“I am not what happened to me,
I am what I choose to become.”
In the smaller day-to-day life moments, resilience doesn’t always kick in as a reflex. If we don’t get the job we want, or our relationship ends, or a stranger treats us rudely it can ruin our day.
The good news is resilience is not a gene. It’s not an “either you have it or you don’t” scenario.
One person may have a natural proclivity toward resilience but it ultimately comes down to choice, and choices are voluntary, though they may not always feel like it in the heat of the moment.
So how do you cultivate it?
1. Stop cognitive distortions in their tracks
These are beliefs we convince ourselves are true that reinforce negative thinking. Challenge the distortion to reframe your thinking into a resilient mode. Let’s take a flight delay as an exercise in challenging one type of cognitive distortion (overgeneralizing):
- What is my problematic belief? Bad stuff always happens to me.
- What evidence supports my belief? The flight delay is an inconvenience.
- What is a better explanation for what happened? It’s not just happening to me, it’s happening to everyone.
- What are the consequences of this belief? Anger and stress have sent me into a tailspin.
- What would happen if I changed my belief right now? I could enjoy a nice dinner and catch up on work and calls at the airport.
- What is my new core belief? S—t happens! I can manage inconvenience better.
2. Reframe setbacks as opportunities for growth
Non-resilient: I didn’t get the job. I’ll never amount to anything.
Resilient: I didn’t get the job. Maybe it’s not the right place for me. Let me pull my resources together and see what other opportunities are out there for me.
Resilient people recognize the futility – consciously or unconsciously – of fretting over something that can’t be changed.
They also look for lessons that might be learned from the setback:
- Did it happen because of something I did?
- If so, what might I do differently next time?
- Did the setback force me to change course?
- If so, is there a benefit to the new course?
3. View setbacks as impermanent
Non-resilient: We lost a valuable employee, so the company is going to hell.
Resilient: We lost a valuable employee, but we can find someone just as valuable who may offer a new set of skills that we didn’t even realize we needed.
Once you realize that setbacks are temporary there’s no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
If you lose one beloved employee or customer, it’s sad and it’s a setback (I’ve experienced it myself!) but it’s not the end of your success; conversely, nor is it the last time it will ever happen to you. Acknowledge the setback and move on.
Stay flexible; change is a part of life.
4. Manage your strong feelings and impulses
Non-resilient: I am going to take my anger out on someone.
Resilient: I am angry but I need to move on and stay focused.
Resilient people experience anger; it just doesn’t consume them. We all have this ability if we so choose.
You have to want to move on though. It can feel good to nurture the self-pity, the anger, and the blame.
You can go down that road but that road never ends. Acknowledge the feelings and try to move on.
In fact, it turns out when you acknowledge feelings it lessens their intensity.
Dr. Matthew D. Lieberman, a research psychologist at UCLA, found that naming an emotion helps to reduce its impact.
His lab calls it Affect Labeling.
When we name an emotion, activity in the part of the brain that is responsible for vigilance and discrimination (right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex) increases while activity in the part of the brain that processes emotion (amygdala) decreases.
Essentially, naming the emotion gives you power over the emotion while indulging the emotion gives it power over you.
5. Focus on events you can control
Non-resilient: This traffic is ruining my life.
Resilient: Since I’m stuck in traffic I will sketch out ideas for my next project.
Some aspects of life are out of your control. Accepting this doesn’t make you weak; it makes you smart.
You can control what you focus on and how long you allow yourself to suffer. When you focus on the external world – particularly when blame enters the picture – you run into trouble.
Start with yourself. Focus on your own reactions and your own ability to influence events.
6. Don’t see yourself as a victim
Non-resilient: Bad stuff always happens to me.
Resilient: It’s not just happening to me, it’s happening to everyone.
“Why me?” is another way of saying “This should have happened to you.”
Being human means positive and negative things will happen to you.
If you experience a series of consecutive setbacks, the resilient thing to do would be to look at your own actions and behaviors.
Might there be something you’re doing that is bringing on the misfortune? Even if not, know it’s temporary and stay on course to the best of your ability.
This is most difficult in times of loss, so I don’t say it lightly but you don’t have to be miserable forever.
7. Commit to all aspects of your life
Non-resilient: Once I have the job I want I will focus on my family and friends.
Resilient: The success of one area of my life depends on the success on all areas of my life.
The success of each part of our lives depends on the success of all the other parts. If our family life is in turmoil it will affect our work life and vice versa.
If we do not exercise it will affect our stamina – as well as our mindset. We can set smart, achievable goals for all aspects of our lives so that all parts are working with – and for – each other.
For instance, we can make a commitment to exercise throughout the week; we can ensure that we make time for our family and friends; we can make a little progress each day toward one of our goals.
If you experience a setback toward your goals, set a new path toward that goal. The most important part is the commitment.
8. Have a positive outlook of the future
Non-resilient: If our marketing budget declines the second quarter, we’ll go out of business.
Resilient: What can I do to make sure our marketing budget doesn’t decline second quarter and if it does what can I do to ensure we don’t go out of business?
Cultivate a growth mindset, which ultimately involves the desire to be open to learning and change.
Things will start to feel like they’re going your way when you believe that you can effect change for yourself.
Remember: you want to be happy, so cultivate a perspective that supports your desire.
If you grew up in an abusive environment the challenges will be greater and professional help may be needed. The American Psychological Association states:
Many studies show that the primary factor in resilience is having caring and supportive relationships within and outside the family. Relationships that create love and trust, provide role models and offer encouragement and reassurance help bolster a person's resilience.
We have a lifetime of habitual behavioral patterns that we’re really good at.
However old you are, that’s how much practice you have with your current mode of living. That’s the bad news.
The good news is look how good you are at it! You can be just as good at resilient thinking with the same amount of practice.
It’s a lifetime goal and, believe me, I’m on the path with you.
I’m an organizational psychologist specializing in leadership and organizational development, consulting and coaching. I help leaders and companies expand their insight, impact, and influence. I’m the author of two books, “Y in the Workplace” and “What Keeps Leaders Up At Night.” I have a doctorate in clinical psychology (Psy.D.), Master of Business Administration (MBA), and Master of Criminal Justice (MACJ) – I initially wanted to be in the FBI but I think this was largely fueled by my dream of “working” with Agent Mulder in the X Files. I love coffee, my cats, traveling to new cities, fall weather, boots, meeting people, and coming up with new business ideas, which my GoDaddy account can attest to.