Archive for Resilience

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.















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).

Remember You Are Resilient


As our lives have closed in and the threat of COVID 19 has become real, there has been a rush of interest in resilience. As someone who has researched, written about and coaches on resilience, the assumption has been that this is a time when like Amazon and the supermarkets I can benefit from bad times. However, to do so would be to challenge everything that I believe about resilience. Because the truth is, we are all resilient.


Charles Darwin wrote, ‘It is not the strongest of a species that survives but the most adaptable’.  Resilience is about adaptability. A crisis asks that we adapt. In a week we have adapted ourselves to new ways of working, to using video technology as our way of being able to earn our living. We are adapting to having to create our own structures for  the day.  We are breaking patterns of how we live our daily lives. We are learning how to be with our families for more hours than we are used to. We are looking for ways of keeping ourselves entertained that go beyond endless TV watching, and we are finding ways of exercising that don’t require gyms.

In the early days of the crisis, we saw the panic buying that spoke of fear, but as the days progress we are adapting: accepting that when something is not available we can adjust our recipes or do without,  and trusting  that there is enough for all if we only take what we need.

So, rather than focusing on the loss of resilience, I want you to consider how you can harness your resilience in the coming weeks.

The Supports to Resilience

There are 8 key dimensions of resilience. How you are doing against them right now.


Are you using this time as one in which you can create meaning for yourself? It may be a time for rethinking the importance of work in your identity? It can be a time for developing other aspects of yourself or strengthening your relationships with those you live with.

When you think back on this time – which may stretch for months, what do you want to have gained by having this uninvited experience?



COVID 19 is making us aware of both our vulnerability, but also our interconnection. We are more resilient when we are both giving and receiving support.

How are you offering support to others?

It is not resilient to grit your teeth and hide your own needs for connection. If you are in need of support, are you reaching out and gaining that support whether it is through an existing relationship, social media or a support service?



We are comfortable with the familiar, but a crisis asks that we become more creative and find solutions when the usual resources are not available to us. It may mean rediscovering the creative you that has not allowed time for writing, painting, or crafting in how you have been living your life. Or it may mean finding creative solutions to the obstacles that lockdown puts in our way.

How are you showing your creativity?



Nature tells us that adaptation is the key to survival.

What have you already had to adapt in your life, and what are you learning by doing so?



We are more resourced when we take action rather than seeing control as being in the hands of ‘them’.  It is easy to blame others for the situation we are now in, but that denies us any power to make things better.

What have you, or could you take action on that would contribute to feeling more in control of dealing with this disruption?

Realistic Positivity

No one can say when life will return to ‘normal’; but for as long as it lasts, it is important that we can recognise the positives that remain in our lives.

What can you be positive about?

Emotional Control

This is a time of strong emotions: the fear of job loss, or of becoming ill.  Being at home with others can stir heightened emotions and tensions.  Being at home alone can bring feelings of abandonment, loneliness or self-pity. Emotions are inevitable.

What are you doing to manage those emotions so that you can make them transitory?


Many philosophers have made the point that while we cannot control events (and who could have predicted that meat bought in a Chinese market would bring us to this) but we can control our attitude towards those events.  Core to this is a sense of belief. A belief that we can deal with this, and will learn from it.

What in your sense of self is going to help you get through this time?

Developing Your Resilience in A Tough Time

In asking yourself those questions you will have found a range of qualities that will help you through this time.  You have probably found that there are some that are more difficult for you to access. Rather than seeing them as deficits, see this time as a learning gym in building your resilience. Identify the resilience muscle that most needs attention and consciously practice it in the coming weeks and months.


Set yourself a purpose for this enforced period of life outside the usual norms.


Make a conscious effort to offer support wherever you see a need, however small.

Allow yourself to express a need for support knowing this is a time when the need for support is widely recognised.


Consciously think of how you can do something differently, particularly if the accepted way is not easily accessible.

Rediscover the creative part of you, at a time when the usual places that we observe others’ creativity are closed.


Notice what you are finding difficult to adapt to. Consider what is the smallest adaptation you could make that would show you that you are evolving through this period. Notice how you feel after making that adaptation.


Catch yourself when you are blaming, and notice how satisfying it is to blame. Then ask yourself, ‘Even if that is true, what can I do that would make me feel I have some control’.

Realistic Positivity

You may like being a ‘glass half empty’ person because it prepares you for the worst. You may be ‘glass half full’ person who always looks at the bright side and ignores the risks.   Whichever position you hold ask yourself on a regular basis, what can I be realistically positive about?

Emotional Control

If you are finding your emotions are overwhelming you, or you are being dominated by one particular emotion then find ways of disrupting the emotion. This can be by doing something that completely absorbs you, by having a laugh, or by doing some mindful breathing. All of them show you that emotions when disrupted dissipate.


Connect back to your purpose for this time.  If you are clear on what you can gain from this new experiment in living then your self-belief will follow.  You will be able to say to yourself ‘I can do this’. Support it by congratulating yourself each day for what you have managed to achieve, despite its frustrations and limitations.

And When It is Over

This is a time for both accessing your resilience but also for growing it. We will all emerge more resilient. We will no longer use as our resilience reference point the ways in which people lived in WW2. We will be able to speak of how we showed up when Corona Virus challenged our lives and how we took that learning into how we live going forward.