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A more Resilient You - Strategies for breaking Bad Habits and building Positive ones

by Tony de Gouveia

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit” - Aristotle

As mentioned in one of my previous “Born to Shine” articles, it is a known fact in the Psychology literature that Women, because of their role and position in society often experience higher levels of Stress than men. This puts them at higher risk for many stress ailments than their male counterparts.

Resilience has been defined as the ability to “bounce back” from adversity, thrive on challenges, reach our full potential and have a positive impact on others. It suggests emerging from the adversity stronger and more resourceful. Interestingly, research conducted by the American Psychological Association(APA) into gender differences in men and women in the US Armed Forces have found that men and women do not differ when it comes to Resilience

Resilience is linked to the ability to learn to live with ongoing fear and uncertainty, namely, the ability to show positive adaptation in spite of significant life adversities and the ability to adapt to difficult and challenging life experiences. In the current South Africa we live in, resilience has become a “rule of the game” if one wants to survive in our present business and social environment.

Enhancing your Resilience Core
According to Gail Wagnild, Phd, there are a number of actions one can take to strengthen what she terms your “resilience core”, which is made up a number of characteristics of resilience:
1 . A meaningful life(your purpose)
2. Perseverance
3. Self Reliance
4. Equanimity(Balance)
5. Acceptance of Existential Aloneness

Perseverance is the Key
In this article we will focus on one of these characteristics namely Perseverance which in this author’s view is the key characteristic of Resilience. Perseverance refers to the ability to go on despite disappointment, difficulties and discouragement. Repeated failure and rejection can lead us to despondency and defeatism unless we master this key characteristic. It implies courage and emotional stamina which resilient women display in abundance.

The question then arises as to how we can build, develop and strengthen our perserverance? One of the key questions in this regard is: Am I able to stay focussed on my goals or am I easily distracted?

The Power of Habits
The answer to this question seems to lie, in this author’s view, in a common phenomenon known as our daily habits. Some of you may remember the classic Self Help Improvement guide entitled “The Seven Habits of Highly effective People” authored by the late Stephen Covey. In this book he highlighted the powerful role of habits in our lives, both positive and negative, because they are “...consistent, often unconscious patterns, they constantly, daily, express our character and produce our effectiveness…or ineffectiveness”. An example of this would be why do most of us go to work the same way every day? So it is habits that can keep up us on track and focussed on our goals.

Covey uses the metaphor(example) of the “pull” of gravity to explain the power of habits and that “lift off”(breaking out) of negative embedded habits such as criticalness, impatience, procrastination and selfishness will require a significant effort, much like a spaceship requires rocket power to get out of the orbit of a particular planet. In practical terms, it requires energy to kick us out of our orbit(comfort zone/bad habit) and to overcome the gravitational force(inertia) that keeps us there. Those of us who have tried to give up a bad habit like smoking, alcohol, drugs, or lose weight will know what is being referred to here. Those who have never had to do so, can try the following experiment: try wearing your wrist watch on the other arm for a few days and note how often you look at the wrong arm!

Thus habits both good and bad are formed, shaped maintained by repeated behaviour over a period of time(usually a minimum of 3- 6 weeks) until we do them automatically, without thinking and with little effort- like flying in auto-pilot. Once established, a habit can take weeks, even months to break, depending on the habit, so there is a saying ”Old habits die hard”.

Habit is a cable; we weave a thread of it
each day and it becomes so strong
we can not easily break it
Horace Mann

In this author’s counselling/coaching experience over 30 years, it is also important to provide a meaningful alternative habit to replace the negative one ie one must lay a positive foundation eg very often an alcoholic must create new supportive/friendship circle/lifestyle to replace his old “drinking buddies” circle/lifestyle centred around alcohol. This very action in and of itself can be daunting and the person may become “stuck” at this point. Thus in some instances the assistance of a therapist/counsellor/coach may be required.

In conclusion it is important to reflect on this process of habit change by remembering that nothing will change unless you have the drive to seriously follow through by forming and shaping the new habit until it becomes a true habit that is sustainable to the point that it becomes unconscious (ie without you consciously thinking of doing it eg driving a car). Also one needs to understand the role of repetition and persistence in creating new habits. If they can work in the classroom, they can work for you!

Tony de Gouveia is a Clinical Psychologist in Private Practice at the
Akeso Clinic in Alberton
(011) 907-2811/ 082 4565046

Born to Shine Magazine - Edition 10 (December 2014 - March 2015)