river of relience

How to Navigate the River of Resilience

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When talking about resilience, I often find the metaphor of a river useful for my clients.

Many people believe that you’re either resilient or you’re not. But that isn’t the case. You have times in your life, or even your day, when you feel more, or less, resilient than others.

Often the most resilient people are those who’ve had the biggest struggles in their life and come through the other side. It’s that learned experience of knowing that if you can cope with early childhood traumas or serious health issues, for example, you can cope with pretty much anything.

It doesn’t mean you sailed through them. Often far from it. But you survived them and can now see, with the beauty of hindsight, how they shaped you or made you stronger.

High Resilience = Upstream

So, coming back to the river analogy, when you’re at your most resilient you can stay upstream. You might be swimming against the flow but you feel strong, confident and good about yourself.

You even have time to enjoy the occasional still, deep pool. You float on your back, looking up at the beautiful blue sky, feeling the sun on your face and luxuriating in that moment.

Low Resilience = Downstream

When you feel less resilient, you find it harder to stay upstream. You feel tired and swimming against the current feels tough.

Little obstacles like rocks or logs that you would have navigated easily before become big obstacles. You start to lose your strength and confidence and begin to get dragged downstream.

How to Stay Upstream

It’s at this stage that you really need your wits about you.

You need to recognise that you are starting to struggle and need to intervene NOW!

It’s this self-awareness that we so often lack.

“I’ll be fine” you tell yourself. “I’ve got this.”  But ultimately if you’re losing physical and mental strength, the water will get the better of you.

So what can you do about it?

  • Get out of the water and take a rest
  • Grab onto that rock for a bit of moral support
  • Use a passing branch as a float
  • Call out to the people sitting on the bank of the river for help
  • Stay as calm as possible and think things through

Getting Dragged Downstream

If you don’t, you will get dragged downstream, whirling through rapids along the way, seeing danger and disaster at every turn.

You quickly lose control, fear takes hold of you, you can’t think straight and you are ultimately overwhelmed by the water. You are drowning.

If and when you make it through, you’re exhausted, your confidence is sapped and you are a long way from your start point. You can and will make it back (not that you believe it at the time) but it’s a long haul.

One Final Word of Warning 

Even the most resilient people can suddenly hit the rocks. They’ve been swimming valiantly against the current for so long, telling themselves and everyone around them that they’re fine, putting their own wants and needs at the bottom of the pile and then all of a sudden they’re gone. From 90% to 0% as one client put it to me. It’s called burn-out. Make doubly sure this isn’t you!


So, work as hard as you can personally to stay upstream and encourage your teams to do the same. Recognise that there will always be little, and sometimes large, obstacles in your way. That your resilience will ebb and flow accordingly. But that so long as you remain self-aware, practice self-care, do things that make you feel good, reach out for help when you need it and implement your best coping strategies, then one way or another, you will successfully navigate the river of resilience.

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