Building the Mental Resilience of Preservation Professionals

By Raina Regan posted 06-24-2020 15:41


Psychology Today defines resilience as “the psychological quality that allows some people to be knocked down by the adversities of life and come back at least as strong as before. Rather than letting difficulties, traumatic events, or failure overcome them and drain their resolve, highly resilient people find a way to change course, emotionally heal, and continue moving toward their goals.” 

As I reached a decade in the historic preservation field, I recognized my professional development should focus on developing skills to advance in the historic preservation field—everything from leadership, organizational development, and program management. Reading was a low-cost way to expand my knowledge on a variety of topics. I was initially drawn to Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, and this passage instantly changed my perspective on my work:  

“Teachers are not the only ones who wrestle with shame delivered (usually in the public media) from outside of the organization. I’m often asked to address this issue when I’m speaking with professionals who are routinely vilified, disliked, or misunderstood by the public - lawyers, dentists, and folks from the financial industry are a few. We might roll our eyes and think, C’mon, we love to hate them! But I can tell you from my experiences that it’s not fun to feel hated simply for doing work that means something to you, and it can take a serious toll on individuals and cultures.” 

South Fox Island Light Station, Michigan. The Fox Island Lighthouse Association started taking care of this lighthouse in 2006 and continues to work towards the preservation of the site. The long-term nature of preservation projects requires mental resiliency.  | Credit: Raina Regan

How many moments in my preservation career have I felt shame—the feeling that I had done something wrong—when in fact, I was carrying out my job responsibilities? I’ve had three distinct professional positions, working both in the government and nonprofits sectors, but I could recall shame experiences in each of those positions. My work as a historic preservationist was deeply meaningful and these shame-filled experiences often left me questioning my sanity and purpose. This book opened my mind to the possibility that emotional experiences I had as a historic preservationist could be defined and explained.  

While I am not a mental health professional, I realized I wanted to cultivate vulnerability within our field by signifying to my preservation colleagues that they are not alone in these experiences. So in November 2019 I established Uplifting Preservation to encourage historic preservation professionals to build mental resilience by drawing from existing tools and research. Each issue digests one book within the genres of business, psychology, or self-improvement and applies its relevant concepts to our work. The newsletter also shares additional resources related to each issue for preservationists to dig deeper into these concepts. My hope is that we can help recognize when and why we are struggling, what tools can help us succeed, and as a result, lift each other up collectively as a field.

Here are two examples from recent issues:

Preservationist Resiliency in the Midst of Enduring Failure

Reshma Saujani’s Brave, Not Perfect: Fear Less, Fail More, and Live Bolder encourages women to let go of our perfectionist tendencies and instead choose bravery to pursue the things we genuinely, passionately want. We shouldn’t let the threat of failure deter us from pursuing new preservation partnerships and approaches. Saujani outlines a five-step guide to “Surviving a Big, Fat Failure,” which I found practical for our historic preservation failures. How can Saujani's five steps help us become more resilient historic preservation professionals? Let’s imagine a scenario where you’ve failed at saving a meaningful historic place and it will be demolished. How can we survive this failure?  

Step One: Throw a (Short) Pity Party. Saujani said, “So I say go ahead and throw yourself a pity party. Allow yourself a finite amount of time to really mourn what you lost.” This absolutely relates to preservation losses, large and small. A preservation pity party might involve planning a funeral for a building or a more personal effort, such as a happy hour to toast your efforts, the building, and its memory.  

Step Two: Celebrate Your Failure Saujani continued, “Celebrate the fact that you got a result, even if it wasn’t the result you’d hoped for, because it means you saw something through to its conclusion and can now pivot to your next move.” Publicly acknowledging the failure will help recognize the effort, while mourning the loss of the place. As an alternative to a building funeral, I suggest a “Celebration of Life” for the building, as an opportunity to recognize and celebrate the memories of the place. 

Step Three: Shake It Off (Literally) Saujani suggests, “When I say, “shake it off,” I mean literally shake off the disappointment, shame, or regret that’s clinging to you and preventing you from moving forward.” This step can be hard for preservationists, but it is a critical step we need to learn in our practice. As I have grown in this field, I recognize that sometimes preservation failures may feel deeply personal, but they are not personal attacks. By successfully adopting the first two steps, we can use those moments to help shake it off and move forward towards our next project.  

Step Four: Review, Reassess, Realign Sitting down and reflecting on the failure is a healthy way to learn what worked well and what did not. Saujani suggests a three-step process: review, reassess, and realign. As we become transparent about our preservation failures, we should memorialize and share our own failure experiences to help the entire preservation community grow. This can be as informal as a Facebook post or Instagram story, but could range to a newsletter article, newspaper editorial, or blog post. I encourage you to sit down, write down your experience with a preservation failure, and share it with the world. 

Step Five: Try Again “Ultimately, your failures give you your edge. They make you stronger, wiser, more empathetic, more valuable, more real,” describes Saujani. I have failed as a preservationist more than once in my career. I know with each failure, I’ve become more measured, empathetic, and realistic in my approach. We have to acknowledge that not every place can be saved. However, we can save places better each time, and as a result, build a stronger, more effective, preservation movement. 

Read more from Preservationist resiliency in the midst of enduring failure. 

Preserving Places from a Distance 

Editor and author Scott Stossel details his own personal experiences with anxiety in the book My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind. Stossel weaves together a compelling narrative that includes cultural, medical, and philosophical histories of anxiety, historic and current treatment practices, and anecdotes from the author's personal experiences. 

Stossel reports that surveys by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America “find that nearly half of all Americans report ‘persistent or excessive anxiety’ in their daily work lives.” Prior to this pandemic event, it should be recognized that certain activities and work environments can trigger anxiety in historic preservation professionals. Whether it be working with an unsympathetic property owner, bearing the burden of too many work responsibilities, or regularly facing negative public feedback, preservationists are exposed to situations that can cause persistent anxiety in our daily work lives. How can we learn to manage those ongoing anxiety moments along with building resilience in the face of this unprecedented moment?


TWA Flight Center now TWA Hotel, Jamaica, New York. Once endangered and listed on the National Trust’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in 2004, the head house was recently adapted into a hotel after almost 20 years of vacancy. Building mental resiliency will help preservation professionals become more adaptable and give us different tools to succeed. | Credit: Raina Regan

Stossel suggests there is a redemption arc for anxiety sufferers and that we can build resilience to help make symptoms more manageable. “[Resilience is] a trait that modern psychology is increasingly finding to be a powerful bulwark against anxiety and depression. Anxiety research, which has traditionally focused on what’s wrong with pathologically anxious people, is focusing more and more on what makes healthy people resistant to developing anxiety disorders…” Stossel shared the research by Professor Dennis Charney, in which Charney developed a 10-step "prescription" to re-train your brain into becoming more resilient. While we can’t immediately build resilience from anxiety, I encourage you to consider how these ideas can help you in your historic preservation practice now and in the future. 

Read more from Preserving Places from a Distance.

Cultivating Mindfulness in the Future of Preservation 

The newsletter Uplifting Preservation is only a small part of the broader conversation regarding the mental health of the historic preservation field. For example, we need to openly discuss burnout and how it impacts our deeply rooted passion for preserving historic places. I believe that all preservationists can benefit from more mental resilience, and like other soft-skills, resilience can be learned. Building mental resilience can amplify our success, along with improving relationships with our colleagues, and increasing our relevance to our communities.   

Furthermore, building our mental resilience must be part of our work towards a more inclusive preservation program. In a story for Preservation Leadership Forum, Marisa Angell Brown argued that preservation is facing an existential crisis, asking the field to critically approach the structure of preservation and what places we save in order to shift our focus to becoming an anti-racist profession. These tough conversations will require us to reframe our mindset about how we approach our work as historic preservation professionals. We must devote time to building our mental resilience, individually, in our organizations, and as a movement, in order to advance meaningful change.  

Unsure where to begin on your resiliency journey? I suggest mindfulness—purposely being fully present in each moment and bringing awareness to our thoughts. The physical and mental health benefits of mindfulness as a resilience practice are well-documented. Additionally, research has shown mindfulness as a strategy to address implicit bias, allowing us to recognize our own biases and maintain awareness how they affect our automatic associations and decision-making. As we explore the future of the preservation field, we should use this practice to recognize where change is needed in order to start us on the uncomfortable path towards long-term, structural transformation. 

Raina Regan is the author and creator of Uplifting Preservation, a monthly newsletter of uplifting ideas on how to improve historic preservation professional practice inspired by business, psychology, and self-help literature.  In addition, Raina is the Senior Manager of Easements at the National Trust.