Resilience – Having Lost at Love (and The Little Engine that Could)

If we can love deeply, and most of us can, then why shouldn’t a break-up take months or even years to get over? And, for that matter, what does “get over” really mean?  Maybe we never get over it, but rather somehow incorporate it into our collection of experiences, all of which leads to a kind of wisdom about loving and living.

“I regret that we are born with two lives,” said Karen Blixen (author, Out of Africa), “the life we are born with, and the life we learn with.”

If you are living, then you are learning. Simple as that. And some of us learn how to live differently from others. That knowledge about living, and the concomitant faculties that develop within us , is otherwise known as “resilience.” It is the certainty that whatever may happen has happened to us, or to someone else, at some other point in time.

“The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.”

There is nothing new under the sun. This stoical ability to live with what happens in life, and to “make do” – that’s resilience.

I have been reading a new book by Megan Jay, PhD, entitled Super Normal. You may have seen an article about it in The Daily Mail. Put simply, the book is a nice survey of what we have come to know as that oddly enviable ability to not let very much bother you – not in any deep semi-permanent way. “Enviable” in the sense that (it seems) everyone else can get through life without getting bothered, but not us.

Dr. Jay argues that resilience is not a trait we’re born with, per se. It is probably true that some children are socialized early on to self-soothe in ways that other children are not, but that does not mean that that ability to soothe cannot be learned.

“Working through grief is an internal struggle for everyone,” she says, and indeed it is. And grief is precisely what we feel when a loving relationship has somehow, inexplicable gone terribly wrong. When we see others seemingly bounce back after adversity, it is not that they are somehow superhuman, but rather, that they have learned how to coach themselves.

For example, why was it that in a year-2000 study on East German political prisoners, some developed post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), while others did not?

The answer, according to the study’s author, Dr. Anke Ehlers of Oxford University, was simple: “those who did not develop PTSD were mentally coaching themselves through the ordeal.”

In other words, they were like the little engine that could:

A little railroad engine was employed about a station yard for such work as it was built for, pulling a few cars on and off the switches. One morning it was waiting for the next call when a long train of freight-cars asked a large engine in the roundhouse to take it over the hill. “I can’t; that is too much a pull for me”, said the great engine built for hard work. Then the train asked another engine, and another, only to hear excuses and be refused. In desperation, the train asked the little switch engine to draw it up the grade and down on the other side. “I think I can”, puffed the little locomotive, and put itself in front of the great heavy train. As it went on the little engine kept bravely puffing faster and faster, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.”

As it neared the top of the grade, which had so discouraged the larger engines, it went more slowly. However, it still kept saying, “I—think—I—can, I—think—I—can.” It reached the top by drawing on bravery and then went on down the grade, congratulating itself by saying, “I thought I could, I thought I could.”

Those prisoners thought they could, and they did. They had, to put it simply, a positive mindset. Where that positive mindset came from is anyone’s guess, but you too can develop it. In the words of Dr. Jay,

We do not know why some political prisoners can steel themselves through the torture – or, at the other extreme, some people can motivate themselves to get out of bed an hour earlier for a run in 50-degree cold. But it can be learned!

Here are five (5) concrete things we can do to bolster that positive mindset:

  1. DO NOT THINK OF YOURSELF AS ‘NOT RESILIENT’ – EVEN IF YOU FEEL HELPLESS!

    We do not “bounce back” after adversity. Instead, we “battle back.” Without question, it is a struggle up the hill, like The Little Engine that Could. You must fight back against the bad feelings that come at you. And that fight takes time. In other words, resilience needs time to sharpen its saw, to be able to cut through the pain. It does NOT mean you aren’t resilient if you don’t feel better the next day. It only means that you are capable of deep abiding love. And digging out will take time. Handling bad situations well is not natural and emotionless.

  2. MAKE A LIST OF HOW YOU MADE IT THROUGH TOUGH TIMES IN THE PAST. REALIZE YOU ARE NOT ‘DOOMED’ IF YOU’VE BEEN THROUGH MULTIPLE BREAK-UPS!

    You are not unlucky at love. Luck has nothing to do with it. Or, I suppose it does, if you define luck (as I do) as that which resides at the intersection of preparation and opportunity. Past performance is NOT an indicator of the future, unless you are incapable of reflection and learning (which I doubt that you are).

    That said, you must recognize that your past cuts both ways. Dr. Jay says,

    “For people who go through a lot of break-ups, they might think, “why does this keep happening to me? What’s wrong with me?”

    Or, if you grow up with an unstable family, you might think you will never find happiness*.

    That doesn’t have to be the case, and it’s important to look at how your past is casting a shadow over your present. Oftentimes when people go through hard times – and I think break-ups are a perfect example of this – people don’t remember or recognize how they got through it before. We don’t give ourselves credit for those times!

    Therefore, when life delivers adversity, stop and think how you made it through adversities in the past. How did you get through it when you lost your job? Or after your other break-ups?

    My belief is that all people are far more resilient than they realize. They get sucked into the woe-is-me syndrome that Facebook and other social media sites seem to encourage. There is a tendency to focus on only the bad things that happened, and not on how you made it out.

    Stop and think: I have done this before. What was it that I did that got me out?

  3. FORCE YOURSELF TO STICK TO PLANS

    Quite frankly, this is all about avoiding the woe-is-me reaction. Period. But, it takes work.

    There is ALWAYS someone far worse off than you, and in those moments of self-pity, stop to think about those people.

    Then, stick to whatever plans you’d made for the day, or the week, or the coming month. Dr. Jay calls this “the steeling effect.” Sticking to plans, or even making new ones, steels your psyche. In other words, summon up whatever determination has gotten you through similar circumstances in the past.

    That combination – avoiding self-pity and sticking to plans – is powerful. You will STILL go through the pain (remember, loving deeply means hurting deeply) but the combination is like a light at the end of the tunnel.

  4. JOIN A CLASS OR ENGAGE IN SOME OTHER NON-EMOTIONAL ACTIVITY

    Something, anything, that does not involve emotion. Maybe it’s your run in the morning; or, cleaning the house; or, changing the oil in the pickup. Whatever is it, just make sure that it is something that can leave you feeling satisfied and accomplished. It will take your mind off of feeling defeated. You are strong – period. Keep thinking that.

  5. FIND PEOPLE TO LEAN ON, GET A THERAPIST, TALK TO SOMEONE WORSE OFF THAN YOU

    Resilience is fighting back against what’s gone wrong – it doesn’t mean you have to do that alone. Strong people who got through tough times successfully always have at least one person that they say helped them through it. Being strong means letting others help you be strong. And talking to someone worse off than you will remind you that we’ve all encountered adversity.

And stop feeling sorry for yourself.


* The Founding Fathers of our Country saw it as the “pursuit of happiness,” thinking that happiness is subjective and at all times, fleeting. For more about that pursuit, for having loved and lost, see this wonderful article.

About Dr Joseph Russo

Born and raised in Woodland Hills, California; now residing in Laramie, Wyoming (or “Laradise” as we call it, for good reason), with my wife Cindy, our little schnauzer, Macy Mae, and a cat named Markie. I am a counselor/therapist by trade and passion, presently undergoing licensure in the State of Wyoming as a PPC. I hold a BBA from Cal State Northridge and an MBA from the University of Nevada at Reno. My first career was in business, for some 25+ years. In 2007, I shifted gears and entered the helping professions as a mental health counselor. I earned an MA in Educational Psychology and a Doctorate (PhD) in Counselor Education and Supervision. In my spare time I enjoy mentoring young and not-so-young business and non-profit executives as they go about growing their businesses and presence. I also teach part-time at the University of Wyoming, in both the Colleges of Education and Business.

This entry was posted in General Musings. Bookmark the permalink.