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Building Resilience

April 21, 2020

When the Entire World is Just…“Getting Through”

Written by Jennifer Moss Breen, PhD

It is no surprise that individuals are currently faced with frightening, unsettling times. The entire world is suffering through COVID-19 together and many people are feeling a deep loss in their sense of control and their ability to influence the world around them. Our world has become increasingly more complex over the past years, but now more than ever, we are all confronted with adversity and uncertainty.

Adversity and uncertainty are taxing for all of us and have wide ranging implications for each individual. But, despite the internal challenge they bring, adversity and uncertainty can also bring great change and an opportunity for personal improvement. Adversity is thought to be a growth-element that, under the right conditions, can create opportunities for personal development, build character and increase our sense of consciousness. By encountering adversity, we can become more resilient individuals and ultimately develop a higher sense of effectiveness. Our quest to adapt to adversity and overcome it is often times when we have the greatest opportunity to learn.

In the midst of the adversity and fear, how does one develop the ability to cope with our collective ‘new normal’ and experience this personal growth? How do individuals combat negative emotions and try to regain some sense of control?

Perhaps the answer can be found in looking at leadership and resilience. In Creighton University’s doctoral Interdisciplinary Leadership Program (EdD), we take an in-depth look at theories of leadership and leadership resilience. In one particular case, popular leadership authors Kouzes and Posner (2003) suggest that leadership resilience creates a climate in which people can turn challenging opportunities into remarkable successes. Early thoughts about resilience grew out of research conducted with Hawaiian-born children who were living in orphanages (Werner 1982, 1992)1. Through this work, researchers have continued to find that resilience has over and over again been defined as the human ability to:

  • maintain a positive attitude in the face of adversity
  • view life experiences constructively
  • rely on faith and spirituality to maintain a positive vision of a meaningful life
  • apply an active approach to solving problems

Specifically, Werner’s work showed that children, despite living with adversity, who played well with others and were able to use their imagination, as well as engage easily with adults, were more resilient than the children who were not able to engage easily with others.

How can we learn from these remarkable children and apply these early findings on resilience to our current situation?

Today’s adverse and uncertain environment demands resilience and the ability to cope. In times of adversity, such as the current global pandemic, we can actively help our mental health and become more resilient through a process of reflection and engagement. Each individual can benefit from a process that helps build our awareness of the present, engage with friends, family and colleagues and, ultimately, build resiliency. One method of building resilience, as shared in Creighton’s EdD program, is a Jesuit model of reflection called ‘in the moment’. The method can be implemented in three primary steps:

First, engage in deep reflection. Think about what is happening in the moment. How does it make you feel? Are you happy? Sad? Indifferent? What can give you greater perspective on the world around you? Who can you reach out to for help in engaging in the world?

Next, build an understanding of what triggers you. What has caused you to feel happy, sad, or indifferent in the past? How can you build in more of the good and remove some of the bad next time?

Finally, forgive yourself. By becoming aware of your thoughts, how you interact or do not interact with others, and giving yourself the permission to learn and grow, you can become more resilient in these unprecedented times.

Thriving in a world of adversity and uncertainty will require that we accept the COVID-19 world in which we now live, but embrace the notion that we are resilient and empowered to shape our own lives. By utilizing our skills to acknowledge our situation and engage with others, we can be more like the children in Werner’s study. We can learn the value of positive relationships, reaching out, and knowing what triggers us and then we can move forward with self-forgiveness, patience and a renewed sense of resilience.

  1. Werner, E. E. (1995). Resilience in development. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 4(3)., pp. 81-85.

This article was written by Jennifer Moss Breen, PhD. Dr. Moss Breen is associate professor and program director of the Interdisciplinary Leadership (EdD) program in the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies at Creighton University. The classes she teaches include Leadership Ethics, Organizational Strategy, Organizational Behavior and Orientation. She was inspired to learn about leadership when she realized how quickly poor leadership can hinder the effectiveness of an organization. She believes “poor leadership will disengage people within an organization and exceptional leadership will empower people to thrive.”