Sunday, April 14, 2024

“Resilience Shifts, Changes and Evolves – It’s Not Always the Same Two Days in a Row”: A Former SAS Psychologist on Burnout, Loneliness & Life’s ‘Little Gremlins’

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A former psychologist with the SAS, a former UN Military Observer who narrowly escaped death, and now a consulting organisational psychologist, Alia Bojilova has spent decades researching and helping people build resilience. Now the author of new book The Resilience Toolkit, she talks to Sarah Lang in Part 2 of our chat click here for part 1!

In your book, l like how you describe resilience as fluid not fixed.

Absolutely. And it shifts, evolves, changes. It’s not always the same two days in a row. For me, it’s rewarding to see that it’s often the small shifts can help people be closer to a state of equilibrium and thriving.  

Was it important to have case studies in the book? For example, Elizabeth, the ‘young, powerful, senior executive’ who grew up enduring verbal and emotional abuse and, as an adult, ‘kept trying to prove herself as worthy to others and to her harshest critic – herself’.

She’s remarkable. Yes, I absolutely needed case studies. None of this makes sense unless you can connect with the human experience behind it. Every one of my case studies is extraordinary, but also chosen because we can relate to them. I had a map of all the potential people that could be integrated in the book. It was heartbreaking to have to leave some out.

How important are the practical exercises?

The tips, tools and exercises are so important, because unless you have a way to integrate these ideas into your life, they’re just annoying suggestions that we need to be somehow better but without knowing how to get there.

You write about self-awareness. Is there often a gap between how we see ourselves and how others see us?

There are so many narratives within our minds that aren’t necessarily shared or visible. There are also so many influences we carry that we haven’t unveiled to ourselves. I think of the ‘twisted mirror’ rooms in circuses where you see different representations of yourself. So we need that constant journey of self-discovery around how we are right now.

You write that we often confuse resilience with toughness and grit, but that grit can actually get in the way of resilience?

Yes. Often people are evaluated, critiqued, and assessed by their capacity to absorb. That’s not what humans are designed for and not necessarily the best way forward. It’s about being able to sit with your experiences, feelings and thoughts, and allow yourself to evolve in direction that you choose. When we focus on hardiness, that creates a sense of rigidity and a diminishing capacity for exploring alternative ways forward. My grandmother used to tell us ‘don’t be the donkey on the bridge’. I’ve never seen a donkey on a bridge but apparently they come halfway, don’t move forward and don’t move back, because they’re afraid.

You write about fear being a protective mechanism, but we need to recognise how it’s helping and how it’s hindering?

Absolutely. Imagine your caring mind trying to prepare you for, and carry you through, the worst-case scenario. So, tell it ‘now I’m prepared’, then work your way through scenarios to the best one, knowing you have the tools to deal with any eventuality.

You write that we have gremlins on our shoulders telling us unhelpful things. If you externalise negative self-talk, can you see it as something you’re experiencing, rather than thinking it is you?

Yes, the gremlins are annoying but we can reframe how you see them: as just tiny, passing thoughts.

You wrote a little about burnout. Have you come across this much?

Yes. I think burnout has become more complex and more prevalent. With Covid being the great equaliser, our spaces for living, thinking, acting, working, and being free have been somewhat contaminated. So, burnout is unfortunately a part of the plague of our here and now. When we’ve been depleted, we’re only one step away from burnout.

You write that it’s important to pre-emptively refuel your resilience engine?

It’s an absolute prerequisite to refuel, but I’m bored of all the suggestions about how to do that, because life isn’t neat and tidy. In moments of strain, our brain is telling us we need to endure something for longer, or we freak out because we think something worse will happen next. So, it’s about making a deliberate choice to disrupt that thinking process.

The showrunner of the TV show Succession has talked about how people don’t really change. Can people change significantly?

I have two views on this. Firstly, we ought to try to change when we can if it’s for good. The idea that people don’t change – perhaps it’s true for some, but I hope it isn’t for most. How we change doesn’t need to be radical. I genuinely see that tiny micro-evolutions are the most powerful as a process. Radical change is typically associated with a critical incident or a big blow, and hopefully few of us will experience those.

You mention the epidemic of loneliness – can we blame Covid?

In 2020 loneliness-epidemic research started popping up, primarily focused on elderly people in the UK who had lost access to their community. Then loneliness began to affect the rest of us, because our patterns of connecting and living radically changed. Now we’re back to a version of normal, but it’s still not the normal we had prior to Covid. The opportunity is to carve a life of meaning irrespective of our ever-changing circumstances.

You write briefly about procrastination. I don’t procrastinate at work but I do procrastinate with exercising and eating well!

It’s about what do we put on the scale of importance? I once found myself in a cycle thinking ‘if I give all that I have to my work, then I’m a worthy human’. And I realised I was becoming this very, very busy individual and it was time to pull back and focus on what matters most.

Do you work 9-5?

Never have I ever been a 9-5er. That doesn’t necessarily mean I’ve always worked extreme hours, particularly these days. But if you love what you do, it’s not something you necessarily do in prescribed hours.

You moved to Christchurch with your parents and sister when you were 17. You write that growing up in the Balkans presented you with opportunities to choose heroes and anti-heroes of resilience?

I’m thinking of dominance and control as being the anti-heroes of resilience – and of heroism as the capacity for contribution, connection and growth. There are layers and layers of political and historical complexity in the Balkans. For instance, the hopeless mentality where people live with organised crime.

What was it like growing up there?

My dad has a knack for making really tricky things quite entertaining and interesting. For me, election turmoil and unrest became an opportunity to study colliding perspectives. Embargoes and limited access to goods, and economic crisis, became an invitation for a deeper appreciation of just how little a human needs to survive. But now, looking back, I see some of these things as awfully messy and complicated.

Why did your family come to New Zealand?

One of the things my dad dislikes the most is human potential being obstructed. Whatever you aim to do, nothing should stop you from doing it, at least if it’s benevolent. The conditions in the Balkans weren’t supportive for achieving one’s dreams, particularly for women. His biggest impetus has been to ensure that his children had room to be, and room to be free.

What did your parents do for work?

My father became an engineer. My mother was a medical practitioner in the Balkans, and she chose not to pursue her career here to focus on the family.

Did your childhood influence your choice of career?

I come from a long line of military people, which made service feel more familiar and easier to consider. I wanted continuous adventure, the capacity for contribution, and to do something to improve another’s lot. Also, my biggest fear was not being challenged enough by life. I wanted to discover as much as possible, and operate ‘on the edge’ as often as possible – safely!

You’ve certainly challenged yourself! In the book you mention ‘rust out’ as a state where we’re feeling unstimulated or unchallenged.

That’s my biggest fear.

Really? I don’t think you’re going to rust out!

I hope not!

Over your career or in life, what’s been the most difficult thing to do?

Perhaps the most difficult thing has been transitioning into a new phase of life, particularly if you have my lofty ideas of what life ought to be – which was partly why I joined the military. The biggest challenge has been realising and accepting that I have not only the freedom, but also the responsibility, to find what works for me, as opposed to worrying endlessly about proving myself worthy. I never really liked the word ‘phase’ because it suggests your journey is to an extent prescribed. But I think the beauty of moving into a new phase is challenging your assumptions and choosing how you will write your own narrative.

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