Thriving on Setbacks: 5 Strategies for Resilience

I am me, Clare McNamara, wife, mother, sister, friend and successful business woman.


But, picture this. I’m in the doctor’s office and I’m crying.

I feel exhausted, completely overwhelmed and ridiculous.

It’s only a chest infection! This setback should be easy to manage. After all, I’m resilient. I have faced much, much worse:

  • At 29, towards the end of a difficult pregnancy, my then husband has an affair. I find out a week before my son is born, 6 weeks premature and much smaller than he should be. Two months later my husband leaves. Needless to say it is a difficult time.
  • The course takes a great turn. I marry a man who knows that love is not just about words. We have two sons but we discover my middle lad has Tourette Syndrome and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). This combination of neural difference makes learning a challenge and triggers a lot of anger. I try hard to help the teachers understand. We are told he will not achieve much academically. He is beaten up twice on top of the constant taunts about his tics. Now he’s at university studying computer science. It has been a rollercoaster and he is sometimes very low: slowly but surely we’re getting there and I’m back on course.
  • Another bump in the road emerges. A year ago, after months of a horrible illness my mother dies. I cope really well, organise the funeral and support my father through a dark period of loneliness. I get a few migraines but that’s all. I keep going.
  • Then I find out my sister has the disease that killed my mother. She fights it, but it is another major blow to see someone you love in distress.

My doctor could see what I could not. I needed help and coaching to get me through this journey. There is still a stigma around mental health, and even now, eighteen months down the road, it’s not easy to disclose. After some amazing bereavement counselling from Cruse, and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, I am in a much better place. In fact I feel great.

So what have I learned?

Katie Mehnert, Clare McNamara, Life is a Marathon, ResilienceLife truly is a marathon, not a sprint. You don’t know what’s round the corner so you need to be prepared for anything. As my good friend Jenny Campbell has found, resilience is not so much about bouncing back from adversity, rather it is proactively ’building flexibility, being able to learn, understanding one's capacity for change, and anticipating the barriers to change’.

You don’t train for a big race in a day, you plan it and practice and experience the highs and lows. Every time you go out you learn something new about yourself and your ability to cope. If I were to develop a coaching programme for resilience, this is what I would include:

  • Oprah says ‘turn your wounds into wisdom’. My story means I add a unique dimension to the work I do with Global Leaders who face complexity, ambiguity and relationship issues daily. I can say with conviction that every cloud has a silver lining if you look hard enough. The wobble I experienced forced me to rest and over time see both my strengths and limitations. Without it I might still be struggling on, surviving but not thriving.
  • Know yourself and do what’s necessary to keep your energy levels high: the one-size-fits-all training plans just don’t cut it. Just as in a marathon training schedule you would take account of age, reasons for wanting to get fit, recent injuries, health problems, dislikes and likes and what sports facilities you have access to, in life you need to understand the thinking and communication styles that are natural for you. For me that includes long walks and lots f visuals like movies to counteract the relentless tedium of organizing family chores and keeping everyone else on track. Find ways to be efficient and set up structures that work for you and enable you to avoid procrastination and focus on what’s important.
  • Apply the oxygen mask to yourself first,for everyone’s sake. Listen to your body and get help when it is screaming for it. Tap Katie Mehnert, Clare McNamara, Life is a Marathon, Resilienceinto your support team, your coaches, physiotherapists, nutritionists and sport psychologists. Reach out to friends - people want to support you, just as you would them. If you are in burn out or heading for it, read Tim Cantopher’s ‘The Curse of the Strong’. Better still, pace your efforts so that you avoid the need for emergency help in the first place - constant sprints and no rest are a sure-fire recipe for exhaustion.
  • Don’t judge a book by its cover. If someone is driving you mad, find out what’s really going on or causing the behaviour. Is it a ligament problem or a bone issue? Think about disabilities as ‘diffabilities’ and find the hidden gifts. Everyone has something unique and special to offer. Helping them to excel promotes fulfillment and is good for all of you.
  • Find something to ground you spiritually and when you can, offer up your worries and relinquish control.Resilience is as much about learning to let go as it is about being strong. I am fortunate enough to have a Christian faith which gives me hope and the knowledge that I am loved unconditionally, always.

My well-honed resilience was needed again in January this year when my other sister was diagnosed with breast cancer and required a mastectomy. She too is a brave fighter and has come through her ordeal stronger. So when I had a recall on a mammogram last month and underwent a biopsy and then another because the first was inconclusive, I had to pull out all the stops to stay positive. The oxygen mask went back on pretty fast this time! Luckily, I am now in the clear.

Initially I was reluctant to tell this story. My instinct as a British woman is not to draw attention to myself or appear boastful. I have always drawn inspiration from Marianne Williamson’s poem 'Our Deepest Fear' and share my story so that others might be inspired. I hope it does.

What are some of your strategies for coping through tough times? Where do you seek inspiration and coaching?

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