Meet Linda Graham, Author of “Bouncing Back” and read an excerpt of her new book “Resilience”
Interviewed by Marlena Trafas
“It’s one thing to misplace your house keys and your wallet two minutes before you have to rush out the door to catch the 6:15 a.m. bus for work. You do your best to breathe slowly and deeply, stay calm, and try to think if maybe you were wearing something else with pockets before the early morning mad dash. We all experience these hiccups in life — spilling the entire dish of lasagna on the way to serve six guests in the dining room, shredding the wrong client file at work, leaving a laptop on a plane, discovering mold in the bathroom walls, learning that the car needs a new transmission or the washing machine has gone on the fritz, and these hiccups can create quite a startle in the nervous system. These kinds of things tax our coping capacities on a fairly regular basis. Our capacity to cope with these inevitable ups and downs is then further tested when we layer on our own critical messages: “You stupid klutz!” or “I knew it; I knew it. I can’t ever get anything right.”
But usually we can right ourselves again. We put on our big-girl or big-boy pants, face the distress of the moment, and deal.”
note from Susan
Linda’s remarkable energy, enthusiasm and clinical expertise shows up in everything she says and does, and her new book is no exception. With humor and intelligence, she masterfully weaves neuroscience, psychology, and contemplative teachings together to create a wise and immensely practical set of tools for everyday people to meet adversity with wisdom and compassion. For those of you who don’t already know Linda, here’s a brief overview of her professional background. You can watch Linda and me talk about resilience here.
Linda Graham is a licensed marriage and family therapist who specializes in stress and trauma impact, anxiety management, depression, and mindfulness. She helps her clients shift their perspectives on life’s regrettable moments, so they can learn, move forward, and thrive. Her new book, Resilience: Powerful Practices for Bouncing Back from Disappointment, Difficulty, and Even Disaster acts as a guide for surviving the mental ups and downs of modern life.
Graham received her master’s degree in clinical psychology from John F. Kennedy University and before writing Resilience, she published Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being. She holds clinical trainings and workshops about the neuroscience and practice of resilience. Below, she discusses her personal experience of resilience practice, the importance of self-acceptance, and the power of one’s “mental contents.”
Talk a bit about your experience with mindfulness and awareness and how that had shaped your ability to cope, as well as in your practice with clients?
When I had an office in San Francisco, I would park my car in Golden Gate Park and walk the two blocks to my office. I could do that on automatic pilot. One day, I was worried about a decision I had to make. I was deep in thought, not paying enough attention to where I was walking, and blithely stepped into a sidewalk of freshly laid wet cement — up to my ankles.
And the cascade of reactions started immediately. “You stupid klutz! How could you have been so careless? You’ve ruined your shoes; you’ll be late to the office; you’ll have to re-schedule clients; you’ll probably lose clients over this; you could lose your business” — all in three seconds.
I was just about to fall into this all too familiar rabbit hole of berating myself for always being so stupid. But by that time, I had enough mindfulness practice and self-compassion practice under my belt that I could pause. “Wait a minute! So I was pre-occupied! I’m sick and tired of beating myself up just because I was unconscious for a moment. For once I’d like to just deal with something and not make it all about me being stupid.”
I stood there in the cement, noticing all these different reactions rushing through me, and realized I did have a choice about how I was going to handle this. I picked up my feet and stepped onto dry land as construction workers headed over to help me. As I picked up my shoes out of the cement, I tried for a little bit of compassion for myself. “Shit happens. I’m probably not the only person on the planet who made a mistake today because they weren’t paying attention. This is probably not the only mistake I’m going to make today. Sure, I’m a little embarrassed in front of these guys, but that doesn’t mean anything more about me than I just wasn’t paying attention.”
There was an apartment building nearby with an outdoor water faucet, so I began to wash off my shoes and my feet. [As] one of the construction workers gave me some paper towels to dry my shoes and feet — and to this day I’m grateful he was simply kind and helpful, no teasing, no humiliation — it dawned on me: “Yes, shit happens. Life is happening this way to me in this moment. But ‘shift happens,’ too.” I could [be] open to the lesson of the moment: choosing to shift my perspective had allowed me to cope resiliently right there, right then. The experience also taught me, right there, right then, that shifting perspectives and responding resiliently is possible in any moment, any moment at all.
If I can shift my attitude in this moment, I can shift it in any moment. That’s the big shift. And that’s what mindfulness and awareness practice make available to us.
My favorite intervention with clients, no matter what they are struggling with, is “What are you noticing now?” And again, “What are you noticing now?” The noticing evokes the mindfulness and awareness that allows them to gain a larger perspective on what they’re struggling with, and begin to see options and choices.
You talk about allowing, tolerating, and eventually accepting one’s experiences and their reactions to it. You specifically say that one doesn’t need to like or agree or condone the experience of their reactions, but that they must accept them. How is self-acceptance important to resilience?
Self-awareness and self-acceptance are the basis of our inner secure base of resilience. As the humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers said, “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” Not accepting ourselves, and our reactions, and our behaviors, keeps the mind in a judgmental, reactive, contracted state, essentially in a survival mode. By accepting ourselves, with genuine care and kindness, the mind opens up again into a larger perspective, seeing the bigger picture. We become more optimistic; more able to take risks; we become, in fact, more resilient.
It’s optimal to experience the kind of acceptance and validation from caregivers early on that nurtures this self-acceptance as an essential part of development. When that didn’t happen or happen often enough and consistently enough, then we learn the practices later that will nurture that self-acceptance. That includes being able to accept all parts of ourselves, including (stubborn, lazy, procrastinating) parts of ourselves that we wish weren’t true but we know that they are. The psychic energy it takes to resist or repress these parts is enormous. When we accept and integrate those parts into a realistic, holistic acceptance of all of who we are, that energy becomes available to engage with ourselves, others, and the world in healthy and productive ways.
Mindful awareness, defined as “being with” not “thinking about” an experience, aids our ability to cope because it allows us to reflect before we react. Why does a lack of mindful awareness, a lack of reflection, make it hard to cope?
Our nervous systems are reacting to perceptions of safety, danger, and life threat, unconsciously, 24/7. Without mindful reflection, we do automatically respond to many situations out of our body-based survival responses of fight-flight-freeze-numb-out-collapse. With mindful awareness, we engage the higher brain that can perceive our reactions and discern what alternative, more skillful, response there might be. The initial “pause and become present” step of mindful awareness creates a space in our reactivity where we can register our responses in our conscious awareness, and make conscious choices about how to respond more skillfully, more effectively, more wisely.
Can you give some examples of living out of alignment with one’s chosen values? How does living outside of one’s values erode a person’s resilience?
Living out of alignment with one’s values happens any time we are behaving in contradiction to how we believe we should be behaving. That contradiction creates a “split” in a person’s psyche or mind/heart. That split diverts the energy we need to cope with anything into trying to reconcile or heal this split. So whatever the content of that contradiction is, that would be different for different people or even the same person at different times in their life, the process is tied up in an inner conflict and our resilience can go by the wayside because we’re not clear or unified in the choices we want to be making. Mindfulness helps us even become aware of that inner conflict, and a mindful self-compassion practice — this is so human! — can help us hold ourselves with kindness and care as we resolve the conflict.
How do we learn resilience as kids? How can parents teach their kids the tools and strategies for living a resilient life?
Children learn resilience, as they learn anything, from parents’ role modeling being resilient and by parents acknowledging and validating moments of the child being resilient i.e. recovering from the startle and disappointment of breaking a toy [or] recovering from the startle and disappointment of a relationship breaking up. So, both the parents behaviors and the parents interactions with the child teach what resilience is, as a behavior, and what it feels like inside when we realize we have been resilient.
In your experience, what is the most common roadblock in someone’s “mental contents” — the thoughts, beliefs, assumptions, values, POV, identities we have about ourselves and others? How does someone begin to rewire their “mental contents”?
There are certainly many roadblocks, many patterns of processing “mental contents” that derail our resilience. I list many common ones in the book Resilience. I would start rewiring any of these many patterns by realizing how much of our thoughts, beliefs, assumptions, values, POV, identities, etc. we have about ourselves and others. (If we really get into the neuroscience of it, we can see that all of these processes we come to believe are so true are the result of neuronal firing, and that’s what we can learn to change.) So, I first try to help people understand that they have patterns. What we believe to be true we believe to be Truth With a Capital T. It takes a lot of mindfulness practice to begin to see patterns as patterns that come and go, that can even change on their own over time, and of course there’s a tremendous liberation from those patterns that comes when we can see that. One of my favorite practices is from James Baraz, co-founder of Spirit Rock Meditation Center, [who asks,] “What story am I believing now?” Even asking the question begins to bring the neural networks that hold those patterns in memory to consciousness so they can begin to be rewired.
What is Resilience?
(excerpt from “Resilience”)
Occasionally we are called on to deal with greater troubles and adversities, not just hiccups but earthquakes that overwhelm our capacities to cope, at least temporarily. They include troubles like infertility or infidelity, a diagnosis of lung cancer, losing a job several years out from retirement, a daughter arrested for selling pot, or a son wounded in combat overseas. When these bigger bumps happen, we have to dig deeper into our inner reserves of resilience and our memories of times when we’ve successfully coped before, while also drawing on external resources such as family and friends. Here, too, finding our way back to our center, our inner equilibrium and ability to cope, can be more difficult if we are told we are — or perceive ourselves as — less than capable, less than skillful, less than good enough, or unworthy of help.
And then there are times when too damn many disasters happen all at once: we lose a child in a car accident or cause the death of a child in a car accident at the same time that an aging parent has a stroke and a freak thunderstorm causes flood damage to half the house. At times catastrophes like these, we are vulnerable to losing our resilience altogether, temporarily or even for a long time. We may dissolve into a trauma response, finding that our world no longer makes sense or no longer exists, and we have to scramble to find any lessons or meaning at all in what we’re going through. If we have experienced too many unresolved traumas in the past, we can be especially susceptible to falling apart and not being able to recover. When our reserves are already depleted, we can begin to feel like we’re just barely afloat and about to go under.
How in the world do we bounce back from traumas like these? By strengthening our resilience.
Resilience — the capacity to bend with the wind, go with the flow, bounce back from adversity — has been pondered, studied, and taught in tribes and societies, in philosophical and spiritual traditions, and through literature and academies for eons. It is essential to the survival and thriving of human beings and human societies. We now also now know that it is one of the behavioral outcomes of a mature, well-functioning prefrontal cortex in the brain. Whether we’re facing a series of small annoyances or an utter disaster, resilience is teachable, learnable, and recoverable.
Resilience looks at how to cope resiliently no matter what life may throw at us, no matter what level of disruption to our resilience we’re facing. Resilience begins at the beginning and looks at how we develop the capacity for resilience in the first place — or don’t — and then what tools and techniques we can reliably use to build or recover our resilience so that it is ready to help us cope with whatever challenges or catastrophes might come along next — to cope with anything, anything at all.
You’ll explore safe, efficient, and effective tools and techniques that can even rewire long-established patterns of responding when they’re no longer working well for you. Most important, you will not only learn practices that will help you bounce back from any adversity, but you will also learn to see yourself as someone who can learn, who can cope, who can strengthen your resilience and well-being. And that not only builds up further resilience, but it makes life more satisfying and fulfilling in every way.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
LINDA GRAHAM, MFT, is an experienced psychotherapist and teacher of mindful self-compassion in the San Francisco Bay Area. She integrates modern neuroscience, mindfulness practices, and relational psychology in her international trainings on resilience and well-being. She is the author of Resilience: Powerful Practices for Bouncing Back from Disappointment, Difficulty, and Even Disaster (2018) and Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being, winner of the 2013 Books for a Better Life award and the 2014 Better Books for a Better World award. She publishes a monthly e-newsletter Healing and Awakening into Aliveness and Wholeness and weekly Resources for Recovering Resilience, archived at www.lindagraham-mft.net.