My Resilient Life Journey

by Michelle Atlas

Michelle Atlas, ASRC Resiliency Facilitator
Michelle Atlas
Resiliency Facilitator

I'm going to share the story of how I discovered my innate resilience and how resilience was cultivated within me through a multitude of life experiences. This is a sequence of significant life events, hardships and blessings, along with how my misfortune became great fortune. After each personal story/event I will shed light on the various resilience principles which helped me to survive and ultimately to thrive. My wish is that where you experience resonance, you will discover insight and greater access to the resilience wisdom within yourself.

I realize now that I have been fiercely resilient my entire life, although I did not fully understand the formal concept until 2007, when I first came upon Al Siebert's work.

Things were tough from the moment I arrived. I was born to an upper-middle-class Jewish 17-year-old who was sent to a convent to give birth to me. The pregnancy was shrouded in shame and anxiety and my birth was full of drama.

I was adopted as a newborn. My mother was an unrelenting critic, hurling daily doses of anger my way in her shrill voice. My father was infantile and emotionally dependent upon me for love and affirmation. He was never a father—more like a younger sibling and occasionally, even like a boyfriend, although thank goodness, there was never any sexual abuse. There was however, what is known as "emotional incest." I felt like a burden to my mother and as if the sole purpose of my existence was to meet the emotional needs of both of my parents. Life within my family was unrelentingly painful, disappointing and confusing. Yet from as early as I can remember, I coped by taking refuge within myself.

From early childhood, I carried within me, an inspired sense about my life—an innate knowing that happiness was my birthright and that eventually I would discover how to actualize this potential.

When I was eight years old I noticed that National Geographic frequently featured Tibetan monks in their beautiful spiritual habitat. They were always radiantly smiling. I experienced an affinity with them that was beyond words—as if they were my dear friends. As if I was one of them. I knew, intrinsically that someday I would embody the living experience of that same contentment, love, benevolence and joy. It was as if I had already been there and simply had to find my way back.

Resilience Rising #1

My aunt (my father's sister) was a well-known therapist in our community. She was an extrovert with an open door policy. She was also the mother of two of my four older first cousins. I spent a large part of every weekend at her house. My aunt and my cousins loved me unconditionally. My time with them was a haven of fun and creativity.

The moment I walked in their door I experienced a palpable relief through my entire body- mind system. I felt completely loved and embraced for myself by my aunt and my cousins, pretty much all the time! Around the time I hit adolescence my aunt and I began having deep, candid conversations about my family history, how she perceived my parents dynamic, why my father behaved the way that he did based upon how he grew up, etc. These conversations gave me precious perspective and served a multitude of other significant purposes:

  1. I knew that someone was aware of my awful circumstances, I was seen.
  2. I began to understand what was actually happening. The truth of my experience was validated.
  3. Our conversations awakened my innate curiosity about all things human, and lit the fire of commitment to healing myself and ultimately helping others to do the same.
Resilience Wisdom

Research across the board tells us that when it comes to children—even those who have lived as victims of horrible abuse—if there is even one supportive adult outside of the dysfunctional situation, the child will likely grow into an exponentially healthier adult than a child who had no additional support.

Resilience Rising #2

At age 13, my best girlfriend and I found each other. We noticed that many of our peers and family members reacted to life's challenges with anger and resentment—crystallizing in their negativity—only to remain embittered forevermore. We observed others responding to hardship confident they would find a solution, seeking meaningful lessons within even the greatest difficulties. Our curiosity about what drove these two distinctly different ways of responding to life became the topic of our favorite conversations.

As for the two of us, for reasons we did not understand back then, we got excited about using our challenges to grow. We seemed to know that meaningful lessons learned would empower us to create more of the experiences we valued and ultimately to live our best lives. We always believed our dreams were possible. And, we were perplexed by the perpetual negativity so many we knew seemed to thrive on.

Our search for answers led us to the writings of a multitude of teachers, mystics and masters. While other teenagers thrived on partying and boyfriends, we spent countless hours excitedly talking about the spiritual wisdom espoused by well-known saints, monks and psychologists and struggled to interpret our dreams.

Resilience Wisdom

Two more well-known facts:

  1. A faith base—a connection to a benevolent power that transcends the vicissitudes of day-to-day human existence, no matter how bad it gets—makes a massive positive developmental difference for someone growing up in an abusive situation.
  2. A best friend—who is aligned with your deepest values and aspirations and loves who you are—is a priceless gift on the road to self-worth / resiliency.
The hardships of my early life, and what I now see as the heroic survival skills I cultivated as a result, gave me a natural self-confidence, ultimately leading to my capacity to take risks to change my life for the better, over and over again! I learned to rely upon my strong internal guidance to direct the course of my life and this helped me make major life decisions with relative ease.

Divine Intervention

Fast forward to age 19. As I edged toward full adulthood, I found myself experiencing an irreconcilable despair. For the first time in my entire life I found myself daydreaming about suicide. It probably wasn't two weeks later that I was invited to a meditation intensive with a teacher affiliated with a very well-known spiritual master.

For years, I had attempted to meditate to no avail. I would sit in quiet boredom, never piercing the veil to the deeper levels of my being, or touching the peace I was certain existed within me. At this intensive participants received a spiritual "initiation." At the time it didn't feel like a whole lot happened. But when I returned to my college dorm room and sat down to meditate the very next day I plunged effortlessly into a place deep within that matched every dream I ever had about experiencing profound self-connection, stillness and oneness with nature. These terms may sound cliché, but there is nothing cliché about the real deal!

Resilience Rising #3

I became a part of that spiritual community while I completed my undergraduate degree and within ten days of graduation went to join the master and his people as they traveled and taught throughout the US. A few years later I became a full-time staff person and lived as a member of that community for the next 12 years, until about age 34. In addition to the Eastern spiritual practices and lifestyle that I soaked up, the community afforded me a precious opportunity to re-create the family I always wanted. I held many different positions with varying levels of responsibility. I was known, cared about deeply, loved and surrounded by appreciative people. It was a lifestyle rich with opportunities to dive within, special events, special visitors and unlimited invitations to learn things that I would most definitely have never have learned if I had followed a more mainstream path.

Resilience Wisdom

Practices that foster optimal well-being, along with community and connection, fortify resilience big time. Those years gave me an unshakable internal foundation from which to ultimately emerge into the less predictable waters of mainstream adult life. As I neared 34, a little voice in the back of my head that knew there was much to be confronted on the human and psychological level grew stronger. I could no longer deny that it was time to leave both the community and my strained, painful marriage. It was time embark on the slow, deep journey of excavating the rest of me, so that I could become the fully expressed self that I always believed was my birthright.

Resilience Rising #4

Fast forward again. About seven years ago, I experienced the most painful event of my life, and it cracked me wide open. My most meaningful committed partner relationship ended in a shocking and traumatic way. After several years of love, nurturance, loyalty and devotion, one day I arrived at my partner's beautiful home (our "country home," as mine was in the city), situated on the fringe of a beautiful park, to find a "for sale" sign I knew nothing about on the lawn.

My partner had decided to enter a relationship with a woman in an open marriage and was moving to be near her and her husband. But he hadn't told me. There was no time to process this life-changing event.

Resilience Wisdom
Disruptive Change diagram, by Al Siebert, copyright Practical Psychology Press
Disruptive Change ~ developed by Al Siebert
(From The Resiliency Advantage, Chapter 1. Used with permission)

His sudden and unfathomable disappearance catalyzed within me, what Al Siebert cites in The Resiliency Advantage as "bifurcation.&quot This scientific process (put forth by Ilya Prigogine) occurs when the impact of a circumstance or event exceeds the resources of that which it is impacting. When this occurs there is a "breakdown." The resilient person will experience such a breakdown as "a beneficial accident." Because when one's mental, emotional and even physical coping/survival resources are compromised, there exists an unprecedented potential for one's essential self to emerge in its original beauty and radiance.

It becomes a process of breaking open to one's true self, to others and to life in an eyes wide open, all hands on deck, vibrant, deeply alive way. (By the same token, if one is not resilient, such a blow or "breakdown" can send one into a descent, depression or other mental health issue.)

I chose to face fully into the internal crisis that this event catalyzed. This sudden loss activated and ultimately released some trauma from very early in my life that I did not know had not yet been healed. Although this was the darkest, most devastating experience of my life, from very early on, I knew in my core, I was not a victim.

The process of disintegrating a barrier to my essential self was activated almost immediately. This experience was by far the most transformative, beneficial event of my life to date. I would not trade it for the world, as it has gifted me an exponentially more authentic, vulnerable, less defended, version myself and I'm eternally grateful.


In 2006, I left my full-time benefited position in human services and embarked on a multilayered reinvention process. All I knew was that I wanted to use the alchemy of my cumulative life experience, knowledge and wisdom to create a business that would help people align with their internal truth and become fully who they are.

When I came upon the work of Al Siebert in his book The Resiliency Advantage I recognized the answers to questions like the ones I'd been soul-searching for since I was a child. I was blessed to meet him and receive his approval to become certified as a trainer of his resilience research prior to his passing.

My certification as a resiliency facilitator has been a source of much serendipity and fulfillment. I have taught resilience to top-level US and foreign government leaders and helped countless individuals in my transformational coaching practice strengthen their capacity to use every experience as an asset. Along with Lead Resilience Facilitator Glen Fahs, I now certify other Resilience Facilitators for the Al Siebert Resiliency Center.

If you would like to learn about how our resilience training and coaching can empower you or your workforce let us know. We always love hearing from you!

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Michelle Atlas is an ICF Credentialed Coach, a Newfield Certified Coach and a Certified Resiliency Facilitator with over 20 years of experience helping people successfully navigate transition and stand in their value, so they can live lives that reflect what they care about most. With clients including the US Military, the Food & Drug Administration, National Institutes of Health and many private individuals, she is recognized for her ability to help people strengthen their innate resilience and bring their heartfelt desires to fruition in the domains of work, relationships and money.