing as loss, as an important part of being able to adjust to what now is.
  2. Grieving also encompasses mourning: the visible rituals that allow us to mark loss. What is it important to visibly acknowledge in returning to work? What rituals are needed?
  3. Restoration means encouraging people to do new things. Just as repeating the living patterns that once marked a person’s life with their loved one can reinforce a sense of loss, encouraging people to do different and new things can help recovery. Focus on helping people to see value in doing things differently. It is in doing something different that people create the flexibility that is the marker of resilience. Working life will be different, but within that there will be things that were not possible under the old ‘norms’. Helping people to experiment with the new is an important part of moving forward.

 What will help recovery?

Richard Bonnano, Professor of Clinical Psychology at Columbia University has spent his career studying bereavement and his concludes from many studies that the marker of grief is that most of us are resilient. Most people work through what is a difficult process and do live satisfying lives. What helps that process is:

  1. Behavioural flexibility ie being able to adjust the changed reality.
  2. An optimistic outlook that things will work out OK
  3. Confidence in being able to control outcomes
  4. More behaviours in our repertoire e.g. can express sadness but can also recognise when  it is best not to express that sadness.
  5. Being able to identify benefits g. I have discovered I am strong, I never thought I could do . . . without . . . and I have learnt that I can.

And there is one additional factor that emerged from the work of Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s collaborator David Kessler: the importance of creating personal meaning from the loss of that person, so that the person stays with you, even though they are no longer physically present.

Apply that to organisations and it means:

  • The organisation being able to adjust to the changed reality of how work can now be done.
  • Signalling an optimism that difficulties can be worked through.
  • Showing confidence in the future as within the organisation’s control.
  • Responsiveness to the differences in people’s attitudes as they return to the workplace – rather than rigid policies.
  • Highlighting the benefits that have emerged from being forced to think differently about business is done.
  • Building into discussions with individuals the purpose and meaning of what they now want from their work.


Talking about grief in organisations, may feel like a diminution of the enormity of what  envelops us when someone we care for dies, but  there is much that organisations can learn from grief work to help the transition back into a workplace that has been forever changed by COVID.



George Bonnano, The Other Side of Sadness: what the new science of bereavement tells us about life after loss, 2009, Bantam.

Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking, 2006, Harper Perennial.

David Kessler, Finding Meaning: the sixth stage of grief, 2019, Rider.

Elizabeth Kubler Ross and David Kessler, On Grief and Grieving, 2014, Simon and Schuster.

Stroebe, M.S and Schut, H.A.W., The dual process model of coping with bereavement: Overview and update, 2001, Death studies, 23, 197-224.

Just Needing a Holiday or Burnt Out

The word burnout is one of the buzz words of 2021. I hear it from clients in coaching sessions. I hear it from organisations concerned at the demands COVID has placed on its’ people.  It is hardly surprising. COVID has placed people under multiple life pressures,  with boundaries between work and home broken, and no certainty about what will follow. The word signals that people are reaching their energy limits, but does it mean you are burnt out? You may be pressured; you may be stressed but are you burnout?

It was in 1974 that Dr Herbert Freudenberger coined the term. He saw it as a chronic affliction of the overachiever: people who are so driven to achieve that they work to the exclusion of other parts of their life, denying signs that their way of working is detrimental to their physical and mental health.  Tim Casserley, who himself burnt out whilst working for a global consultancy, concluded in his book, ‘Learning from Burnout’, that it is caused by a collision of individuals with high needs to achieve, being attracted to environments which make high demands and which reward excessive levels of commitment.  Are you that person?

Is Burnout Just Exhaustion?

Burnout is more than exhaustion, though this is often how people talk about themselves in relation to their work.  We can be exhausted by an intensive period of work, and recover through taking a holiday or working on a less demanding project. Burnout is more.

When the World Health Organisation defined burnout in 2019, it drew attention to 3 dimensions that need to be in place:

  1. Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion.
  2. Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativity or cynicism related to one’s work.
  3. Reduced professional performance.

It is the coming together of all 3 that leads to burnout. Being overextended in one’s role can lead to exhaustion.  Being disengaged from one’s work can lead to cynicism. Being out of one’s depth leads to reduced performance. It is when all 3 come together that a red flag is waved.

The Body Control  If the Head Cannot

Those most at risk of burnout are often skilled in ignoring the signs that all is not well. The signs build slowly as the body recognising that the person is operating under stress,  engages the sympathetic nervous system to put the body into a state of fight or flight. The pituitary gland is signalled to send the hormone ACTH to the adrenal glands, which then allows for the release of adrenalin and cortisol. These provide the short-term stimulus the body needs to deal with the immediate stressor, but these hormones are only intended for short term use. They are not designed to be engaged day after day, week after week, month after month. Over time, the adrenal glands become exhausted and unable to respond. It is at that point that the physical signs of burn out start to appear:

  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Irritability and anger
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Weight gain around the middle
  • Lowered immune system showing up in viruses and frequent colds
  • Headaches, stomach, digestive and bowel problems
  • Type 2 diabetes

All of these symptoms can be challenged by the use of drugs, alcohol, medication, eating sugar laden foods, withdrawing from contact with others, whilst continuing to work to the same pattern.

As the individual notices that they are finding it more difficult to concentrate or that they are achieving less, the solution stays the same – work harder.  As they notice that they are exhausted, the easy solution is to cut out anything which takes energy away from work. As they notice that they are feeling less connected to their work, the satisfaction that came from their efforts is taken away, so putting in that effort becomes more tiring.

Burnout often has to flare to an inferno before the body takes control forcing the individual to take a physical break, as their body protests that it can no longer support this way of living. In taking that break, the opportunity is given to re-evaluate and to make changes to how one engages with work. This can be a powerful wakeup call, as Dina Glouberman’s book, ‘The Joy of Burnout’, argues.   Some, once recovered, simply return to the same pattern, with the same results, and the cycle repeats itself


Are you at risk of burnout?

Dr Freudenberger suggested the following as signs of the risk of burnout. If you fear you may be at risk then ask yourself these questions:

  1. Are you tiring more easily?
  2. Do you feel fatigued rather than energised?
  3. Are people annoying you by commenting that you don’t look well?
  4. Are you working harder and accomplishing less?
  5. Are you increasingly cynical and disenchanted?
  6. Do you often experience unexplained sadness?
  7. Are you forgetting deadlines, appointments or personal possessions?
  8. Have you become more irritable?
  9. Are you more short tempered?
  10. Are you more disappointed with people around you?
  11. Are you seeing family members and close friends less often?
  12. Are you too busy to do routine things like make phone calls or stay in touch with friends?
  13. Are you experiencing increased physical complaints (aches, pains, headaches, lingering colds)?
  14. Is joy elusive?
  15. Does sex seem more trouble than its worth?
  16. Do you have very little to say to people?

If you find yourself answering ‘Yes’ to 5-7 of these then your stress is starting to show. If 7 or more then you are a candidate for burnout and it is a signal to take action.

Can Burnout Be Avoided?

So, is it inevitable that high achievers will burn out if they work in environments which reward intense effort? Of course, the organisation has a role in this, and some organisations are beginning to look at how their working norms contribute to either illness or the loss of staff through burnout.

Relying on an organisation to reduce workloads, to increase resources, or slow the pace of change will help, but it does not guarantee that the same person with the same drivers will not repeat the pattern unless they change their relationship with work.

The Place of Resilience in Preventing Burnout

Individuals need to be their own smoke alarms. To be able to recognise the signs of danger and to be able to respond in ways which enable them to stay engaged, energised and performing.  This is where resilience has a key role.

In a study in The Lancet in 2016, the authors concluded after looking at multiple studies on burnout in doctors that the key to combatting burnout was the cultivation of resilience that focussed on 3 key areas:

External Resources:  Having strong connections with friends, family and in their professional relationships.

Internal Resources:  Having coping mechanisms and stress management skills

Extrinsic Resources:  Being able to reflect on their experiences and to derive meaning from the work that they do

Burnout is too serious a condition to use the word simply to signal that a holiday would be welcome. It is a condition that impacts on the psychological and physical wellbeing of the talented to the detriment of themselves, their relationships, their ambitions and the organisations they work with.

Resilience building is a key component in ensuring that the desire to perform well is not undermined by lacking the resources to manage a healthy relationship with work.



Casserley, T and Megginson, D. Learning from Burnout: Developing Sustainable Leaders and Avoiding Career Derailment, 2009, Elsevier.

Freudenberger, H.J.,   Staff Burnout  Journal of Social Issues, Winter 1974

Glouberman, D, The Joy of Burnout: How the End of the World Can Be a New Beginning, 2019, Skyros Books

Regehr, C et al, Interventions to Reduce the Consequences of Stress in Physicians, The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 2014, vol 202, 5, pp353-359

West, Colin P et al, Interventions to Prevent and Reduce Physician Burnout: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis, The Lancet, vol 388, no 10057, 2016, pp2272-2281


The Four Months of COVID Living Resilience Questionnaire

The Four Months of COVID Living Resilience Questionnaire


It was March 23rd when the UK government put the country into its Stay Home lockdown. The day when we discovered the word ‘furlough’, and moved our social interactions into a world of multiple faces on screens.  What was once the plot line of a dystopian novel became our way of living.  Four months on as lockdown lurches into an uneven, confused reopening it is a good time to take stock of how your resilience is holding up.

You may have been fine during lockdown. Finding enjoyment in the extra time that not travelling provided. Adjusting to a new way of working with ease. Relieved at the reduction of social contact. Setting goals for this special time. Managing the dual demands of home and work.

It may not be lockdown that has tested you but the uncertain, wavering emergence from lockdown. An emergence that does not take us into a post-COVID world but into an uncertain COVID world, where a second wave may on the way, and the economic consequences  are likely to be severe.

You may find that feelings of unease are increasing as the world opens up. This is because it is often not the major life disruptions that unsettle us but the additive effect of small challenges.

  • Deciding who it is safe to see may feel more stressful than not being allowed to see anyone.
  • The cumulative effect of balancing home and life erodes patience and tolerance.
  • The cancelled wedding, holiday or celebration makes the world seem joyless.
  • Looking ahead into the unknowable future only evokes negative thoughts.
  • Financial concerns are wearing you down.
  • Worries about aging parents are a constant presence.

Together or separately these can stretch your resilience elastic to breaking point. While the elastic may have held during the first stage of COVID it may feel it is getting tighter as the virus extends its hold from weeks to months or even years.

Because the tightening builds slowly you may not even acknowledge its impact until the day you ‘blow’ over something which surprises you:

  • The Zoom call too many.
  • The length of a queue.
  • Another demand on you as a parent.
  • A deadline.
  • A news’ story.
  • The lack of social distancing when you venture out.
  • The cancellation of yet another looked forward to event.

We each have our own ‘blow’ moments when our usual resilience deserts us. So, as we move into a world where lockdown may be easing but we are not living in ease, it is a good time to take stock of how your resilience is holding up.

Ten Questions to Ask Yourself:

1. How fearful am I at going back into the world more fully?

     2.  When I look ahead are my thoughts largely negative?

      3. Have I lost a sense of purpose in the last few months?

      4.  Am I finding it difficult to make decisions about the future?

      5. Has my sense of humour diminished?

      6.  Am I anxious about what a return to work will ask of me?

      7.  Have my emotions become more unpredictable and uncontrollable?

      8.  Have I lost connection with people I would normally call on for support?

      9.  Have my responses to situations become rigid?

      10. Am giving less time to self-care?


In looking at your responses, notice any changes in how you are experiencing yourself compared to a few months ago.

Some of your concerns will have a basis in reality.  We do know that the economy will be seriously impacted, so it is rational to have thoughts about what that will mean for job and financial security.  However, if we only see the risks, we reduce the size of the lens we hold up to the world. That will also limit how we see our choices.

When we are resourceful, we are able to take a 360-degree view of an issue. We are be able to assess how great the risk is, and to see that we have choices. When we are less resilient, we have very particular ways of looking at situations which focus on what is not possible, and how little control we have.


Resilience comes from being able to look at a situation and recognise:

  • What is the truth of the situation I am in?
  • What options are available to me?
  • What capacities do I have that will help me deal with this situation?
  • What other supports can I call on?


I cannot sleep for worrying about the future of my job

What is the truth of the situation?

My sector has been hard hit.

I have been incredibly busy during lockdown because my role is critical.

I am over 50.

I have been made redundant before.

My options

Continue to worry, waiting all the time for a phone call from HR.

Ask for a conversation with my boss about how they see things developing going forward so I have some data.

Work on building a cv that focuses on skills that could be transferred into other sectors.

Remind myself of the things I learnt from my last redundancy and how I can apply them to this situation.


I have had multiple careers so I know that I am adaptable and learn quickly whether that is adapting to how my current organisation restructures or going outside.

I am good at keeping in touch with people, so I do have a network outside my work.

I ensure I take care of myself physically even when things are tough as I know that helps my mental health.


Reach out to my network to see what is happening in other sectors which may have new opportunities as a result of COVID.

Talk about my concerns to someone who could help me, rather than bottling them up.

 Resilience Outcome

Facing the truth, does not mean coming up with a happy ending or being caught in despair. It is about acknowledging a 360-degree view of truths, rather than the one truth which is often dominating our thoughts.

Paradoxically, when we face into truths rather than second guess them or hide from them, rather than being overwhelmed we become more resourceful.

For You

Identify the part of your resilience that is being most impacted by this next stage of COVID.

Ask yourself

  • What is the truth of the situation – aiming for multiple truths
  • What options emerge from those truths?
  • What personal resources do you have to bring to those options?
  • What other forms of support are available to you?

 Your conclusion

When you answer those questions. What do you notice about?

  • Your thoughts about yourself
  • The actions available to you

One final thought

Resilience is about learning from disruption. 2020 has been a year of seismic disruption. What have you learnt during this time that is going to help you deal with the next phase of this uncertain future we are all facing?

Loneliness Breaking the Taboo

Loneliness: A Taboo Word


My neighbour is a feisty, independent 80-year-old woman with strong views that give no truck to political correctness.  Our paths crossed rarely, as I was often away working, and I knew she had carers coming in regularly. When COVID arrived, I asked if she needed any shopping as she was not allowing carers into her home.  At first, she demurred, but some instinct made me ask again a few weeks later, and she owned she was missing the glass of Liebfraumilch she had every day with her lunch.  The supermarket delivery people were refusing to deliver alcohol, despite her calling them to complain.  And so started a weekly visit, where I get her shopping  which always starts with the bottles of wine, followed by a doorstep chat.  She was remarkably stoic despite having been grounded since March, but last week I sensed a change. For the first time she spoke of life getting her down, and she asked if I still wanted to do her shopping now that deliveries were easier. As I responded that I would do her shopping for as long as she wanted,  I saw her face relax. For the first time I saw that despite her bravado she is lonely.


Of course, it is no surprise that an 80-year-old with health issues, living alone should be lonely at times,but that denies the reality that loneliness is not the preserve of the old.  It can hit any of us at any time.  Despite this truth it is an issue not openly addressed. To admit to being lonely is to position oneself as sad, anxious, fearful. It can be seen as a source of shame.  To own loneliness is to make oneself vulnerable, but to deny one’s loneliness is to risk one’s mental health and the possibility of connection.


Loneliness is not social isolation. One can be alone and totally happy. Loneliness is when the quality and quantity of social relationships is mismatched with what we desire.  The introverts who have taken lockdown in their stride are helped by needing fewer social contacts, or by being with the people who matter most to them.  Those who have struggled either need more social contact or more meaningful social contact. Multiple stilted Zoom conversations does not do it, when what one really wants is a ‘proper chat’ over a drink with someone one can share one’s inner thoughts with.


We can also be lonely in different ways:

  • Socially – we do not have a network of friends and family.
  • Emotionally – we do not have a confidante or trusting loving relationship, even though we may have a strong social network.
  • Existentially – we feel separate from others, which often happens when we experience a traumatic event such as bereavement, divorce, job loss, ill health.


We all feel lonely at times, and recognising it can be a spur to take action and to make efforts to connect. However, when it becomes a longer-term chronic condition it leads us to withdraw from people. The longer our loneliness lasts the more difficult it is to contemplate being with others. The very thing that others would tell you to do, is the last thing you can imagine doing.


The Loneliness Downward Spiral





 It starts with a situation. It could be as small as an unintended slight or as momentous as a death of someone you love.

What follows are negative thoughts – our inimportance, our unlikeability or perhaps that life is now over.

Those thoughts lead to  actions – the refusal of social invitations, the avoidance of people we thought of as friends.

The action of inaction leads to a magnification of thoughts and feelings.

The behavioural changes  become  reinforced in more avoidance and withdrawal

The outcome is loneliness

The spiral develops without our recognising it, until one day our lives have changed.  We don’t acknowledge the thoughts that triggered the spiral as just passing thoughts, with lots of counter-balancing evidence. Being seen as unlikeable or friendless becomes the only ‘true’ thought. We don’t decide to turn down every invitation because there is a good reason to turn down that after work drink, that party, that catch up – but with every rejection it becomes more difficult to contemplate taking the risk of connecting with others. The more we turn away from others, the harder it becomes to engage and our loneliness increases. As it increases the negative thoughts that started the process are strengthened.

So how to get out of the loneliness spiral?

Research has shown that what affects our responses are two factors:

  1. Do we attribute events to us or the external situation?
  2. Do I see the situation as permanent or variable?


Am I lonely because I am an unlikeable person, or because I have lost a friend that I gave more attention to than anyone else in my life, so I have reduced my friendship circle?

Am I lonely because no one cares about me in lockdown or because I refuse to engage in the video calls that my family are setting up?


Being able to apply attribution beyond the power or lack of power that we give ourselves allows for more options emerging.



I am lonely because I am 30/40/50/60/70/80 and it will only get worse as I get older.

I am lonely because I am single and likely to stay that way.



I am lonely right now because I have moved to a new job in a new town.

I am lonely because I have lost one friendship that meant a lot to me.


Being able to differentiate between what is viewed as permanent and unchangeable, and what is the outcome of a particular situation impacting you at this moment in time, allows for the possibility that things can change.


The obvious solution

The obvious solution when feeling lonely is to ‘get our more’, to make connections, but that can feel like the hardest thing in the world to do.

So rather than starting on the outside with action, start by challenging the loneliness spiral.


The Loneliness Upward Spiral

 Allowing for the possibility of a different outcome starts with:

Noticing the thoughts and feelings you are carrying, rather than being  unconsciously controlled by them.

Testing – are they the absolute, undeniable truth, or is there any other evidence available to you. Even if there is some truth what else needs to be acknowledged.

Challenge Yourself – are there some other thoughts available to you, that does not mean polar opposite thoughts but thoughts which offer other possibilities.

Notice any Shift in feelings  when you produce alternative thoughts.

Magnify your attention on those new feelings and see if they allow for different behaviours being possible.

Find a Doable Action that follows from the shift in feelings.  An action that is within the boundaries of possibility for you at this time.

The outcome is a Reduction in the sense of loneliness on which you can build.

The power of the upward spiral is not that it asks you to do the things which a self-help book would tell you to do – and which will probably be obvious. Instead, it invites you to expand your lens so that you allow in more thoughts and feelings. When you allow in more data, it allows for the possibility that action is possible. It is then for you to decide the size of the action that is possible for you. Strengthening your loneliness upward spiral is a step by step process which starts with the smallest action you could imagine taking in the service of reducing your social or emotional loneliness. For my neighbour it was allowing me to do her shopping, so we could chat.


If you are feeling lonely right now work through both spirals to explore:

  • The thoughts and feelings which are contributing to your sense of loneliness and the behaviours that follow
  • The different thoughts and feelings that are available to you and the changed behaviour this will allow.
  • Step into taking a first  action in the service of reducing your loneliness.

With acknowledgement to The Psychology of Loneliness: Why It Matters and What We Can Do published by the Campaign to End Loneliness.













So How is Your Resilience After Three Months of Lockdown?



Now is a good time to do a check in on how your resilience is holding up. At the beginning you may have focused on it as a 3-week break, then a 6-week hiatus from normality. Then the weeks turned into months and the reality of a pandemic became clearer in health, economic, social and psychological terms. At the beginning the challenges were those of adjusting to home working, to furlough, to home schooling and of seeing plans for the coming months disappear.  The cruel realities of not being able to be with loved ones when they died or to celebrate their life in a way that offered comfort to those they had left.

Now we are living with a sense that life may not return to what we once assumed was normality. Work patterns have been catalysed by COVID but without working through how to balance task delivery with social connection.  Physical closeness has been redefined as dangerous.  Being in social spaces with others is now tinged with a sense of risk.  How long this will go on we don’t know.


At the beginning of lockdown, I focussed on the importance of recognising that as humans we are resilient. We have the ability to bend in response to circumstances and to be creative in our responses.  I saw it in the goals for self-improvement which people set themselves, the explosion of activity on social media, the intention to use this time purposely.  Three months in it may feel very different.  When COVID was seen as an event with a beginning and an end, it was easier to remain resilient. When it is seen as a disruption without end, and with seismic economic consequences feelings change.

So, to help you get a sense of where you are at this point in the pandemic, ask yourself the following questions:

To what degree have I:

  • Struggled to adapt to the changes that COVID has asked of my life.
  • Lost confidence in myself as the weeks have gone by.
  • Missed the social support of colleagues and friends.
  • Found it difficult to keep perspective on the reality of how COVID is impacting on my life.
  • Lost my sense of humour as the pandemic continues.
  • Found it difficult to be proactive when things are not demanded of me.
  • Struggled to change my pattern of working even though circumstances have changed.
  • Avoided thinking about what could follow from COVID because it feels too difficult.
  • Lost a sense of meaning and connection with what I am doing.
  • Felt I have lost control of my emotions.
  • Found myself having catastrophic thoughts about the future.
  • Stopped doing things which normally I would do as part of my self-care.

So how are you doing?

Resilience Has Been Impacted by COVID

It is likely that you will have seen some changes in how you are managing yourself, your emotions, your thought processes and your behaviours. That is normal.  When we know that a disruption has an end date we can keep going because we see an end in sight.  However, the risk is that if the end date does not appear, and you are uncertain when you can go back to work, when schools will reopen, when it will be OK to go to a sports event or when you can get married, our resources drain.

Instead the evidence is from those who have lived in challenging circumstances with no end date, such as prisoners of war is that it is better for mental and physical health to focus on how the best can be made of whatever circumstances we are in, rather than focusing on a time when the hope is, that things will be different.

Focus on the Controllable

In thinking about what that means it is helpful to focus on what is within your control. The Serenity Prayer expresses it simply, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference”.

Consider what is within your control and then identify something you do have the courage to act on, no matter how small.

Any one change you make will have an impact on your whole system. For example, deciding to tell your colleagues that you would welcome more contact because you are finding it difficult working remotely for so long, allows them to own their own feelings about distanced working.

Deciding to stand back back from daily irritations and consider how important these will look with the distance of days or weeks will help to quieten emotions.  Go back to the exercise regime you started with enthusiasm and then abandoned and identify why you gave up.  This will allow you to find a regime that works for you, and to reconnect with the physical and mental benefits it offers. Look for what is possible rather than focussing on what is being denied.

Staying in the Present

It also means focusing on what is true right now. Our resilience is undermined by the human gift of being able to imagine the future. Other animals are not able to imagine that a threat may be around the corner, that tomorrow you may not be there to care for them. They simply live in the present moment of feeling safe.  That ensures that they only engage their stress hormones when it is absolutely necessary because there is a real and present danger.  As humans that ability to imagine leads us to catastrophise, to imagine the worst and to let our body respond as though it is true.  Being able to stay in the present can be done through mindfulness practice. It can also be done by simply asking yourself:

  • What is true right now?
  • What is the danger I am facing right now?

Grounding yourself in the present is not to deny that bad things can happen but it focuses you on having the resources to deal with them when they do happen, rather than expending them in practising for a possible future which raises your stress levels.

Your Resilience Has Remained Strong During COVID

You may  have discovered that you are dealing well with this time, that you have accessed resources you never knew you had or that you have seen that things can be different and you are enjoying that difference. You may have found new purposes from having the time to stand back, or noticed that you like the person you are during lockdown more than the pre-lockdown person. You may have learnt that the quality of your life is improved by the changes it has demanded of you. You may have discovered aspects of yourself that were hidden when living and working in the ‘old normal’.

If you are in that space, then the power of resilience is in taking that learning forward.

What of this time do you want to ensure you hold onto because it will enable you to have a better life?

Before you forget (and we do when they become normalised) capture what has been good about this time that you want to hold onto and take forward.

  • In how you work
  • In how you communicate with others
  • In how you are with those who are important to you
  • In how you have managed your energy
  • In what you have discovered is important to you
  • In discovered new aspects of you


Resilience is not about bouncing back; it is about moving forward from difficulty with the learning that will increase your capacities and capabilities to deal with the next disruption.  3 ½ months in is a good time to take stock so that your learning can help you deal with whatever is going to emerge in the next 3 ½ months.


Post Pandemic Growth




The Indian novelist Arundahti Roy recently wrote in the FT that  ‘Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different.’


What she has captured is what many people are recognising that their world has changed.  It is much more than realising that much work can be done at home, and that we need less than we imagined.


It has made us aware of how a world with less traffic and pollution feels lighter.  It has made us aware of our vulnerability both in terms of our health and our finances. It has made people recognise the importance of connection, and how constrained the world feels when so much of our culture is not available to us. It has made us expand our understanding of who a key worker is and the value they have in our lives. It has made us more aware of the risks of abuse when people are imprisoned in their homes together. The challenge is whether we can hold onto those awarenesses and use them to influence how we shape a post pandemic world.


The psychologists Tedeschi and Calhoun expressed the same sentiment in 2004 when they wrote of trauma as a seismic earthquake. It is an earthquake because it shatters the assumptions we have about the controllability of our world. In losing control, we then have to rebuild ourselves and the world we live in.  However, they discovered in their research that the process of having our world’s shaken, rather than leading to a desire to get back to what was once leads to a process of reevaluation which they labelled ‘post traumatic growth’.


They pointed to a consistent set of shifts they saw when people have their world disturbed:

  • A greater appreciation of life
  • A strengthening of close relationships
  • Increased compassion and altruism
  • Finding new possibilities and purpose in life
  • Greater awareness of personal strengths
  • Creative growth
  • Enhanced spiritual development

Arundhati Roy wrote of pandemics as opening up a portal, a gateway into another world, and we are seeing those gateways open in many of the dimensions that Tedeschi and Calhoun identified. From the simple act of clapping in appreciation of those who care for us, to the acts of kindness, the increased contact with friends and family, the creativity of how people are dealing with this time, and the space it is offering for us to consider how we want our lives to be going forward.


We have been offered a portal we never expected and would never have signed up for, but in experiencing that disruption rather than rushing back to what was we can carry on through that gateway and take our learning into shaping our post-lockdown world.


We can decide what we want to stay different as our doors open up again.






What Brexit Can Teach COVID

Remember Brexit?  A year ago I wrote a blog linking the uncertainty of Brexit with the need to be resilient.  Where once Brexit dominated our media, now it does not merit a newspaper column inch.  Its’ place has been taken by a word unknown to us all until 2020 – COVID 19.  In 2019 I wrote about  VUCA: a term then increasingly familiar in business contexts, because it captured the sense of Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity that many people felt in their workplace as Brexit loomed.  Little did we know that a year on, we would be living with VUCA on steroids.

Rereading that piece I realised that many of the remarks I made are equally relevant to now but repositioned. Where once I wrote of challenges to our markets now it is a challenge to our health and financial security. Where once I wrote of new entrants disrupting the market now it is a virus disrupting our ability to do business. Where once technology was changing how customers wanted to do business, now it is technology that is enabling us to still be in business and in connection.

What these disruptions mean at an individual level is remarkably similar to what we then feared from Brexit

  • Not knowing if your organisation will exist in a few months’ time
    • The fear of job loss
    • Promotion opportunities disappearing
    • Career promises being undeliverable
    • Fighting for your existing job as a result of restructuring
    • The scope of your role being dramatically extended as the price of retaining it


While lockdown may protect you from COVID, it cannot protect you from what may happen as a result of COVID, and so the need for resilience will be as critical as we move out of lockdown, as it is as with live through lockdown.

I was reminded of this in rereading Kathryn Jackson’s book ‘Resilience at Work’. The book is based on the learning she gained by living through the major earthquake that destroyed much of Christchurch NZ in 2011. Kathryn was both a victim, in that her home and workplace were destroyed, but also a player in the city’s recovery: through her role in working with those who were recruited to rebuild the city’s infrastructure in record time.

Central to the book is the model which was developed by a team of academic researchers and professionals brought together to support those doing the work of rebuilding Christchurch.

They recognised that turbulence at work, things happening with no obvious cause, an overwhelm of information, lack of precedent and complicated circumstances could fuel strong emotional responses, doubt and hesitation, frustration, unpredictable behaviour and resistance to taking risks, and of course endless speculation. All of these could be markers of our return to work, just as they have been in the shutdown of work.

The model they developed to support individuals through disruption has 4 key elements:

Emotional Honesty
Noticing and acknowledging the negative emotional impact of events on you, so that there is a possibility of managing them vs denying the impact of what is happening, or accepting it as inevitable.

Seeing looking after yourself as a valuable resource as critical to dealing with difficulty vs seeing it as a ‘nice to have’ when there is time.

Building strong connections with people who you want to help and who will help you vs seeing yourself as isolated in dealing with the challenges of your work.

Looking at what you can learn both formally and informally that will be helpful to dealing with the current situation vs rather than denying the need to adapt.

How COVID 19 is impacting on your work right now:
• At the macro-level (external pressures that are impacting on how the organisation is operating)
• At the micro-level, what that is meaning for you?

In responding to COVID ask yourself:

Do I:

1.Notice  when I am getting negative and dispirited in my work and see it as a signal  to do something to change my emotional response. (Emotional Honesty)                                                                                                                        Yes/No.
2. Recognise  when the pressures at work are changing how I am with myself and with others. (Self-Care)       Yes/No
3. Actively seek out people to talk with when things at work are challenging, because I know it helps me handle pressures more easily. (Connection)                                                                                                                                                        Yes/No
4. Review  my approach when circumstances change at work to identify how I need to develop in order to remain of value. (Learning)                                                                                                                                                                                    Yes/No

If you have answered No to any of those prompts then it is a signal that you need to consider how you can address your need to increase that pillar of resilience in order to stay resourced in a COVID world that will continue to be with us long time after lockdown ends.


Reference: Kathryn Jackson, Resilience at Work (Routledge).

Week 2: Has Lockdown Become Your New Normal?

Days blur together. It is difficult to know if it is a Monday or a Saturday. We have been living this new life for less than 2 weeks and yet our normal ways of living are fast becoming memories. So how are you doing?  Of course, your reaction will be shaped by your income, whether you are working or furloughed, whether you have children to amuse whilst trying to work, whether you are alone, whether you have a home office or are trying to work from the kitchen table. Whether work has been an escape from home difficulties or the place you most want to come home to.

 However, whatever your situation there are stages which typically we will go through in coming to terms with how we are being asked to live.


Psychologists suggest that there are 4 stages that we move through in coming to an acceptance of what is.

Stage 1:  Uncertainty.

The weeks before lockdown was marked by that uncertainty. Would it happen?  What will it mean for me?  Do I need to do anything different, when it feels unreal? Are we like other countries or different?  It was a time for some to deny the looming reality in order to protect against feelings of anxiety.   It was also time when for others catastrophising came to the fore.  When watching the news and following social media leads to imagining the worst, and yet doing so is compulsive


Stage 2: Disruption

When what is required becomes real then strong emotions emerge. To have one’s wedding cancelled or not be able to visit a loved one in a care home or hospital. To not go on that holiday that had been long planned or have that big birthday celebration. To not be able to go out whenever one wants to. Disruptions to our lives bring out the big emotions: sadness, fear, anger. The fear of not being able to get medication makes a normally amiable soul become abusive with the pharmacist, a reasonable shopper becomes a self-protecting greedy stockpiler.  There are tears of disappointment that celebrations are denied, or even that an exam that had been dreaded, now will not happen.  The world seems unfair.


Stage 3:  Adaptation

In this stage there is some acceptance that something different is needed. If we cannot change the reality, we can adjust how we deal with it. It’s not just that technophobes have become Zoom zealots, it’s not just the many initiatives that people are using to raise our spirits, it’s learning how to be with each other in close confinement. It’s building new routines into our lives to break up the day, it’s discovering the upsides of a disruption.  It may even be discovering that work is not as important as you thought it was. It’s learning that not consuming can bring positive emotions.

Stage 4:  Normal

At the end of this you will have developed new norms, in how you live, how you work and how you connect. As much as you may initially rush back to what was familiar, you will do so with a sense that there are now other choices.  You will have internalised new norms which will shape how you choose to live and work.

So in less than two weeks in where are you in those 4 phases.

Struggling with Uncertainty

If you are still struggling with uncertainty, focus your mind on what is known right now.  When you look ahead you are inviting in the catastrophiser. Instead ask yourself:

  • What is true right now?
  • What thoughts and actions can help me to deal with the current truth?

Finding it Difficult to Deal with Disruption

  • What disruptions are you experiencing that are evoking strong emotions?
  • Which of those disruptions will look small in 6 months’ time?
  • Which of those disruptions will be less painful if you look at them through a lens of acceptance rather than resistance or guilt?
  • What is not being disrupted in your life?

Resisting Adaptation

  • What have you adapted in how you think, feel and behave without even noticing?
  • What fears do you have about making adaptations to how you live and work. When you hold them up to the light how real are, they?
  • What adaptations are adding to the quality of your life?
  • What adaptations are you or could you make that connect you to a bigger sense of purpose (your own or the wider community)

The New Normal

  • What have you adapted to or created that you want to continue into the future?
  • What are you learning in this time that you want to become a sustainable new normal?
  • How are you going to sustain the new normal when the old norms start to reappear?


 Whereever you are recognise that you will move constantly through the phases and it will not be linear. You can have a new normal day followed by one where you fall back into uncertainty.  That is human.  By noticing that our responses change regularly, you also know that tomorrow can be different even in the world of lockdown.