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  • Writer's pictureLesia S. Cartelli

Six Ways to Build Resiliency

We’ve all faced hard challenges one time or another in our lives. Withstanding and overcoming adversities with positive results takes resilience.How do we become resilient? Are we born with resiliency as a part of our DNA? Or are we born without it and it’s up to us to build resilience?

These are questions I have long pondered, given my personal history and my decades of experience working with people who’ve endured traumatic events.

I’m from a large Polish family with a long line of strong women. As we’d polka our way through another Polish wedding, I’d hear my aunt say “Keep dancing, you’re from good family stock.” But I found that it wasn’t the stock (DNA) that gave me resilience, it was the behaviors of my aunts who demonstrated what strength looked like on a daily basis.

According to the American Psychologist Association, resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress — such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors. It means “bouncing back” from difficult experiences.

I experienced a severe trauma at age 9 when a gas explosion destroyed my grandparents’ home and left me with severe burns over half my body. Looking back, I can see that I was resilient, although not at first.

Over the past 20 years, I have seen the many faces of resiliency in the girls at the retreats organized by Angel Faces, the nonprofit based in California that I founded in 2003. Angel Faces provides retreats and support to adolescent girls and young women with disfiguring injuries from trauma and burns.

Adolescent girls arrive at our retreats wounded, broken and scared, their young souls stripped of trust. Many of the girls, some not even 13 years of age, have deep scars from extremely traumatic events.

Some of them bounce back quickly. They get up, stand up and step forward, showing a spirit that builds more resiliency with each step. Others don’t bounce back. Their emotional and psychological scars flatten their potential to obtaining healthy relationships, careers and a general sense of trust.

Why the difference? Researchers say resilience has to be built; it’s not an innate trait or a resource that can be used up. That’s the good news! With each new challenge life brings us, we can build our resilience into a constantly replenished reservoir of strength inside of us. We see this in the generation who grew up during World War II.

There is a common set of characteristics that predispose children to positive outcomes, although not all four are necessary to have resilience.

A mastery over life’s circumstances. A “can do attitude.”A sense of self-discipline (do their chores or homework without reminders).Supportive connection of affirming faith or cultural traditions.The fourth, but most important, factor is at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive adult.

According to the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, the power of that one strong adult relationship is a key ingredient in resilience.

I find that true, from my personal experience and my experience watching my girls. Sherry was severely burned when her house caught on fire. Only 10 years of age, she escaped out the front door but ran back inside when she heard the screams of her father and brother. In a failed attempt to rescue her family, she suffered burns over 60% of her body. Her father and brother perished in the fire.

Sherry will graduate high school next year. With a beautiful smile shining through her facial scars, she is full of gratitude for what she has left, especially her mother, the person who championed her through the devastating burn injury (and loss of father and brother) – her one stable committed relationship.

I have also witnessed the outcome of the girls without that one stable supportive relationship. At age six Megan was severely burned when her father, who suffered from drug addition, set fire to the family home. Her mother was killed in the fire. Megan was left with scars on her face and body. Her father went to prison for the fire, her mother was gone and Megan grew up shuffled between relatives, living out of a suitcase without that one steady supportive relationship to guide her through. As she moved through her adolescent years, she suffered tremendously from low self-esteem and trust issues. Understandably so. Hungry for love of any kind she fell prey to promiscuity, became pregnant at age 17, quit high school and spends her time visiting the baby’s father in jail.

As mentioned the one common trait in building resistance in children is one significant healthy supportive adult relationship. However, this relationship often doesn’t reside within the family – as the family is also impacted by the trauma. Sherry was the exception. It’s important to help the child to reach outside their family for this empowering one relationship to a close friend of the mother, a coach or a teacher.

Having all of the four components to create and strengthen resilience is like winning the Triple Crown. Rare, but does happen. But what if you only have one component to rely on to build resilience?  Or two?

I had two components of resilience, perhaps three. My strongest component which continues to build my resilience today is my affirming faith. During the explosion (age 9) and afterward in the hospital I had experienced two powerful visions of angels visiting and comforting me when I wanted to give up. This experience gave me strong sustained will to not just survive but to flourish, not only for my sake, but for my family and for the highest good of people around me. With this deep-held belief still strong, years later I founded Angel Faces.

One of the four characteristics I didn’t have growing up was a sense of discipline or self-regulation. My home-life was often chaotic, with frequent moves, often on a days’ notice. My immediate family didn’t have the discipline trait, except for my grandparents. . . and the gas explosion blew their disciplined and structured life apart.  As I aged, the discipline trait was something I had to convince myself I had to develop if I wanted to be successful, healthy and strong.

I have witnessed firsthand the impact of discipline (or lack thereof) in building resilience in our girls at the retreats. The girls who arrive at registration wearing full pressure garments over their burn injuries have the discipline trait.  Pressure garments, prescribed by burn physicians, are necessary if you want flat, smooth, soft scars. These garments are tight, hot, burdensome, itchy, and unsightly. They restrict movement and often cause one to sweat. They also draw unwanted attention (stares and questions) when worn on the face – especially in banks and airports where security rules restrict facial masks. But after 12 months (average time prescribed) wearing the garments 23 hours a day, (an hour off to wash them) the end result is beyond worth it.

Some girls arrive without wearing garments, with scars raised, puffed up and red.  I look at them and ask, “Where are your garments?” They shrug their shoulders and mumble something about not liking them.

Later that night I’ll look in their retreat application and read their mothers’ pleas to us to convince their daughters the importance of wearing them. Being surrounded by others who are disciplined in their self-care has an impact. By midweek all the girls are wearing their prescribed garments. Through repetition and example, they learn discipline from each other. I watch resilience being built before my very eyes, resilience they can rely on the rest of their lives.

There are the times when resilience seems to hide when we need it most. We think we don’t have “it,” or others we love will never have it. Sometimes it takes years to access, but never stop believing it is always there, somewhere inside of you, inside your loved one.

Don’t be fooled by what you can’t see. Resilience is there, invisible, waiting to be built upon.

Six Ways to Build Resiliency:

  1. Search for Your Positive Internal Perspective. It’s easy to see the negative. Try looking at the positive side of something you normally see as negative. Start with one hour a day and build your positive perspective. It will become a trait in you. More positive things will start happening to you.  Watch for the results.

  2. Expose Yourself To Something New Every Day. Try the simplest of things first. Have you ever driven down the next street over from where you live? Try a new food?

  3. Peel Your Heart Open. Let people in. Visualize your heart opening up – the positive results will follow. Keep it open for an hour, then a day and see how your live begins to change. Watch how people open up to you.

  4. Find A Mentor. They don’t have to even know they are your mentor. When faced with a dilemma or a struggle, ask yourself what would __________ do? How would _________ act if faced with ______?

  5. Find Humor In the Simplest of Things. Watch some funny clips – they are everywhere (youtube, TV, social media).

  6. Practice Self Care. Draw a bath, get a massage, go to bed early, smile in the mirror at yourself, hug yourself to sleep.

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