Emotional Health · Health

Jane Moffett on Emotional Health: Resilience

Jane Moffett is a doctorate-level clinical social worker with advanced certifications in trauma. She works in New York City as a psychotherapist and Area Director for the Psychotherapy and Spirituality Institute, as well as Clinical Director for the  Integrative Trauma Clinic at the National Institute of Psychotherapy. She has long had an interest in the intersection of psychotherapy and spirituality and in mind-body practices. We are calling on her 28 years’ experience as a psychotherapist to speak to women in the second half of life who hope to find meaning in adversity and to develop practices for serenity. —Ed.

6619395049_62ef161625_zPhoto by Damian Bere via Flickr

I’ve often reflected upon the process of moving forward after a devastating loss or a stinging failure. Most of us have known people who are living life with vitality and optimism in spite of difficult childhoods or painful setbacks in adulthood. But we can also think of a friend or associate, rich in potential and family support, who has retreated from life—or has even, consumed by the loss suffered from a career setback, an illness, or a personal or public defeat, taken his or her life.

Below are reflections on what contributes to resilience, the  inner characteristic that pulls us out of the vortex of our own fear and guilt in order to let us live full and meaningful lives.

Standing in the Gap

9780470907757_p0_v1_s260x420“When we fail we are merely joining the great parade of humanity that has walked ahead of us and will follow after us,” noted Richard Rohr, a Franciscan monk, in his 2011 book Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. But when what we have longed for, worked for, or believed ourselves to be is deteriorating around us, it’s natural to feel a deep sense of defeat and isolation; it’s no comfort to understand that millions of others are also marching in this parade.

Some of us will be drawn inward and will struggle with self-doubt, shame, and resentment. In touch with a profound sense of powerlessness, we ask: “How could this be happening to me? I’ve lived a good life. Could I have done anything earlier to prevent things from turning out the way they did? If only I’d had more insight then!”

Others will turn their hurt and helplessness outward, blaming the people or person they believe to be guilty of the action or inaction causing their circumstances. Angry ruminations or self-recriminations consume time and energy that might otherwise be turned toward creating a solution. The passage through shame, confusion, and anger is often unavoidable, but it is only the first step.

Richard Rohr asks us to see that the rules and guidelines we followed in the first half of life created a sense of order, underpinning the belief that if we live right and do right, all will work out. But of course, the second half of life has shown us all too clearly that no matter how fair, generous, and hardworking we might be, stuff happens. Rohr writes that it is through defeat or heartbreak that we are forced out of our comfort zones into exploring the meaning of life, “falling upward” into a larger sense of life and ourselves.

Transforming your life asks that you stand for some time in the gap between the life you had, which is now in some part lost, and the life you will eventually live, in order to blend the two. By approaching your dismay or woundedness with compassion and curiosity, you can take on the challenge of expanding your sense of self to incorporate new insights, new strengths, new supports, and a revised sense of purpose. A close friend of mine once told me that her recovery from cancer was at times both frightening and upsetting. For a time she blamed herself for putting off her mammogram, and she later was angry with a doctor who was blunt and dismissive. But looking back through the journey of recovery, she now acknowledges that the diagnosis and fighting the disease were her greatest teachers in helping her learn to monitor her stress, to develop healthy boundaries, and to feed her body and friendships, all of which contribute to her inner balance and peace of mind.

Coming to Grips with a New Identity

Questions about who we are, how we’ve handled certain problems, and the role of others in our current crisis go to the very core of our sense of ourselves. A traumatic loss challenges our identity and raises questions about what’s ahead. The future we had visualized must be postponed—or relinquished altogether. To go forward, we must stand in that gap between what was and what will be.

In the beginning it is often necessary to grieve fully for what has been lost and for the smaller losses attached to it. Very real dreams, hopes, and assumptions are no longer attainable. Angry feelings at this time are normal—a protest against an injustice, a consequential accident, or an untimely loss. We cannot selectively turn down the volume on our anger and despair without also turning down the volume on our joy, our pleasure, and our hope. It is only in looking back that we see that tolerating the more painful feelings is part of the ending of one chapter in life and the start of a transformative journey to living the next chapter: resilience.

The failure or loss brings us to a crossroads in which we must choose between holding on to the remnants of the past or embracing the challenge of redefining who we are and where we are going. If we have the courage to think fully about the changes confronting us and the choices we must make to move successfully though them, we may grow in unexpected and essential ways. This growth contributes to enhanced feelings of competence and self-esteem.

Coming to Grips with the Loss of Relationships

Shock at the loss of a partner or beloved friend or family member can be all-consuming. Whether grieving the loss of a beloved person or facing the rupture of a significant relationship, we are confronted by a new interior and exterior landscape—a landscape with an empty place once enlivened by the living presence of the one who’s missing. Starting afresh involves both learning to live without that special person and creating a new life that both incorporates your shared joys and allows you to keep growing and changing without that person.

This process is hard enough, but if the loss is sudden, premature, or under traumatic circumstances, acceptance and adjustment to the new reality can be difficult. The support of a group, family, and friends can make all the difference, but sometimes these supports aren’t enough. Grieving is a slow process—more so sometimes than our friends or family can accept as they wish us to “move on.” Each of us has her own timing, but if you are feeling persistent feelings of guilt, shame, or hopelessness, sleeping too much or too little, and having trouble with your usual duties, it is time to consider a professional, clinical evaluation for depression or traumatic grief.

If the loss was caused by a betrayal of trust or a tragic accident, additional steps must be taken to address feelings of anger, bitterness, and helplessness. If we have felt victimized by someone who has wounded us, we can stay stuck by holding out for an apology or acknowledgment—and yet in doing this, we merely hurt ourselves. Our resentment keeps us tied to the events and people at the root of our distress. Forgiveness is not a shortcut out of the pain, nor does it preclude seeking justice, but still—arrived at after a careful inventory of the harm done and the time lost—can offer relief from poisonous ties that bind. You can choose either to make forgiving part of an internal journey that is never shared, or to make it a more overt and interactional process that is shared. (SeeBefore Forgiving”)

Life transitions, no matter what the cause, ask us to find ways to tolerate uncertainty and setbacks as new directions and insights are forged. Exploring and reinvigorating pursuits that give you a sense of meaning may contribute to renewed feelings of value and worth. In facing our helplessness and fears about the void or rupture in our lives, we have the opportunity to reevaluate our path. We are challenged to get to know ourselves in a new way, taking the time to come to terms psychologically, spiritually, and physically with the change in circumstances. What are the core principles that guide your life? Let those principles guide you and help you in going forward.


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  • Emese B September 5, 2015 at 10:24 am

    I truly enjoyed the article. Resilience is something that we overlook quite easily but its importance seems to be showing up in my life time and time again. Even after achieving what we have been dreaming of, it comes down to resilience whether we are able to maintain and keep our dreams a reality. I also appreciated the note on our failures that take us to crossroads which then will redefine who we are by either accepting the challenges or choosing to hold on to the past. Thank you for this lovely and thoughtful article.

  • mimi October 16, 2014 at 11:35 am

    What a beautiful and insightful piece this is . As I deepen my own personal work into Spiritual Psychology , Expressive Arts and Positive Psych ( after a few traumatic life events ) I am repeatedly struck by the varied and beautiful ways resilience shows up in every person I am privileged to support . In each of them/us the path taken is
    as totally unique as the person themselves . I love that you speak of no ” time table ” and no prescriptive plan “forward thus giving permission for each journey to be exactly as it should be for the greatest healing to occur . Being , ” Broken Open ” ( thank you Elizabeth Lesser ) and then , ” Falling Up ” and into a strong , creative , beautiful new life is a blessing . Thank you for sharing this excellent reflection piece .