After graduating with a master’s degree from New York University shortly after the great recession, Melanie Lockert was left in a situation familiar to millions of recent graduates: saddled with student debt — nearly $100,000 after interest — and working a job that paid $12 an hour.
“I think many of us were told to go to a good school, do well and work hard, and you can easily get a job,” Ms. Lockert said. “Unfortunately, in a post recession world, that’s just not true. Yet, without a college degree, it’s even tougher to get a job.”
At her most drastic moments, Ms. Lockert relied on food stamps and lived without health insurance. But after three years of conscientious budgeting and cutting corners, she climbed out of debt, blogging about her experience to stay on track. Ms. Lockert didn’t only recover; she also changed her perspective and financial habits completely, then used what she learned to help others struggling with debt.
“People found my blog and started emailing weekly, desperate for solutions,” she said. “I emailed back and offered resources and support as much as I could.”
Ms. Lockert’s story is a good example of resilience, but it’s a type of resilience that changes you and makes you grow. It’s what the authors Stephanie and Ama Marston call “transformative resilience .” In their book, “Type R: Transformative Resilience for Thriving in a Turbulent World,” they argue that the way we generally think about resilience, as “bouncing back,” doesn’t get us anywhere. Instead, we can use our setbacks as opportunities to better operate in and positively affect the world around us.
“At some point, all of us, no matter what our socioeconomic background is, what our age is, what our situation is, we’re going to go through a challenging circumstance,” Stephanie Marston, a psychotherapist, said. “So how do we use those to our advantage?”
Whereas resilience is the ability to move on despite a setback, transformative resilience is the ability to improve because of a setback. Had Ms. Lockert simply recovered from her student debt crisis without learning the crucial lessons she did, she might have made the same financial mistakes again, never reflecting on what should be different.
After interviewing hundreds of people like Ms. Lockert over the past 30 years and studying the phenomenon with her daughter, Stephanie Marston, along with her daughter, Ama, discovered that people typically experience six distinct stages of turning adversity into growth. These stages apply to groups, organizations, families and communities as well as individuals.
Stage 1: You’re in your comfort zone …
Before there is a storm, of course, there is calm.
“Each of us finds our place in the world,” the authors write. “We allow ourselves to be defined by the structures and systems we’ve put in place, from our job titles and accomplishments, to our partnerships, families, and the houses in which we live.”
These systems allow us to operate without putting too much thought into our day-to-day habits and decisions. We feel safe and secure in these systems and structures, and while business gurus and productivity experts may decry the comfort zone, it’s not entirely a bad thing.
The pioneering researchers and psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John D. Dodson discovered that a certain level of comfort and familiarity allows us to reach peak performance. In a way, comfort zones can give us the energy we need to face the world. At some point, however, we may be forced out of them. That’s not always a bad thing, either.
Stage 2: … And then you experience a disruption
Whether it’s a health issue, an accident or just the daunting realization that you have to repay a huge debt, “when a disruption happens, everything is thrown into question,” Stephanie Marston said. The familiar is shattered, and we can no longer count on the reality we’ve built for ourselves.
“For me, that moment came when I couldn’t afford to live in New York anymore and my debt was impacting my choices, my employment, my relationship and every facet of my life,” Ms. Lockert said.
Later in the process of transformative resilience, you learn to find the opportunity in that disruption, but that’s nearly impossible to do at this stage, when you are most likely experiencing panic and fear. During this stage, Ms. Marston suggests focusing on external support.
“Often when we’re in the midst of this, we don’t have perspective, but our friends and family and colleagues do,” she said.
Stage 3: You’re in the middle of chaos
After the disruption has occurred, chaos ensues as you struggle to make sense of your shattered reality. Some people might find themselves in denial during this stage, Ms. Marston said. Ms. Lockert confirmed this in her own experience.
“Denial can be comforting, but it’s not a place you can stay in very long,” she said. “The truth always catches up with you.”
Ms. Marston said that individuals experienced a great deal of grief during this stage, almost like experiencing a death.
It’s during this stage that you are forced to focus on solutions, and as difficult as it can be, self-compassion is crucial at this point, Ms. Marston said.
“We often get very, very judgmental and harsh and blame ourselves,” she said. “Recognize that this is really a difficult time and it’s not going to be forever. I think that that’s where people often get lost.”
She added: “They think: ‘I just lost what I had. I lost everything or most everything that I knew. And now I’m in this no man’s land.’”
That thought process can get easily out of hand, making you question everything else in your environment. During this stage, it’s important to focus on what’s real rather than what’s imagined, Ms. Marston added. Again, the external support of friends and family can offer a realistic perspective during times of chaos.
Stage 4: A catalyst emerges
At some point during the transformative process, you experience an epiphany: a new idea or a fresh perspective that helps jump-start your transformation. Ms. Lockert’s catalyst came when she discovered readers found her blog by Googling phrases like, “I want to kill myself because of debt.”
“It gutted me,” she said. “My grandfather committed suicide so I never had a chance to meet him. It’s something that has caused a lot of pain for my mother and it’s a part of my family history that has been cut off. I have also dealt with my own issues of depression and suicidal ideation, so I’ve been there.”
This catalyst typically happens organically.
“I don’t think you can force it. There’s a bit of surrender that’s involved in this process,” Ms. Marston said. “Sometimes it takes days, months, even years to regain clarity.” She added that, in most cases she studied, the catalyst emerged naturally as the individual accepted the chaos and found strength to regain perspective.
“I love the quote that the scholar Joseph Campbell wrote,” Ms. Marston said. “He said, ‘We must let go of the life we have planned so as to accept the one that is waiting for us.’”
Stage 5: You move toward something new
With a new perspective, you can start to move toward a new reality, experimenting with your sense of identity and place in the world. For Ms. Lockert, that meant emailing her readers, meeting them in person and becoming an advocate for suicide prevention. “I wrote an open letter to my readers saying: ‘You are not your debt. Debt is not a death sentence.’ Inevitably, more people started finding me through searching about suicide and debt,” Ms. Lockert said.
During this stage, you might also learn new skills, explore different career opportunities or try other activities that push the boundaries of your previous comfort zone and reshape your place in the world.
“We can’t necessarily change the circumstances that we find ourselves in, but what we do have control over and what we can change is our attitude about this,” Ms. Marston said. “And that’s really the crux of the Type R mind-set, to shift our mind-set to see challenges as opportunities.”
Stage 6: You become comfortable with change
Once you’ve experimented with your new identity and reality, you reach a point where everything has changed and you’re O.K. with that. “Although we maintain our core values, renewal involves new understandings, beliefs, attitudes and — most of all — new identities,” the Marstons write.
The book explains the contagion effect of transformative resilience, how it goes beyond what we experience as individuals and rubs off on those around us. Ideally, after the chaos, we will feel motivated to contribute to a less chaotic world. Ms. Lockert can attest to this part of the process as well.
“I’ve known what it’s like to not want to wake up in the morning. And that’s terrifying,” she said. “Having your worldview expanded and having new ideas of what’s possible can completely change your life. It did mine, so I wanted to help others.”
By Kristin Wong
Kristin Wong is a freelance writer and the author of “ Get Money.”