How To Cultivate Inner StrengthApril 28, 2017
Be it a close shave with death, the painful loss of a loved one, or an unexpected retrenchment, life throws us a curveball every now and then, leaving us vulnerable and cracked wide open as we get caught up in the throes of intense emotions. How we react to these emotions differs from person to person, of course, but we all begin at the same place: on the precipice of a downward spiral.
But here’s the thing about the expansive human spirit – inside each and every one of us lies an infinite reservoir of strength. As Arnold Schwarzenegger once said, “Strength does not come from winning. Your struggles develop your strengths. When you go through hardships and decide not to surrender, that is strength.”
Read on as we explore ways to cultivate your inner strength.
Think of self-compassion as a muscle. The more we cultivate it and harness its powers, the better it builds our inner strength. Dr Kristin Neff, a pre-eminent researcher on self-compassion, defines it as a combination of three main aspects: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness. An example: You worked hard for a promotion but it went to another colleague instead. Rather than beating yourself up and replaying the nights of hard work you had put in, practicing self-compassion means you are able to comfort yourself through empathy and kindness, which enables you to harness your inner strength to take it in stride. As Dr Neff writes, “Self-compassion … goes beyond accepting our experience as it is and adds something more – embracing the experiencer (i.e. ourselves) with warmth and tenderness when our experience is painful.”
Remember: You are a survivor
Reading or listening to survivor stories is undeniably inspiring, but there’s no greater source of empowerment than yourself. You’re living proof that impossible is but a myth; just think back on the times when you had once thought you wouldn’t be able to pull through, but you did – and you will again.
Be of use
For when you are doing something meaningful – volunteering, lending a helping hand, learning a new skill, etc. – you are essentially nurturing your heart and your mind, which helps expand your capacity for compassion as well as build your inner strength. Angelina Jolie once famously said the following as part of her Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award acceptance speech at The Academy’s 2013 Governors Awards:
“I have never understood why some people are lucky enough to be born with the chance that I had, to have this path in life. And why across the world there’s a woman just like me, with the same abilities and the same desires, same work ethic and love for her family, who would most likely make better films, and better speeches – only she sits in a refugee camp. She has no voice. She worries about what her children will eat, how to keep them safe, and if they’ll ever be allowed to return home. I don’t know why this is my life and that’s hers. I don’t understand that, but I will do as my mother asked, and I will do the best I can with this life to be of use.”
Never neglect your physical strength
Ever heard of the saying, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak”? There’s plenty of truth in that. You could possess the strongest of willpower, but if you are not physically fit – for instance, if you suffer from insomnia – it would not be within your physical capacity to carry yourself through an obstacle. “Physical and mental strength work in synergy and feed each other to form a strong individual, and the opposite is also true: being physically inactive and out of shape can make one sink and vice versa,” explains Ran Zilca, a research scientist and entrepreneur. “To build inner strength, you must build both physical endurance and mental muscle.”
Build quality relationships
Make no mistake; it may be called “inner strength”, but each of us needs social connections and support to stay resilient, especially in times of turmoil. “We think of resilience as often as heroic personal strategies, when in fact, it’s us, all of us, who make people resilient,” writes family therapist Michael Ungar Ph.D. “Two minutes of meditation, a few yoga moves, or mental gymnastics won’t get you through cancer. A loving wife who notices how special you are … will make a far bigger difference to the final outcome and the quality of life you experience getting there.” This is further backed by a 75-year longitudinal study known as the Study of Adult Development, the longest and most extensive study on adult happiness to date. Among the many insightful findings the study has produced, one recurring theme is the suggestion that loneliness kills. When you’re socially connected to your family and friends and even the community, you are happier, physically healthier, and you live longer than those who are less socially connected. The quality of your close relationship matters, too; in the same study, findings showed that happily partnered participants in their 80s were emotionally content on days when they reported physical pain – this, compared to participants in unhappy relationships, who reported feeling more physical pain.
Above all, remember that feeling weak and vulnerable at times is perfectly normal; inner strength isn’t something you can conjure up on a whim. When faced with a hardship, be gentle to yourself and give yourself some time to process the situation and collect your emotions.
Even Superman needs a break sometimes.