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Counselor's Corner: Building Resiliency in Recovery

Sherrie Nichols, MS, LMFT, Co-director, Great Lakes MHTTC
Publication Date: Sep 16, 2021

Resiliency, or being resilient, is often defined as being able to move through difficulty to a place of healing and growth. Sounds straightforward and achievable, right? Yet, for our clients in recovery, it is often not that simple. Many of us know that surviving difficulty is more than a single act. It is often a grueling journey, filled with both mountains and valleys. It requires grit and a lot of grace for ourselves and from those around us. So why endure more pain? As a psychotherapist, I am often asked this question. My response is, and will always be: “So we can feel the joy that is waiting for us on the other side.” It is the paramount difference between simply surviving when we could be thriving.

So how do we achieve this? When working with clients in any stage or type of recovery, I remind them that it is not about achieving anything. Instead, building resiliency happens when we take small steps to learn more about ourselves to heal a bit more and be less triggered to act in maladaptive ways that no longer help us. It’s a journey, not a destination. And they are worth it.

Here are five examples of building block conversations you can review or hand out to your clients to help them start building their resiliency:

1. Define Your Goals. A buzzphrase word we all love. The reality is that if you do not know what you are aiming for, how do you make decisions on next steps? We have almost all met someone who makes decisions on the fly or “shoots from the hip,” and appears to be confident and decisive. However, decisions like this can leave people feeling like a ping-pong ball because they are unsure of what to expect next. You may have even grown up with this uncertainty: “What is coming next?” “Who can I trust?” Define your goals and start acting on them every day. Who are you aiming to be? What habits are you developing? Ask yourself, “Is this getting me closer to my goal or farther?” Each time we act on these goals, we are strengthening that part in our brain. I dare you to Google “Brené Brown’s Unlocking Us podcast with David Eagleman.” You won’t be disappointed to learn how powerful your brain really is and also how much power we have in truly shaping our brains.

2. Know Thyself. Dig into who you are. What are your likes? Dislikes?  What are the experiences that shaped who you are today? What brings you to your knees in pain? In joy? The more we understand about ourselves, the good and not so good, the better we can identify our “stuff.” The “stuff” that stops us from being able to be the best versions of ourselves. Many become experts in avoiding. Don’t do this— it will rob you of the joy you were meant to experience. Honor that setbacks happen. Use them to learn more about yourself and continue to grow. Getting stuck in shame will keep you from your goals. Be brave, stand in your truth, and start breaking down the walls your pain has been building. You do not have to do it all at once. It is okay to rest. To pause. But as soon as you have recharged, keep going.

Dictionary page 3. Find Healthy Relationships. Find a spouse, friend, family member, therapist, pastor, mentor, or recovery coach who “gets” you. Whether you are an extrovert or introvert, find your people. You are going to need them. We are designed to be in relationships with others from the very moment we enter this earth. The wonderful part as you age is that you have full control of these relationships and get to decide who your people are. However, the people you choose to let in are individuals that have a powerful role in your life. They need to be willing to call you on your “stuff,” AND you need to be willing to hear them. Your most important role in these relationships is to lean in and ask for help, especially as you are building your own strength in recovery AND even afterward. No one is perfect. We need others even when we feel strong. They will need you, too.

4. Move. As you process your pain and make room for more joy, moving your body is incredibly beneficial. Our bodies and brains are fully connected—not a shock, I know! Yet, we fail to honor how our mind and body are designed to work together. As we “talk” through our pain, moving that pain out of our bodies is equally important. Walking, biking, or even making your bed causes your body and brain to work in alignment with each other. Plus, you feel better knowing you accomplished something—a win-win. I would be remiss not to include the importance of a healthy diet and adequate sleep. Without these two essentials, we cannot fully use our body as it is designed. When physically moving is not an available option, consider the power of breath. We take our own breath for granted most of the time. Learning to breathe, to inhale and exhale fully and deeply, is a practice. It floods the body with life-giving air. Paired with mindfulness, breathing can shift our moods greatly, increase our energy, and move unwanted and stored negative energy out. Additionally, just taking a moment to physically brush or dust yourself off can allow you to name what just happened, recognize the response you are currently having to it, and enable you to move forward. Try doing it just once. I bet you stand a little bit taller and hold your chin a little bit higher.

5. Higher Power. We have covered mental, emotional, and physical health. To provide a comprehensive foundation for resiliency, I offer my clients a focus on spirituality. This will mean very different things to different people, especially depending on your cultural beliefs. If you have ever felt a higher power or have drawn power from your spiritual self, I would bet you would say it was both profound and undeniable. You may even approach this as your “inner voice.” Whether it is Buddha, God, or any other higher power, that’s for you to decide. A recent personal example of this happened with my son. At 10 years old he is, at times, overcome with anger when things do not go his way, especially when competing in sports. He wants to shut down, cry, and quit. Needless to say, his father and I focus on teaching him perseverance and a positive mindset. He often hears, “If you never learn to lose, you will never learn how good winning feels.” This past summer, you could see our son’s frustration mounting as he stood in the goal on the soccer field. If he could have walked off the field at that moment, he would have —and probably cried on the sidelines in embarrassment. I could tell from his stance and body language that he was overwhelmed with multiple emotions. Then, I could see his frustration dissipating almost as quickly as it had mounted. His body was regulated, and his head was back in the game. Curious, I asked him at bedtime what he said to himself to change his mindset. He said, “I didn’t say anything. I felt it, it was in my chest. God was there and I knew I would be okay.” For our son, spirituality was the difference between walking off the field, embarrassed and in tears, and being able to stumble, reset, and go on to help win the game.

I hope you find these five examples helpful in having conversations with your clients. The final story I shared is also a reminder that we often walk alongside clients who may not have been supported emotionally, much less spiritually, as children. As providers, we are often helping clients grow from a much younger emotional age despite their physical age. Paying attention and guiding them through these moments can increase their self-awareness and bring cohesion to their physical and emotional ages. To conclude, it is believed that the single most predictor of client success is not what you know or the modality you use. It’s the hope you hold for your client(s). Your own resiliency is crucial, so be sure to care for yourself so you can continue to care for others. You are worth it, too.


Sherrie NicholsSherrie Nichols, MS  is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with specialization in Infant, Early Childhood and Family Mental Health.  Sherrie has worked the last 13 years in County Human Services supporting both mental health and substance use disorders, both as a therapist and as a Behavioral Health Manager. Her passion is serving others, honoring each unique journey whether a client or staff, and supporting them in becoming the best versions of themselves.  She is currently the Co-Director for the Great Lake MHTTC and the State Project Manager for Minnesota for ATTC, PTTC, and MHTTC.