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Bend or Break: the Lessons of Hurricane Frances

By Susan Dunn, MA, Emotional Intelligence Coach

Surveying the havoc wreaked on a Florida island by Hurricane Frances, a landscapist assessed the damage and began to start restoring the foliage on this island paradise for her clients. She also used the opportunity to note what plants do well in a hurricane and what plants don't.

Her verdict? Among the wreakage of banyan, seagrape, oak and pine trees, cocoplum hedges and low-hanging orchids, it was the palms, with fronds that present the least resistance to the wind, that had fared the best.

The "flora" side has much to teach the "fauna" side about survival. We humans also fare the best when we present the least resistance to the forces that blow through our lives.

Studies have shown that resilient people are lifelong learners, which augments the plasticity of the brain. Learning new things, especially things that stretch you, makes it easier for you to cope and learn new things when presented with a crisis, trauma or loss.

Resilient people also are curious and have good senses of humor. They don't take things too seriously and are willing to bend when necessary. Rigidity locks us in, whether mental, emotional or physical, and then when we're "hit," we're more likely to be felled, like the oak trees with severed trunks on the Florida island.

Better to be like the palm frond, designed to bend to the ground if necessary in order to rise up again. The leaves are plaint with spaces to let the wind pass through. The dense and solid tree trunk doesn't fare so well.

When adversity strikes, be pliable. Don't fight it emotionally or mentally. If you insist on locking in to a position, for instance that this shouldn't have happened to you, or isn't fair, or is intolerable, you'll create resistance and can be easily felled.

If you're wronged and insist upon an apology before you can move on, you're sticking your stiff neck high up into a deadly wind. Defensiveness, contempt and silent indignation have the same effect. When you're in one of these negative stonewalled positions, you can feel the fierce bodily tension. When you meet with another force, such as the source of your anger (an errant partner or miscreant teenager for instance) the energy can't be absorbed, but like the eye of the hurricane, intensifies and escalates, causing more damage.

"Lower that proud head of yours," my mom used to say, when she saw me getting that way. "The tree that won't bend, breaks."

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She knew that, like the football player with locked knee and planted foot, I was vulnerable to a tackle from the side that would deliver a career-ending injury.

Better to make like the palm frond and bend and sway. Let the force pass over you without resistance, knowing that it won't last forever and that you can count on two things - change, and your ability to endure.

Trying to figure out a loss or tragedy can have the same stiffening effect. Sometimes we feel that if we get mad enough long enough, and think about it hard enough, something good will come of it. Our lover will miraculously reappear, offering a reversal of events, an apology, or the explanation and restitution we are determined to have. In reality, when we dig in, we make this less likely to happen. We leave ourselves open to more injury, and also miss what good things might be happening while we're focused on the bad.

Another hurricane victim tells of having inadvertently left her cat shut up in one of the bedrooms in the home for five days and nights without food or water. When she returned, she found the cat in good health, though angry at having been deprived, and eager to head for the food dish.

"There were no signs of struggle in the bedroom," she said.
"I guess she just lay down and slept the whole time, conserving energy."

Resilience is an emotional intelligence competency that can help you withstand the storms of life. It means bouncing back after adversity, losses, rejections and insults, with unhindered enthusiasm and optimism.

How do you learn it? You'll have many opportunities in your life, it's likely, and can also observe others. Resilience, like any other EQ competency, can be learned. Learn the fundamentals, work with a coach, and use the raw material of your life to grow through adversity.

© Susan Dunn
Susan Dunn, The EQ Coach, offers positive psychology coaching and Internet courses in emotional intelligence. Susan is the author or ebooks on emotional intelligence ( and is widely published and syndicated on the Internet. She speaks regularly for cruise lines and trains EQ coaches.


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