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Helplessness to hardiness: Kelly Scholar shares personal journey

Distinguished Kelly Scholar-in-Residence Joan Borysenko captivated the sold-out audience at St. Catherine University.
Distinguished Kelly Scholar-in-Residence Joan Borysenko captivated the sold-out audience at St. Catherine University.
Photo by Ashley de los Reyes '15.

Joan Borysenko, Ph.D., shared her personal journey of resilience with an enthusiastic sold-out crowd in The O’Shaughnessy on St. Catherine University’s St. Paul campus Thursday evening.

Standing center stage, the 2014 Distinguished Kelly Scholar-in-Residence combined personal stories, research and even a song as she illustrated how resilience can be learned.

“Change your story. Change your biology. Change your life,” said Borysenko. She discussed the research and writings of several researchers and authors, including Martin E. P. Seligman and Suzanne Ouellette Kobasa who both identified personality patterns that affect resilience.

Seligman’s work identified three elements of pessimism that reduce an individual’s success: personalization (it’s my fault), permanence (I’ll never be successful, it will always be this way), and pervasiveness (how much one thing going wrong impacts other areas of an individual’s life).

Oullette Kobasa’s work identified three “hardiness” characteristics of resilient individuals. They actively confront challenge, have a strong sense of commitment (a clearly defined sense of self and purpose) and focus on what they can control.

Borysenko recounted a story about boating with her 15-year-old son as an example of the two theories. She, her two sons and stepdaughter went out on a small speedboat, traversing a riverway to the ocean. On the way back in, understanding too late navigational buoys that showed where shallow sandbars were located, their small boat ran aground.

Borysenko shared how she internally berated herself (I am a terrible mother, look what I have allowed!); while her 15-year-old exclaimed, “This is the best day ever! I’m the captain, and now I get to rescue us!”

What is the story you are telling yourself about stressful or challenging events, she asked the attentive audience. Being aware is the first step. Dispute the story, she advised.

The hero's journey

She discussed how resilience and transformation are at the heart of Joseph Campbell’s mapping of the rites of passage, the “hero’s journey.” She divided the journey into three stages.

The first step is separation from the known and she acknowledged the fear and anxiety that this can produce.

The second stage is the “liminal time,” the time between “no longer and not yet.” This stage is where individuals overcome obstacles, find allies and identify enemies – both internal and external. It is also a time to grieve. It was here that she shared a Jewish song she learned as a child for Tish B’Av observances and still utilizes as part of her own resiliency practice today.

Stage three of the hero’s journey is the return — transformed. This is the point where individuals may be inspired to share what they have learned during their journey and to give back to the community.

Borysenko closed by sharing techniques that individuals can utilize to build their own resiliency practice and break down the habitual ways of thinking that work against resiliency. These include mindfulness training, meditation and deep breathing exercises and physical activity. She also advised the audience to practice gratitude, curiosity and openness and to use humor and acceptance to achieve peace and wellness.

More about the Kelly Scholar-in-Residence program

The Bonnie Jean and Joan Kelly Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence is one of three programs endowed by Joan Kelly ’46 in honor of her late older sister, Bonnie Jean Kelly, who died suddenly while she was a student at St. Kate's.

Joan Kelly was an English major, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate, and credits the liberal arts education she received at St. Kate’s for her success. The Kelly gift also funds annual student and faculty writing awards.

Related content:
2014 Kelly Scholar-in-Residence: Q & A with Joan Borysenko

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April 25, 2014 by Julie Michener

See also: Healthcare, Liberal Arts, Students