7 key ways of setting boundaries to protect your health

Oprah Winfrey’s 'SuperSoul Sunday' guests share why setting emotional boundaries is the key to creating positive and healthy relationships.

When I was younger, I loved to study. I was good at writing essays, completing coursework and reading widely on any subject - but there was also a problem. I was living with a severe pain related condition which limited what I could do.

Very often, I couldn't get to school for days, or weeks at a time.

I would teach myself the work at home, my mother would take it to school for the teacher to mark, and it would then be returned to me.

Although it wasn't easy I persevered, and managed to get high grades.

Word started to spread about how academic I was, and at times I'd get phone calls from other people - often adults - asking me for assistance with their own work.

"I'm having a bit of problem doing this essay," they'd say. "Would you be able to help me with it?."

Or, "I'm so stuck. Help please! Need to give it in by Friday!"

And, keen to help, I'd say yes.

That created another issue.

I was already far behind on my own assignments  - and now I was using energy reserves my body didn't have to help other people with theirs too.

I also worried that I wouldn't be able to help the other person in time. After all, I could rarely keep up with my own course work. What chance did I have of completing someone else's?

My mother explained the importance of saying no, telling me the necessity of prioritising and letting others know what I could and could not manage. But I found it hard to listen.

Instead, I'd stress myself in the effort of trying to help other people while my health and coursework suffered.

If I didn't help they'd be upset with me, I reasoned, and I'd be letting them down too.

It never occurred to me that by jeopardising my health the only person I was harming was myself.

It took years for me to learn the importance of my mother's lessons of setting boundaries in daily life. 


Why Boundaries are important

Boundaries are vital for our everyday functioning. It helps provide a structure of self-care.

  • I've found that when esteem or confidence is low, it is easy to drop one's boundaries and give in to the whims or requests of other people, even if it might be detrimental to my health.
  • Yet having clear set boundaries are an important part of self-identity and recognising your worth as an individual.
  • If you're struggling with health issues, for example, and those around you are not supportive, then one way of setting healthy boundaries is to decide what is acceptable to you or not. For example, if a loved one is constantly dismissive of you, you have to set a clear boundary that such language is not acceptable to you.

Kate (not her real name) told me that her teenage children constantly belittled her struggles with chronic fatigue - letting her know what an inconvenience it was to them that she was always ill.

"It felt like they were blaming me for being ill. When they were younger they were a bit more understanding, but I guess as they grew up and I got worse it wore on their patience. I felt terribly guilty - I wasn't the mother I wanted to be - so I found myself pushing myself all the time to do things for them, but it just made me worse and worse which frustrated them more. I felt like I was being spun round in a spiral and I just couldn't get out of it."

Of course the emotional pain of her children being upset with her, and her own sense of regret at not being able to be there for them as much as she wanted to made her health worse.

One of the ways she managed to set boundaries was by refusing to push her body beyond its limitations in order to please them.

"As much as I love my kids I realised that my health had to take priority. I made the decision that if they were going to be hostile to me when I was so ill, then I wasn't going to force myself to cook dinner for them when I could barely stand or move.  After all, they were in their mid-teens and old enough to help round the house more anyway.

"At first it was hard for me to do this - they are my kids, after all. And of course they didn't like it - but I was able to take the time I'd normally use to prepare dinner to rest, regain some energy and do something enjoyable for myself. Now they realise that there are days when they'll simply have to go in the kitchen and fend for themselves. It also means they're a bit less critical of me now - as they've seen that there are consequences for their behaviour."

Suzanne's issue was different.

She was fortunate enough to have a spouse who bent over backwards to assist her.  So she found she had to set boundaries of a different type.

Although she realised how lucky she was to have such help, she still needed to maintain some independence - even if it was a struggle at times. She really loved cooking, and her boundary was to tell him that there were days she just wanted to be in the kitchen and cook the meal herself, even if it took longer and meant dropping the odd item of cutlery here and there.

Photo: Didin Emelu, Unsplash

Photo: Didin Emelu, Unsplash


Here are seven simple ways of setting boundaries to protect your health:

  1.  Know your health limits. If completing the task for someone makes your health worse, emotionally or physically, then you have every right to say no. You need to be clear about the impact it will have on your health - and if it's going to be detrimental to you.
  2.  Make it clear. I used to go into so much detail when I was unable to help someone. I'd explain about my health, the tasks I hadn't been able to complete for myself, and how much it would affect me if I forced myself when I wasn't physically capable of it. Clearly, I felt guilty about letting the other person down. But really - there is no need. In fact, when you go into too much detail you're just giving the person an opportunity to try and get you to change your mind.  It's fine to simply say, "I'm so sorry - I won't be able to help you with this right now."
  3.  Buy some time. If you honestly feel unable to say "No," then you can tell the person you'll get back to them. This isn't ideal as it drags the situation out and gives the impression that you might be able to accommodate them, but it's better than saying an instant yes to something you know you simply aren't capable of doing. It gives you time to think of an alternative solution to help them. But if the answer's going to be a firm no, then don't keep them waiting too long! 
  4.  Take note of your feelings. Do you only hear from the person when they need your help with something? Do they then disappear and only call again when they need more assistance? How does that make you feel - are you fine with it, or do you feel resentful or uncomfortable? If it's the latter, that can be a sign you're not being appreciated or valued. A sure signal that it's time to draw up those boundaries again.
  5. Remember to keep the focus on you. Instead of outlining things by pointing out the other person's shortcomings, you can explain things in terms of why it's important for you. 
  6. Turn off your smartphone. In establishing healthy boundaries, it's important to have a regular habit of self-care to nourish the spirit, the mind and body. This can be as simple as turning off the television or smartphone for one afternoon a week in order to spend time by yourself or connect with a loved one.
  7. Know your non-negotiables. It's best to work out what these are ahead of time and then stick to it. For some people it's their family meal time. Unless it's an emergency, they won't take calls while they're all eating dinner. For others, it might be their exercise routine. For my friend Adele, it was organising the annual family barbeque. After doing it for five years straight, she decided that her boundary was that she wouldn't arrange any more unless she received help and support from the wider family. "I guess Ijust want to feel appreciated," she said.



5 small yet powerful decisions that can have a positive impact today


It can be overwhelming, can't it?

There's so much advice around on how to live a healthier life. We're told to: 

  • lose weight this way
  • get more energy that way
  • feel more zen by doing this
  • add more zest by changing that

Little wonder that sometimes we don't know how to start, and our desire to transform our lives falls by the wayside in a heap of half-neglected dreams and hopes.

Is there a simple way we can make big changes to our lives?

One thing I've discovered for myself is, that if we want to see long-lasting results in our life, it's often best to start small.

Here are 5 simple ways that we can add to our life today that can yield huge benefits down the line.


1. Start Your Day with a Morning Prayer

Photo: Ben White, Unsplash

Photo: Ben White, Unsplash


Taking time in the morning to spend a few minutes in prayer, can set the tone for your entire day.

There were times I used to wake up, and the first thing on my mind was all the cares and anxieties of the day. I saw everything through a negative lense, and that had an impact on how I viewed my entire day.

Finally, I made up my mind to start the day on a more positive note. I decided to be more intentional of expressing gratitude and saying a prayer of thanks first thing in the morning.

This connects us with something deeper than ourselves, providing comfort and strength, especially when we feel overwhelmed by the anxieties of life.

Researchers from a 2015 study on depression and anxiety found that people who lived with long-term health issues and who also practised spiritual disciplines, including regular prayer, had higher levels of hope and optimism than their peers.


2. Change Your Breakfast


Like everyone else, I'd heard the medical advice about eating five fresh pieces of fruit and vegetables a day. So I'd dutifully buy brocoli, spinach and cabbage  - promise myself I'd eat them, only to find them wilting and unloved in the vegetable drawer of my fridge a few days later.

So I made the simple decision to have a green smoothie for breakfast.

That was a simple decision to make - but it had a profound effect on my diet. I went from being an occasional consumer of vegetables to eating kale, spinach, swiss chard and red cabbage on a daily basis.

I found I ate more carrots and apples too. As a result of that small decision, I was able to lose the extra pounds I had gained as a side-effect of pain medications. It was also easy for me to make healthier food choices throughout the day, once I'd had my green smoothie fix that morning!

So - if you want to start a positive habit, pick something small and doable - then run with it!

Tip: If you are new to smoothies, why not try this Kale and Melon Smoothie? A deliciously easy way to disguise kale, and get your morning off to a healthy start.


3. Save your change


This is a wonderful tip that I learned from my friend, Sarah.

Sarah and her husband love to go on holidays abroad. In fact, she's sunning herself somewhere of the Caribbean coast even as I write this.

When I asked her what their secret was, she said it was all to do with saving £2 coin.

Now £2 doesn't sound like much. However, Sarah and her husband had turned this into a regular habit. Whenever they went to the supermarket, they asked the cashier if she they could have some of their change in £2 coins. On some weeks they were able to save several £2, and on other weeks they didn't. What they found was, that by the end of the year they regularly saved over £500 with very little effort which was enough to treat themselves to a short break somewhere.

The average working American spends ona average $11 twice a week on lunch. But if they saved their cash and chose to carry sanddwiches to work instead? That's an extra saving of $1000 per year - and that is not a small sum at all.

And if they choose to invest the money they saved?

And the best thing about it? The change was so small that they didn't even miss it.

Tip: Why not start today with saving a pound day? 


4.  Cut Out Sugar from Your Tea


I love English breakfast tea. 

I especially adore a good cup of Earl Grey tea with just that hint of bergamot essential oil. For years, I made my cuppa with demerara sugar, thinking it was a healthier choice than white. Until one day a nutritionist told me that demerara sugar didn't really have much nutritional value at all.

Since that conversation I made the decision to stop adding sugar to my tea.

At first it tasted awful. My palate was so used to its sugar quota that the unadulterated taste of tea just seemed wrong. I didn't swap it for other sweeteners or honey - it took a few days, but I gradually got used to the taste of sugarless tea.

And do you know what? Now - if someone inadvertently gives me a cup of tea with sugar, I just can't drink it all. I've managed to retrain my palate!  

Tip: Commit to trying tea without sugar for 21 days. Not only will you be taking a small step to help your health, you'll also save yourself approximately 40 calories per cup.


5. Use Your "Grey Time" Wisely

Photos: Annie Spratt, Unsplash

Photos: Annie Spratt, Unsplash

Life makes so many demands on us.

There are emails to answer. Phone calls to return. Meetings to arrange. Appointments to attend... little wonder that many of us never get round to doing what we really want to do.

In these situations we often live reactively rather than responsively. Reacting to what happens around us instead of responsively to what is important for our long-term goals and visions.

Mark McGuinness, a London-based coach, talks of the importance of setting your priorities early in the day rather than being continuously focused on other people's schedules.

We need to:

  • prioritise our creative work
  • respond to more tedious work or tasks later in the day

Sometimes its easy for us to procrastinate and delay what is most important to use because, on some level, we are actually intimidated by it. In those cases, it's easy for us to keep ourselves busy by slavishly working our way through emails. 

The best way I found to discipline myself was by adapting a form used in CBT where you have to account for every hour of your day (copies in resource library). 


25 Small Things that can Reduce Stress, Increase Joy and Make You Feel More Content Overall


What are the things in life that make you smile?

According to a survey of 2000 people it's actually the most simple of things - with sleeping in freshly laundered bedsheets topping the list. 

The key is to do the simple things often - and be attentive at the same time. If we pay attention, it's actually a great way of boosting our mood and our levels of resilience too.

Rebecca, aged 25, says, "I was seeing a psychologist for a while to help me cope with early onset arthritis. I'd been forced to place my graduate studies on hold and my boyfriend and I had just split up so I felt very low.

"One of the things the psychologist recommended was to do five small things a day that gave me joy. At first it was a struggle. I couldn't even think of five things. And when I did, I asked myself, how could something as simple as having a warm bath bring me joy? But after some time I learned to focus on what I was doing in that very moment - being mindful. I really got into it, and it became a way of helping me cope with the stresses I was facing."

The five small things that Rebecca did were the type of simple activities we carry out every day. But by consciously placing her attention on what she was doing, they created anchor, or rest points, during the day, turning them into small acts of appreciation and self-care. 

We might not be able to control the effect of illness or the breakdown of a relationship, but taking small actions in other areas of our life can impact our situation indirectly. It can enhance our belief that we can cope in specific situations, and can help us strengthen our resources to more successfully manage the area that is challenging us. 

So, listed below are 25 small things you can do, which the average person says makes them feel so much better.

  1. Listening to birdsong from my bedroom window
  2. Make a greeting card
  3. Being around children - even if just for a few minutes - and hearing their laughter
  4. Doing gentle exercise which releases happy endorphins
  5. Escaping to the seaside for the day, breathing in fresh sea air and eating freshly caught fish n chips on the beach
  6. Relax and enjoy a cup of your favourite herbal tea
  7. Getting into bed to clean and freshly ironed bedsheets
  8. Laughing at a funny memory
  9. Cook a new recipe
  10. Dance to lively music
  11. Catching up with a friend you haven't seen in a while
  12. Playing your favourite board game from childhood
  13. Sing your favourite song
  14. Complete a word puzzle or crossword
  15. Adult colouring in
  16. Reading a chapter from my favourite book
  17. Having coffee in a new cafe
  18. Taking a bath in the evening by candlelight with classical music on in the background
  19. Looking at funny videos on WhatsApp or Youtube
  20. Doodling or drawing
  21. Watching nature or history documentaries
  22. Having a pampering evening with a face mask
  23. Wandering round an antique market
  24. Trying out a new cuisine
  25. Sitting in a park under a tree, just relaxing and listening to nature

So what simple things make you happy? Write in and let me know!


Day 1.png

Why not get a head-start with developing your happiness habit? Download this 7 day workbook now!


favourite blog posts

8 helpful tips you can use to Increase your happiness when you live with chronic pain


You want to be happier.

You want to experience that sense of contentment and joy - the feeling that all is right in your world. But one of the hardest things about living with long-term pain, is accepting the fact that things aren't so right in your world after all. And trying to find happiness, trying to maintain a sense of optimism in the face of such difficult circumstances, brings with it its own set of challenges.

When you live with chronic pain, there are so many issues that have to be managed throughout the day. Even seemingly minor things - such as deciding to cook a meal from scratch if your energy is low - can have big repercussions for hours or days down the line.

Instead of thriving and enjoying, life is often spent in survival mode. The focus switches to getting through the next 24 hours as you struggle to cope with pain that can overwhelm and isolate you, or threatens to drag you into an emotional void from which it can be hard to escape. 

And of course there's disappointment too.


Take last week, for example.

I'd been looking forward to an invitation to a barbecue from a new friend. I had anticipated it for several days - only to realise that I simply couldn't make it.

So I was forced to make that call - the call I've made so many times before. It's the one that begins,  "I'm so sorry I can't be there.... I really wanted to go..." 

Instead of attending the weekend celebration - sitting outside, listening to music and laughing with others as we

enjoyed the smoky taste of food grilled over charcoal - I stayed in, and wondered how long it would be before the pain lowered to a more manageable level.

In such times it can be hard not to feel disappointed.

So is it really possible to find happiness in the midst of such challenges? Or is there something more meaningful we can search for that can give us a joy and fulfilment instead?


1. Manage Our Expectations

Photo: Tess Nebula, Unsplash

Photo: Tess Nebula, Unsplash

It took me years to learn this lesson - and in many ways it's an ongoing process. But I realised when I had lowered my expectations of myself and others, I tended to be less stressed and less disappointed.

I'm a perfectionist by nature, so this has been incredibly hard for me.

But I am learning that when I let go of my expectations, especially big ones, I am able to feel so much happier.

This has helped me:

  • be less critical of myself when my body simply can't manage to do all the things I want it to do

  • realise that in life other people will let us down and disappear at the time we could do with them most. All we can do is love them and let them go, while we treasure and appreciate those who remain.

So now I tell myself, if I can do something on a given day, no matter how small - that's wonderful. I will savour and treasure the memories of that day to keep me positive when times are harder.

And appreciate those who remain constant when times get tough.


2. Get Enough Sleep


There are some basics that need to be in place if we want to become happier. And one of the main things is to have a well-rested brain -  but I know from firsthand experience that when pain levels are so severe it can be impossible to sleep at all.

If you're not working, you might also find that although you're physically tired, your brain hasn't been active enough during the day to switch off properly at night.

Or you might find you have so much to do that a combination of poor health, work, child care commitments and stress can make you so over-tired, that you cannot sleep at all as your body is too exhausted. I've found that taking magnesium or using magnesium spray on your legs can help relax muscles to give some pain relief, and it also promotes sleep too.

I've also noticed that one of the ways to promote better sleep is to get outside for some fresh air during the day, even if you can't get further than your front door.

But if you can reach the park, surrounded by grass or trees, or somewhere where you can really take in deep breaths of air, it has a relaxing effect on the body later on during the day.

Using a good quality sleep mask and blackout curtain liners can greatly aid my ability to switch off. And some people love lavender essential oil too, though personally it makes me too drowsy the next day. 


3. Eat a Healthy Diet

Photo: Lisa Fotios, Pexel

Photo: Lisa Fotios, Pexel

Nowadays, the average person eats 500 calories more per week than they did during the 1970s - and most of these calories come from junk food or ready meals.

One of the best things you can do for your body is to make the decision to follow a healthy diet. 

It should include looking at what foods might trigger your pain, and seeing if eliminating them from your diet makes a difference, and also making the effort to eat clean food - that is, eating food in an unprocessed state as possible.

If you find this daunting, then the simplest way to have a healthier diet was to drink a green smoothie on most mornings. It's such an easy thing to have for breakfast. I invested in a smoothie maker a couple of years ago - and I must say, it's absolutely fantastic!

I'll be honest.

I don't particularly love greens or vegetables - but by adding kale, spinach and even broccoli to my morning smoothies, and then adding aromatic herbs and spices which I love,  I feel I've already got my day off to the best possible start - and that simple act makes me feel much more positive about the day ahead.


4. gentle movement

Photo Jacob Postuma, Unsplash

Photo Jacob Postuma, Unsplash

My doctor once advised me to join the local gym for a very gentle exercise class.  I dutifully went along for the induction and one yoga session (with a very stressy teacher!) - and that was the end of my gym experience!

If you're not a gym person - the easiest thing is to find simple ways to incorporate more activity into your daily life. 

For beginners, I especially like gentle yoga dvds such as Fiona Delf which is aimed at people who have fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue.

Researchers have shown that for those who have pain conditions, Lifestyle Physical Activity is a great way of. So put on your walking shoes and take a short stroll round your neighbourhood. Taking in the local scenery can work wonders for your mood. 

Even if you have to use a walking frame or crutches, it's better to go out there, inhale the fresh air, and walk slowly to build up your functional ability, than stay indoors.

And if the weather isn't too great, gentle walking on a treadmill is also a good way to build up stamina. You can even find a scenic walking video on youtube, and pretend you're taking an afternoon stroll round Paris or Milan...


5. Accept that your mood might be low at times

There are some people who are truly blessed to feel happy all the time. No matter what happens to them, they are able to face life with a Pollyanna response to their trials, and carry on regardless, automatically seeing the bright side of every situation.

But most of us aren't like that, and with good reason. 

We are actually hardwired to feel experience more negative feelings than positive ones.  It was the way our ancestors protected themselves from dangerous situations in the past.

Certain medication can also have an effect on our mood, making us feel lower than we normally would. I've definitely found that some pain medications can make my mood worse.

Positive thinking often encourages us to ignore these negative emotions - and instead focus on the more joyful feelings of cheerfulness, serenity and hope. 

Positive psychology, however, recognises that negative emotions are part of the complexity of human life, and can actually be used as signposts that focus our attention on a specific matter.

For instance:

  • feeling low can be a sign that we need to withdraw for awhile and allow ourselves time to heal.

  • guilt can help prevent us from repeating the same mistakes over and over again.

  • fear can be the catalyst that tells us to flee a situation in order to protect ourselves.

Negative emotions can also spur us on to greater achievements.

I remember an old university friend who didn't do much coursework from one month to the next, but when she and her boyfriend split up, she fuelled the hurt she felt into writing truly powerful essays. 

We don't want to become trapped in our negative emotions though - we need to recognise and acknowledge them, then move on. So if you feel that you're stagnating in these emotions, then get all the help you need from a medical professional or doctor.


6.find something that gives your life a sense of purpose...


Does your life have meaning? Is there a goal or intention that absorbs your mind and helps you transcend whatever situation you find yourself in?

When your daily existence is largely about managing pain or health levels, it can be easy to forget the joy that can come from having a purpose in your life beyond yourself. Your life has shrunk. Places have become inaccessible, old friends disappear, and you might find yourself becoming less sociable as you try to manage the simplest of every day tasks.

It's easy to see how all of this can sap your joy.

Yet despite all this, it is vital to find something that gives you a sense of meaning and purpose. 

Before I was born, my mother experienced some ongoing health issues. It wasn't easy for her, managing her health and a houseful of young children, but one of the things she loved to do was sing. So she gained a sense of purpose by continuing to sing - both at home and in her local church.

Years later, I was touched when my mother and I were on holiday, and an elderly lady came and clasped my mother to her bosom. She told me that she could still remember the songs my mother had sung decades earlier. She said that in those years she was struggling with some issues of her own, and whenever she heard my mother sing it helped encourage to deal with whatever she was facing.

So take a few moments to think back to what you love or used to love to do. How can you find a way of adding it to your life now?


7. practise gratitude

Photo by  Ana Tavares  on  Unsplash

Photo by Ana Tavares on Unsplash

Previously, scientists thought that our capacity to change our brain and way of thinking was fixed by the age of 30 - after that it was all downhill.

But the good news is - it seems they got it WRONG! 

Researchers have now discovered that happiness is a state of mind which can be brought about and maintained through good habits. They realise that, just like the human body, the brain can be exercised - and by exercising it in the right way we can transform and rewire our way of thinking. 

Perhaps the simplest habit to adopt, and one that can have profound benefits, is practising gratitude. In this way, we're deliberately making the choice to look for and appreciate the good, even in the smallest of things.

As a child, I was brought up to say prayers every morning and night - expressing thanks to God, and expressing appreciation and love for the kindness of others.

It takes one month of practising a good habit for it to sink in you brain. Why not get a head start with our activity happiness planner:


8. Change Your Vocabulary


It's so easy to get into a negative mindset - especially if your daily life is beset with pain. After all, it's frustrating when you find you can no longer do things for yourself in a way that you could previously.

In these situations, it's very easy for us to get into the habit of complaining about our lot in life. Do you find yourself saying: 

  • I'm fed-up with x

  • I'm annoyed about y

  • I couldn't go to z and it's made me feel really low

In a way, it's perfectly natural. If you're body is in survival mode...

Yet while it's important to acknowledge our negative emotions, it's vital that we don't get stuck in a rut of prolonged venting about any and everything.

If you've been in pain for years, it's hard to imagine that things could ever be any different, but we need to see our feelings of anger and annoyance as a temporary response to our situation.

I'm not going to say we don't have a right to feel, fed up, or annoyed or angry. But perhaps we could change how we express it:

  • I'm fed up about x today

  • I'm annoyed about y but later on I can still get to watch my favourite comedy that I've been looking forward to all week

  • I couldn't go to z and it's made me feel really low but I'm learning to listen to my body, and hopefully in a couple of days I'll be able to go to x instead...

These are just a few of the steps we can take to add more positive emotions to our lives. If you'd like to receive a free 28 day Happiness Activity Planner then click on the link below and we'll send you one right away.

8 useful tips to boost happiness when you live with chronic pain.png


Resilience - 5 key ways you can cope with the stresses and adversities of life


Once upon a time, a large and beautiful oak stood near a river. In its shade were some water reeds. Compared to the oak they were small and inconsequential. 

When the wind blew, the oak was proud and upright whereas the reeds swayed according to the ebb and flow of the wind.

"You're so weak and puny," said the oak. "You bow at the slightest rustle, while I remain strong."

One day, a great hurricane came. The oak was resolute against the onslaught - confident that with its might it would withstand the worst.

In the end, however, it was this stiffness that proved its undoing. The raging winds destroyed the oak's branches and ripped off its boughs. 

Finally the storm passed and calm was restored. The small reeds, which had twisted and swayed throughout were still upright, while the oak's branches were strewn across the river. Destroyed by the ferocity of the storm.


Aesop's Fable


Life will always throw us curveballs. We can't be prepared for every eventuality all the time. 

Some of us are like the oak. We can withstand so much, but when the winds of life keep blowing, we find ourselves crashing -  broken - into the river. 

Other people are like water reeds. When faced with unexpected challenges they find a way to cope and finally adapt. That's resilience.

The wind blows where it will,  but they've discovered how to adjust to the trials of life, and bend without breaking.

Thankfully, resilience is a skill that can be learned.

Researchers have found that more resilient people have greater activity in the left prefrontal cortex of the brain - the part of the brain responsible for the "feel good factor".  The good news is that we can actually train our brains to strengthen this prefrontal cortex and develop key skills like being more resilient.

So if you want to develop your ability to overcome adversity, here are five tools that can help:


1. Accept that struggles are Part of Life

Photo: Benjamin Elliott on Unsplash

Photo: Benjamin Elliott on Unsplash

Those of us in the West have largely become used to a comfortable lifestyle whereas those from other backgrounds tend to accept struggle as an inevitable part of the human existence.

For instance, my mother grew up in the Caribbean.

Every morning before school she had a list of chores to complete:  

  • wash the dishes
  • feed pigs
  • move goats to fresh pasture
  • collect water from nearby pond
  • and, if the pond was dry, go further and collect water from the river and take it home

Then she would walk five miles to school under the blazing Caribbean sun. 

If she didn't reach there by nine, the teacher would be waiting outside the gate with a belt in his hand, ready to administer punishment. 

By the time I went to school, I'd get up, have breakfast and then either walk or take the bus.

My nephews and nieces, born and raised in 21st century London, just have to grab breakfast, jump into their parents' car and be driven straight to the school gates.

So it's easier for someone of my mother's background to accept struggles because they were always used to life being a challenge. 

So next time you're facing adversity, try and have a conversation with someone from a completely different culture. It can serve as a timely reminder that for most of humanity, struggles are a part of their everyday life.



2. Remember your strengths/ positive reflection


The situation you're in right now might feel insurmountable, but never forget, you were born with many strengths and qualities.

And I'm willing to guess that you've already used these qualities to overcome battles and adversities in your past.

Excellence is not a gift but a skill that takes practice. We do not act rightly because we are excellent. We achieve excellence by acting rightly...
— Plato

When we're going through difficult times, we can be so consumed by it that it can be hard to recall any strengths that we previously drew upon.  But if we look back closely, we're sure to discover resources that helped us face previous challenging situations.

So take some time for positive reflection. Remember a challenge you've overcome and ask yourself:

  • What strategies did I use - what practical things did I do to help?"
  • What are the strengths that I drew on within myself?
  • What resources did I turn to for nourishment, guidance or support?
  • What insights did I use - what sayings or perspectives were helpful to me?



3. Realise we are not our thoughts


Every day, thousands of thoughts pass through our minds. 

Thoughts like:

  • "Life isn't going the way I planned it..."
  • "I just can't get things together..."
  • "I'll finish that project tonight..."
  • "What am I having for dinner this evening"

As you see, some of them are good. Some inconsequential, and others are judgemental or irrational. 

If we're going through adversity, it's perfectly understandable for some of our thoughts to be more negative and judgemental than normal. The best thing to do is to allow them to pass through, and move on.

So we might think:

  • "I can't get through this.
  • "It's getting the better of me..."

But is this really true? Or are we merely thinking that it is?

Psychologists say that the best thing to do at those times is to hold the distressing thought for a minute, then let it pass on by. Recognise it's there, then let it go.

When it passes, replace it with another thought for a minute:

  • "I am having the thought that I can't get through this..."
  • "I am having the thought that it's getting the better of me..." 

The addition of these five key words at the start of the sentence reminds us that we are not our thoughts. In fact, we are greater than them. And while it is natural to have negative thoughts from time to time, we don't need to let them overwhelm us.

  • So today, if you catch yourself having a negative thought don't try to fight it. But add those words to the start of the sentence, "I am having the thought..." and realise that you are far more than the thoughts you are having at that precise moment.

4. belief in something bigger than yourself

Photo: Nick Scheerbart, Unsplash

Photo: Nick Scheerbart, Unsplash


My mother's advice for adversity has remained the same over the years. "Take it to the Lord in prayer," she says.

Having a strong faith to draw on, has helped her through many difficult times.  When she faced situations that looked bleak, her prayers and trust in God gave her hope that things would eventually change. 

We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.
— 2 Corinthians 4.8-9

To my mother, resilience didn't necessarily mean bouncing back or restoring things to how they were before.

Instead, she used it as a process to help her feel closer to God. She did not expect that things would always work out exactly as she had hoped, but she certainly believed that she would overcome.

So today why not see resilience as part of the process of growth - a necessary tool in developing spiritual and emotional maturity.


5. Set Small, Achievable Goals


Most self-help tools emphasise the importance of dreaming BIIIGGGG!! After all, huge goals lead to big accomplishments. Right? 

Not necessarily.

One thing I learned in dealing with long-term health issues is that it was better for me to have goals that were small, manageable and achievable. They need to stretch you enough so you feel a sense of growth, yet not so much that they become unattainable.

When my goals were too big, I ran the risk of setting myself up for failure rather than success. And to develop our resilience skills, we really need to be able to look back on a series of small successes.

For instance, suppose you decide it's high time to live a healthier lifestyle, so you add a ten minute morning walk to your routine. 

You might say, "I will go for a ten minute walk every morning this week at 9.30 am."

Now on the surface, this seems like a great goal. The problem is you haven't given yourself any leeway in case you have a bad day, or some other emergency happens which leaves you with less energy to go for your walk than expected.

A more achievable target would be, "I will go for a ten minute walk four mornings this week by 10.30 am."

This stretches you while providing that all important flexibility. 

Small goals which encourage us to move forward are better than bigger goals which leave us feeling overwhelmed.

So this week, why not think about a goal you can set yourself? Remember to keep it small enough to be doable, yet just big enough to stretch yourself slightly.