Resilience is learning to play the LONG game. Life is the long game.
Updated: Jul 25
Question: Would you change anything if you could do it all again?
My answer: No, but I’d probably get myself a bit more mentally fit for it!
(Q&A International Women's Day Keynote, Welcome Break)
Lessons in resilience from Lady Sansa, Game of Thrones
I really disliked Sansa Stark at first. I found her whiney with little ambition compared to her “Pocket rocket” sister Ayra, and the steeled “Mother of Dragons”. But, prior to the finale, I was asked to write an article about “Leadership lessons from Game of Thrones” – and I was pretty sure by then, despite the “slow start” Sansa would be one of the survivors.
The resilience of Sansa Stark
Sansa, raised to be a lady (who suffered the innocent loss of her direwolf by that very name), had everything she believed in torn brutally away from her at 13. She has suffered – although in a dramatically theatrical way – what many women face. Wanting to “be feminine”, deferring to others out of a sense of duty, seeking a “quiet life” is criticized – even by women. Why is she not raising dragons, or learning swordsmanship, or seducing her way to the top in a toxic world? Yes, her sister’s heroics killed the Night King, but Sansa eventually claimed the North.
Sansa learned, and grew, and learned some more.
To escape King’s Landing she aligned with unlikely sources who showed her sweet disposition kindness. To return to Winterfell she played the game – without losing sight of her integrity (she and Arya ended the machinations of Baelish despite his part in assuring some of her safe passage), she built her character from those she admired without turning persecutor or victim. She stood up as a determined diplomat for The North before Daenerys and Jon Snow. She did not rush into battle, but she was prepared to “stick them with the pointy end” when the need arose.
Without an advisor or protector (eg. Jorah, The Hound, Jaime), Sansa learned from experience – then she used forethought. She analysed situations (and people) critically, trusted her judgment, accepted help (eg. From Brianne and Tyrion) when required. Importantly, she remained true to her values as well – she wouldn’t ignore the bells of surrender because she was – is – a lady and proud of it – Lady Sansa of Winterfell, and doing a fine job of leadership.
“You never know how strong you are until you are tested”
This is an oft spoken sentiment – especially now when mental, physical and emotional testing is hitting us without reprieve.
Some are strong – still standing, coping, working it out – but were they simply born that way? Was Sansa?
One thing I have always held constant is that I wouldn’t change anything I have been through (even the tough experiences) because it has all made me who I am, but I do sometimes think – I wish I’d built up a better emotional fitness base earlier.
While resilience often does require:
- Flexibility to respond
- …and Ability to learn
…the added component not often mentioned is faith. The faith to carry on...and the mind, like any muscle, needs exercise.
“Somebody to lean on”
I have a soft spot for “Inspirational Films” – the ones where people grow from seemingly impossible situations. Of course I understand that “dramatic license” is taken, but there are some things which seem true in all stories of rising through the ashes:
- Ability to learn (albeit after a few false starts!)
- Ability to adapt
- Support from someone or something
BUT, what (at least to my mind) is often underplayed in such films, is the protagonist’s faith in themselves above all that. Somehow, they know they will cope – and the support they get from the other – the mentor, the friend, the trainer – is something that helps them stay strong in that faith.
Therefore for me, the true components needed for resilience to survive, rebuild and then thrive are:
- Ability to learn (albeit after a few false starts!)
- Ability to adapt
- Faith to carry on – strengthened by support from someone or something
“Ya gotta have faith”
“Faith”, at least to me, doesn’t have to be religious, but I believe it needs to be internal. Even Sansa herself said at one point in the final series – she learned to survive.
However, it also doesn’t mean you have to do it alone – but you cannot transfer all your faith into an external source. The external source (friend, teacher, mentor, religion) is there to keep you going.
Build your mental fitness
It is Sansa’s resilience, innate ability to learn - to adapt while retaining integrity and grace, that is her strength. She found, and created many allies, but she also remained mindful of who to trust and by how much.
However, Sansa learned on the job.
This doesn’t have to be the case for all of us.
REFLECT: Ask yourself:
- HOW easy is it for you to adapt? (We may think we are flexible, but what if someone requires you to do something you’re really not keen on…will you do it if you have to?...but more importantly, will you do it WELL?)
- HOW quickly do you learn? (I don’t mean “Pick up new skills” – I mean change habits that have grown over the years?) …and do you stick at it?
- Finally, who and/or what strengthens your faith in you? Who and what helps you keep on keeping on?
· These are the people who share your values and energise you when you meet.
· They are the mentors and teachers, with whom you don’t mind showing the vulnerability of “being bad at it” – and listening to them to improve
· These are the “little things” in life that keep you going – noticing the pleasantness of a taste, a sound, smell, touch…
· They may be mental exercises you do – much like physical ones – that keep your brain flexible (many can be found in all the articles on www.resilienthealthonline.com and specially adapted for children on my YouTube channel “The Wellness League” https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCxp27IQfzMESi9LrSxM1Twg? )
Resilience is about building strength while it's calm – not waiting until you are tested
Sansa’s ability to adapt on the fly worked – but that’s fiction. In the past,
this has worked out for me, but right now, I'm pretty sure I’m doing ok because I’ve put the work in.
I practice mindfulness, listening to meditations as I run and I journal, I read widely, I reflect on things which have upset or confused me and deal with them, I keep company which revitalizes rather than drains me. I think about the future, but remember to live in the present.
Look around you, right now, and you will notice some people may be coping that little bit better than others. Is that because they are simply “made of stronger stuff”? Not necessarily – resilience is possible to learn. It’s like exercising for the mind, and like physical fitness it takes time and a little effort, but its effects are powerful.
As with Game of Thrones, this is a world where the fight is not always rewarded. We cannot expect to always destroy to achieve – it is an option – but it is certainly not the only, nor most effective, solution, especially long term. The problem is, the reason why "fight" proves so popular, is that many only come to counsellors, coaches, mentors, religion when they are at their lowest point...not before. Of course we are there in crisis, but in crisis you need to "survive" first. If you build resilience earlier, you may not ever reach that point!
So start getting your mental and emotional wellbeing into shape by trying these simple things – right now:
1. Identify 3 key values and focus on living them every day (this will have the effect of drawing those who share your values to you and those who don’t will drop off…and while it’s sad that you may “lose” some people you had thought more of, your values are part of your strength. (Sansa always remembered to be a lady)
2. Choose one of the following to focus on each week and rotate them until you are doing all four comfortably:
a. Learn widely – this may be focused on your industry, your personal development, your family, your interests – it is not specifically goal oriented. The idea is, you become used to considering many ideas and viewpoints.
b. Be aware of making active choices – behavior does not have to be habitual. If you find something is, when you get a moment ask yourself why and what alternatives you may have available. This keeps your mindset flexible.
c. Try it – whatever “it” is. You don’t always need to be asked (in fact, if you are an “instigator” that’s quite a skill because many often prefer to follow). You also don’t need to try it with anyone else – if you want to do it, do it…why wait for someone to hold your hand. This builds your confidence that you can do it, if you must, on your own.
d. Remember to thank the people who DID help you. They didn't need to give you their time (and even if you were paying them, the most inspirational will have had traits that go beyond the "going rate" for their hard skills...such as encouragement, praise, recognition that you were worthy)
Resilience – or at least building mental and emotional fitness prior to being tested – will always serve you well (even if crisis doesn’t come just yet). It is a skill for life as important as physical strength and financial security. And remember, life isn’t even a “marathon”, it’s a, well – lifetime!
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience For quick tips and tools: click for SKILL PILL and Q&A videos and here for Media appearances. Twitter/IG @draudreyt