What is resilience, how does it impact performance and how can you build it within yourself? In this article, you'll learn what resilience is, what resilience is not, how to build your resilience to better manage challenging conditions and develop your ability to bounce back from adversity. You'll learn about the different types of resilience, what are the traits and characteristics of a resilient person, and the known risks to resilience. You'll learn strategies to help you cultivate these abilities in yourself, cope under pressure and reach high level performance.
We will offer a definition of resilience, explore popular contemporary theories of resilience and what noted psychologists such as Martin Seligman, Kristen Magis and others have found in their studies of the human condition. This comprehensive account of resilience offers evidence showing that with practice under safe conditions, resilience can be nurtured and grown. With it firmly established in your personal armoury of psychological skills, you will no doubt be better positioned to succeed in life and work.
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Introduction to Psychological Resilience
I've always been a bit of a tough nut, a resilient sort. On reflection, I can't say why that is exactly, but it is most likely due to early life experience, with some genetics thrown in for good measure. That's not to say I've always come up smelling of roses–on the contrary! Nor does it mean I have always succeeded. It's more often quite the opposite. Regardless, it has always been my interest to try get the best possible outcome from the task and that usually means pushing boundaries, and failing. At work, in business and sport, the task in and of itself, was worth the effort and challenge regardless of the outcome. In fact, negative outcomes were, and are still, likely to serve as fuel for further attempts.
In all human endeavour, we've got to be willing to push beyond perceived limits and accept that not achieving the desired result is not only possible, but probable. It's that which makes success so sweet when it comes. Academic definition aside, resilience seems to be a component of a ‘right-now' acceptance of conditions, of results. Lamenting the past or projecting ourselves to romantic notions of the future takes us away from the only moment we can be effective. Therefore, resilience seems to be the ability to deal with what's in front of us, what's important right now.
Resilience in all domains of performance be it work, sport or otherwise, in simple terms, is said to be our personal ability to cope with, and bounce back from adverse conditions. As such, it is an important aspect of the performer's repertoire, be it considered a stable trait, or and dynamic process. (We'll discuss more on the the question of stable trait versus dynamic process later). It is resilience that helps us face down difficulties, think creatively and find solutions to problems. It's what makes us go deep and stay long, longer than most. Psychological resilience helps us endure hard training sessions, dips in business and income, death of loved ones, embarrassment and defeat while retaining the will and determination to come back for more.
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What Resilience Is
If one thing is certain in life, it is change. When positive, change makes us smile. When negative, change challenges us like nothing else. The passing of a loved one, a serious illness or accident, the loss of a job, the death of a business–every situation will affect each of us differently. It brings unique thoughts, feelings and emotions to the fore, demands our attention and often shifts our mindset. Studies have shown that we adapt well over time to dramatic change, a component of this adaptation is resilience.
Carol Dweck in her 2017 book Mindset, says that resilience forms part of a “Growth Mindset” 1. Dweck suggests that a fixed mindset is, “believing your qualities are carved in stone,”. In contrast, a growth mindset is “the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts”. She says that resilience is a dynamic process rather than a fixed trait and goes on to cite Alfred Binet, the French educator and inventor of the IQ test;
A few modern philosophers… assert that an individual's intelligence is a fixed quantity, a quantity which cannot be increased. We must protest and react against this brutal pessimism…. With practice, training, and above all, method, we manage to increase our attention, our memory, our judgment and literally to become more intelligent than we were before 2Alfred Binet | Modern Ideas About Children
Resilience and our ability to cope with change, seems to ebb and flow with the environment. This is a fundamental consideration of Behaviourist theories of human behaviour, for example, which says behaviour is a combination of genetic endowment and learning from our actions. As Dweck says, our ability to learn is not set in stone.
What Resilience Is Not
Just because one person copes better under a given challenge than another, this does not mean they don't suffer equally, feel the pressure of stress, and react emotionally. Resilience is not the learned ability to deny our feelings, bury them deep, and behave like a lifeless mechanism. Resilience is not putting your head in the sand or telling yourself a fanciful story that runs counter to your perceived reality. The route to greater resilience is, in fact, likely to be a rocky one filled with substantial distress.
Although certain theories have accounted for resilience as a trait of personality, contemporary psychology does not broadly agree. Rather than it being a fixed component of personality gifted at birth, resilience can be developed. As we will learn, resilience is fostered through community, friendship, familial support, and perhaps most importantly, challenges under controlled situations. Resilience is not denial, it is acceptance and willingness to take on the challenge and development of self.
The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action. … Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.Viktor Frankl
A Psychological Definition of Resilience
According to the etymology of resilience, the word comes from the Latin resiliens, meaning to recoil, and dates back to 1620. The American Psychological Association define resilience as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or even significant sources of stress” 3. But this is perhaps too simple an explanation.
Saul Levine 4 in Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience goes further and defines resilience as;
…the ability to bounce back from some real, experienced adversity. Perhaps more elegantly, we can say that it refers to an individual's utilisation of inner strengths and outer resources in order to overcome seriously adverse, even traumatic, circumstances, and still continue to pursue and succeed in one's endeavours. It is a generic, multi-determined attribute (ie, there is no one gene site for resilience), and varies according to personal hardiness and social supports, as well as the nature and degree of the imposed hardship or impediment.
The above seems accurate, however, success is never guaranteed, so rather that suggest as the author does… “…continue to pursue and succeed in one's endeavours,” it would be more accurate to say, continue to pursue one's endeavours despite repeated failure. Because repeated failure is perhaps closer to the reality of experience before we reach that which we would call success.
Dr Steven Southwick 5 in The European Journal of Psychotraumatology suggests the following account of resilience;
In defining resilience, it is important to specify whether resilience is being viewed as a trait, a process, or an outcome, and it is often tempting to take a binary approach in considering whether resilience is present or absent. However, in reality, resilience more likely exists on a continuum that may be present to differing degrees across multiple domains of life. An individual who adapts well to stress in a workplace or in an academic setting, may fail to adapt well in their personal life or in their relationships.
Southwick's position is important because on an anecdotal examination of our lives, we can probably acknowledge those areas where we are weakest, situations were we are not so resilient. Strong in managing the home perhaps, but maybe not so confident in the workplace.
In the same article, Dr Rachel Yahuda suggests the following definition;
I have to admit that the best description of resilience is one I heard on TV, in connection with a Timex watch commercial. The watch was described as having the ability to “take a licking and keep on ticking.” So, for an inanimate object, the quality of never breaking despite exposure is a good definition, but for a person, perhaps it is better to conceptualise resilience as a process of moving forward and not returning back. When a watch is dropped, it doesn't improve. But people who are traumatised sometimes do actually end up in a better place than they started in many respects.
Professor Michael Rutter at The Institute of Psychiatry, London, says in his paper Implications of Resilience Concepts for Scientific Understanding (2006) 6 that…
Resilience can be defined as reduced vulnerability to environmental risk experiences, the overcoming of a stress or adversity, or a relatively good outcome despite risk experiences.
Professor Martin Seligman famed for his work on Learned Helplessness, said the following regarding resilience in a 2011 interview with HBR (2011) 7
In November 2008, when the legendary General George W. Casey, Jr., the army chief of staff and former commander of the multinational force in Iraq, asked me what positive psychology had to say about soldiers’ problems, I offered a simple answer: How human beings react to extreme adversity is normally distributed. On one end are the people who fall apart into PTSD, depression, and even suicide. In the middle are most people, who at first react with symptoms of depression and anxiety but within a month or so are, by physical and psychological measures, back where they were before the trauma. That is resilience.
Popular Theories on Resilience
According to VanBreda (2001), theories of resilience are broad and diverse 8, and span a wide breadth of research and practice domains. Resilience theories address the experience of individuals (both children and adults), and groups of people such as families, communities, workplaces and social policy and a range of domains such as sport, business, health and military. For the purpose of this account, I will keep to a small selection of the most well known theories. Let's dive in.
Martin Seligman: The PERMA Model
In the late 1960s, the father of positive psychology Martin Seligman and his research associate, Steven Maier, were part of a team that discovered the phenomena “learned helplessness.”9 They found that dogs, rats, and mice, when subjected to mild electric shock over which they had no control, would learn to accept it, making no attempt to escape. It was later shown that human beings act the same way. They learn to be helpless.
Over many years of research, Seligman and colleagues discovered that about 30% of subjects never become helpless. The reason why, he says, is optimism. Seligman subsequently developed a means to assess responses as either optimistic or pessimistic. They discovered that people who refuse give up, have the habit of seeing setbacks as temporary and changeable. In other words, they feel they can do something about it. The researchers realised they could, as Seligman said, “immunise people against learned helplessness, against depression and anxiety, and against giving up after failure by teaching them to think like optimists.”
Over his years of research, Seligman found that the most satisfied, contented people were those who had discovered and exploited their unique combination of what he called “signature strengths,” such as humanity, temperance and persistence and developed the PERMA model of psychological wellbeing.
The PERMA Model
- Positive emotions – The hedonic route wellbeing, increased positive emotion.
- Engagement – development of skills, strengths and attention to challenges
- Relationships – Wellbeing amplified through our relationships
- Meaning – A sense of meaning and purpose derived from belonging
- Achievement – Pursuit of achievement, competence, success, and mastery for its own sake.
Kristen Magis: Community Resilience
The concept of community based resilience is centred around the development of both individual and community strengths. It includes understanding how communities leverage collective strengths to facilitate organisation that contribute to a collective overcoming of challenges and adversity. Kristen Magis in her 2010 paper, defined community resilience as “existence, development and engagement of community resources by community members to thrive in an environment characterised by change, uncertainty, unpredictability, and surprise.”
Organisational Resilience Theory
Just as individuals, communities and families can develop their resilience, so too can organisations. We can consider organisational resilience as “a ‘resilience culture,’ which develops within the collective as a ‘psychological immunity’ to gradual and dramatic environmental change.
Many market and societal factors contribute to and influence the business environment, and as such, organisational resilience has become an important consideration for corporations. And at the heart of it are optimism and perceived self-efficacy on an individual and collective level.
Building Organisational Resilience
George Everly suggests that a culture of organisational resilience relies heavily on role-modeling behaviours 10. Credible and high-profile individuals in an organisation that demonstrate resilient behaviours may encourage others to follow.
These behaviours include:
- Persistence through adversity
- Effortful dealing with challenges
- Practicing and demonstrating self-affirming thinking
- Supporting and mentoring others
- Showing integrity
- Practicing open communication
- Being decisive
Character Traits of Resilient People
Resilience is defined and composed of different aspects depending on who you ask and when you ask them. Researchers will answer you differently to clinicians and may have many different working definitions depending on the application or area or behaviour being studied.
Definitions aside, research has shown that certain components and personal attributes are common in resilient individuals. In his paper titled Psychological and social aspects of resilience, Dr Saul Levine outlines the following personal attributes that are positive for resilience. Levine cautions us to note that none of the below attributes alone are necessarily sufficient to determine success or failure. Social, environmental, and other unseen personal factors also have a bearing.
|Secure early attachment||As per Erik Erickson, the availability of a close, caring, responsive and loving parent or caregiver is most conducive to an individual's/child's sense of trust and self-esteem|
|Temperament||A temperament that is fluid and easy, as opposed to erratic and brittle, facilitates social involvement, adaptability, coping, belonging, and resilience.|
|Intelligence||Intellectual/cognitive skills are paramount to adequate comprehension and functioning brilliance, however, it does not guarantee exceptional resiliency skills.|
|Health||Both physical health and emotional stability are correlated with coping skills and resilience. However, there are innumerable examples of chronically ill or psychiatrically ill people who show extraordinarily levels of resiliency|
|Appearance||It is clear from research that an attractive faces and demeanour enables more approach than avoidance with others with the consequent social reinforcement for one's perceived self-worth.|
|Sociability||Those with positive interpersonal skills, who can interact well, read companion's mood and receptivity, have empathy for others, inspire confidence and trust, and who are engaging and communicative are more inclined to have receive help and opportunity themselves.|
|Self-awareness||Like empathy, the capacity to recognise one's strengths and weaknesses, have some insight into one's own moods, relationships, etc, is important in dealing with the challenges, disappointments, and failures that life inevitably throws our way.|
|Optimism||A “glass half full” attitude goes a long way towards enabling one to cope with life's difficulties.|
|Sense of humour||To be able to laugh at oneself and by the vagaries of life allows us cope better and is a wonderfully enhancing attribute.|
|Organisation||The most resilient individuals are seemingly more purposeful and committed to an organised, analytical approach, as well as to a sequential plan of dealing with difficulties or challenges and resolving problems.|
|Productivity||Resilient people tend to be dedicated workers, task-oriented, with an eye on successful fulfilment and completion of duties and responsibilities.|
|Compartmentalisation||The attribute that enables us to cope with inevitable life challenges by temporarily walling off our worries and problems so that they do not become debilitating.|
|Playfulness||This refers to our ability to play, relax, and enjoy our leisure time. Absorption in must-do tasks and responsibility without rest can otherwise be exhausting.|
|Approachability||This relates to the social skills characteristic, however, here it more specifically refers to our ability to respond to another's offer of help, during a particularly tough time.|
What makes some people more resilient than others?
In Dr Steven Southwick's panel discussion on resilience in 2013 mentioned above, Dr Yahuda says of why some people are more resilient than others;
“If we think about resilience as a predictive trait, then we can think about it as having a biological or genetic base. However, when we think about resilience as a process, then we are talking about an organism actively interacting with its environment. I imagine what makes some people more resilient than others is better support systems, opportunities, DNA, and other non-DNA factors either appearing alone or interacting with one another.”
In the same discussion, Dr Ann Masten says;
“The capacity for resilience in humans is distributed across many interacting systems. We are a social species. I have argued in the past that there are fundamental adaptive systems that have come down to us through biological and cultural evolution and these are constantly being created and constantly changing. We are all living human systems that interact continuously with our environments. It's all about process.”
What Resilient People Do Differently To non-resilient people
Resilient people recognise patterns of negative thought in themselves and consciously resolve to change these by seeking out positive aspects in all circumstances.
People who display resilience are not overly optimistic to the point of being polarised. Instead they accept both positive and negative aspects.
Resilient people find purpose in daily work and life in general. With a firm purpose in place, this serves as their North Star in times of stress and difficulty.
People who are resilient take challenges and knock-backs as opportunities for growth and learning rather than feeling disadvantaged and victimised.
People who are resilient step up to the plate and are willing to fail in order to succeed. They are not reckless, but measured and deliberate.
Resilient people test themselves physically, they work out, run, walk and otherwise exercise to keep their bodies in good shape. They know that brain produces endorphins when they exercise and this positively impacts their mood.
Resilience is found in people who are non-judgemental. Although they may not agree with you, they accept other's opinions and way of life.
Resilient people generally avoid situations that may threaten their wellbeing. They also avoid over-indulgence in stimulants such as cigarettes, drugs and alcohol.
Perhaps critically, resilient people have strong social networks and family structures that they can rely on when things become difficult.
It seems that there are a multitude of components at play on an individual level that influence our level of resilience. Heritability is a factor, but so too are upbringing, social and cultural aspects. Let's take a closer look at some of these factors.
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Social & Environmental Risks To Resilience
Even the most resilient of us will eventually meet our match. No matter how robust you think you are, ultimately something is sure to test you beyond your limits. If not, what would be the point of life? Without challenge, test, difficulty and problems to solve, how would humanity progress? How would you and I progress? Many of these risks and challenges exist in the social environment and are present throughout life.
Research has shown that early risk factors correlate with later life problems. In combination, these risks can have an exponential affect on coping ability. However, none of the below is solely and definitively predictive of future problems. Unfortunately, many of the external stressors and burdens outlined coexist and interact in a cumulative way. Conversely, most of these risk factors can be significantly reduced or even overcome given appropriate intervention and application.
|Poor pre-, peri-, and post-natal care of mother and child||Highly implicated in cognitive, behavioural, or emotional dysfunction in adults.|
|Abject poverty||Adds deprivation and stress on families, making coping more difficult, and diminishing opportunities for personal growth|
|Abuse/neglect/molestation||Remarkably associated with difficult development, and later manifestation of symptoms.|
|Family dysfunction/discord/upheaval||Imposes an environment of chaos and instability on children who benefit most from stability predictability, and nurturance|
If untreated or managed, this has been shown to affect children in two ways; either by genetic vulnerability, or by adding to the chaos and turmoil.
|Inadequate/poor schools||School is one of the most vital preventative and rehabilitative allies we have in our struggle against the loss of children in society. Schools can often make up for the psychosocial deficits elsewhere in a child's life|
|Lack of significant nurturing adults||Perhaps the most salient, crucial loss of all the necessary ingredients in the life of a child|
|Absence of mentors and models||Related to the above, but is often adjunctive or can even serve as a surrogate or replacement, especially for older youth|
|War/culture of violence and chaos||Need not be graced by descriptions of egregious harm|
|Forces majeures (natural disasters)||Can destroy families, inflict brutalising injuries and losses, and remove any semblance of stability|
It is really wonderful how much resilience there is in human nature. Let any obstructing cause, no matter what, be removed in any way, even by death, and we fly back to first principles of hope and enjoyment.Bram Stoker | Writer
5 Ways To Build Your Resilience
Your ability to bounce back from challenges and setbacks is not net in stone. You can learn to react in more positive ways to conditions, and in time, these practices can become automatic. Here are five strategies to help you develop your behaviour along more advantageous lines.
1. Develop Positive Automatic Thinking
The content of our thoughts strongly influences our emotional state. The thought “I am poor at my job” will likely result in feelings of worthlessness, disempowerment and lack of motivation at work. It's not the only factor at play, however, altering our thought patterns may alter our emotional state. Research and practice in Cognitive-behaviour Therapy (CBT) tells us that the thought “I am poor at my job” is a negative automatic thought (AT) and is the product of momentum and habit of thought.
Automatic Thought’s (ATs) are negative thoughts occurring spontaneously when we find ourselves in challenging situations. They are judgmental and critical toward us, and typically reflect our core beliefs about ourselves and the world in which we live. In contrast, positive automatic thoughts, or thoughts of a coping nature, have a personal affect, are strength-forming declarations. According to McKay & West, (2016) 11 they promote resiliency and shift our perspective helping us effectively navigate the difficult emotion.
Coping thoughts help us think and feel differently about the difficult situations. This method of resilience building helps you learn about your negative AT’s and replace them with helpful coping thoughts. However, they must be believable. Lying to oneself doesn't work.
Step One: Replace automatic thoughts
Bring to mind a situation that often causes you stress and negative emotion. Write down the situation and how you feel about it.
Situation: My manager is angry with me
Automatic thought: I am poor at my job
Coping thought: This is typical behaviour of my boss and has nothing to do with my skills or ability
Step Two: Guided exposure
Step two usually occurs with the assistance of a coach or therapist trained to help clients on a one to one basis in the safety of a controlled environment. Here the practitioner will guide you through the negative experience, asking you to reconnect with the emotion. Now instead of the automatic negative thought, they'll ask you to choose the alternative but believable, coping thought.
Does the associated emotion shift? Do you feel a certain release? Does it feel you are lying to yourself?
If the alternative thought is not believable then you the gap is too far. Take a step back and consider something less dramatic, closer to where you are and more believable.
Step Three: write down this coping thought
The associated soothing affect of the coping thought is evidence of the impact our thoughts can have on our feelings. Now, write this coping thought, or mantra, down on a card and keep it close. Practice it, and when the difficult situation arises, you will have the means by which to manage your emotional state. Your resilience has grown.
2. Adopt A Growth Mindset
I'm not one to take criticism as water would roll off a ducks back. Nothing unusual there, nobody likes criticism especially when it is uninvited. Feedback from a mentor or an otherwise invested other is different from that of somebody piping up out of the blue. Nonetheless, how we respond both short and long term to criticism is a measure of our resilience.
Research by Gordon Atlas (1994) 12 found that high sensitivity to criticism is related to high levels of neuroticism, depression, fear of negative evaluation, pessimism, and low levels of self-esteem. Atlas suggested that oversensitivity to criticism hinders our ability to adapt and response to criticism, even when it is constructive and is of helpful intent.
Step One: Consider recent criticism you received
Think about two or three recent situations where you felt you felt unfair criticism. This can be work, home, or leisure activity related. Write down the detail of these incidents, who was involved, how you were criticised, and how it made you feel.
What were the consequences in each case?
Step Two: Reframe the experiences
Now, consider how might these situations may be helpful to you. How might you reframe them so that they are to your advantage? How can you grow from this? Can you become stronger and more resilient from the experience?
Write down each alternative response?
Step Three: Short affirming statements
Write down on a piece of card, three affirming statements that you can use when you find yourself under the weight of criticism or verbal abashment.
For example: This person's critical reaction is not a reflection of my ability, I have proven my ability time and again. Or, My work will not be to everyone's taste. I can't please everyone all the time and don't need to either.
Step Four: Additional strategies
Firstly, your reaction may not be an overreaction. What matters is the level of emotional impact the other's criticism has had on you. As mentioned earlier, feeling aggrievement is normal and may pass in a day or two, or shorter. But if the feelings last and affect your ability to continue your work normally, if you feel fearful and withdrawn, then you may need to employ this strategy until you witness and mindset shift.
Additional strategies for building resilience may include;
- Practice self-compassion. Acknowledge that things are tough, but soothe yourself instead of criticising yourself. Imagine what you would say to a friend or loved one in a similar situation.
- Don’t take what they say personally. Instead of their words being a personal attack, consider their interpretation may be flawed.
- Notice the automatic negative thought that rises in you in the face of criticism and counter it with its opposite.
- Repeat to yourself soothing statements such as: “I am seeking improvement not approval” and “This result is not perfect but I'm learning and getting better.”
- Reflect on the feedback you have received, and where you honestly feel it's inaccurate, speak up and offer a reason why you were right.
- Under negative emotion we usually become defensive. If you feel hurt and feel the need to snap back, take some time to calm yourself and rethink your response.
- Practice positive self talk such as, “I did the best I could,” “my intentions were right,” “Perfection is impossible but I'm improving,” “everyone mistakes sometimes, that's how we learn.”
- If you feel it appropriate, don't offer thanks for unwelcome feedback. You're not obliged to be disingenuously positive under the weight of abuse. Ignore it, walk away, find company where you are appreciated.
3. Identify Emotional Avoidance Strategies
Emotional avoidance strategies include both behavioural and cognitive. Emotional avoidance is when we engage in behaviour designed to avoid experiencing powerful and unwanted emotions. Some behavioural strategies are more obvious than others such as when a person with social anxiety declines an invitation to a social gathering to avoid social distress. But we also do less obvious things such as avoiding eye contact, or making an excuse to leave early. We may take anxiety medication or ask a friend to provide emotional support.
Cognitive avoidance strategies includes things we do to avoid thinking about, remembering, or paying attention to an emotionally distressing thoughts. For example, distraction (watching television, obsessive social media usage), rumination (repetitively going over a thought or a problem without resolution), or forcing ourselves to think of something other than the situation at hand. Emotional avoidance prevents us from realising the there is no danger. It reinforces the idea that the ghost we fear so much is not so scary after all. Avoidance strategies are in the short term, however, long term they do not serve our best interest.
Avoiding emotions (as well as other private events such as thoughts, urges, memories, and so on) is thought to be one of the most pathological processes one can do. The deliberate attempt to avoid or escape from difficult emotions can paradoxically increase their occurrence and intensity, and can diminish the effect of exposure-based strategies. Research has revealed that emotional avoidance predicts negative outcomes in depression, substance abuse, binge eating, and many other areas (Hayes, 2004) 13.
Step One: Understand what emotional avoidance looks like
There are many mind games or techniques we use to not feel strong and unpleasant emotions, many of which play out unconsciously. Understanding what these look like is the first step in learning how to address our problems.
Here are some examples;
- Binge watching television
- Spending hours playing video games
- Endlessly scrolling social media
- Excessive alcohol intake
- Isolating ourselves from friends and family
- Over exercising
- Excessive worry over things you can’t control
- Prescription of illegal drug use
- Running from difficult conversations
- Lying about how you feel
- Skipping work or school
- Staying in bed
- Excessive shopping
- Binge eating
Step Two: Reflect on your avoidance strategies
Recall three situations in your life where you avoided a difficult or painful emotion or situation. They can be work related or personal or any other area of your life where events were hurtful, damaging or were related to loss of some kind.
Now, considering each situation, write down your answers to the following questions;
- What emotions were bought up for you?
- How do you prevent yourself from feeling these emotions?
- How effective were you in not feeling these emotions?
Step Three: The evaluation
Finally, it is time to evaluate each situation either privately or with your coach or therapist. Consider the following questions.
- What was this exercise like for you?
- Can you see patterns in the emotional avoidance strategies you tend to employ? For instance, do you usually distract yourself or frequently turn to food, alcohol, drugs or even exercise to cope?
- For each of the three situations, how could you have responded differently? How might the outcome have been different?
- What insights have occurred to you, and what can you take away from this exercise?
- What was easy or difficult about the exercise?
4. Allow Yourself To Fail
According to Yeager & Dweck (2012) 14, a growth mindset represents the idea that our most basic abilities can be developed, and that personal qualities like intellect and natural talent are merely the foundation. Dweck says that holding this view helps us build resilience leading to accomplishment and success.
Growth mindset accepts failure. It understands that failure is part of the process of life and allows us make mistakes, yet persist despite our discomfort. However, growth doesn't happen within the comfort zone; that space where everything is familiar and under our control. In order to learn and grow we must go beyond the comfort of our existing abilities and knowledge.
This visual tool, created by Hugo Alberts Phd and Lucinda Poole PsyD 15, was designed to help you understand the concept of moving from your comfort and experiencing growth.
Step One: The Comfort Zone Infographic
The Comfort Zone
Take a look at the comfort zone infographic above. The red circle represents our comfort zone, the space where we feel things are within our control. Things are easy for us here and we know what to expect. However, no growth or expansion takes place in the comfort zone because the patterns of thought and behaviour are repetitive and predictable.
The Fear Zone
The orange area represents the fear zone. To learn new things we must leave our comfort zone and enter the discomfort of the fear zone. which is far less comfortable. Here, we have no previous experiences to guide us so we tend to avoid it and make excuses for why we shouldn't go. If we find ourselves there by chance, usually we quickly retreat. As such, the fear zone is often the most challenging part of learning.
The Learning Zone
If our resilience is sufficient, we may enter the learning zone. This is where we begin to develop new skills, cope with challenges and find answers to problems. Consequently, as we become familiar with new conditions, we extend our comfort zone perimeter and begin to feel comfortable in the new experience.
The Growth Zone
The growth zone is that psychological space where we begin to experience redefining change. The learning zone experience helps us to grow as a person, increasing resilience, conquering obstacles, and created a route towards our goals. The growth zone experience is the ultimate reward for feeling the fear and doing it anyway.
Step Two: An Example of Moving through the zones
I remember the first time I faced the prospect of speaking in a room full of strangers–it was terrifying. I begged my companion not to ask me to speak and thankfully, on that occasion, I escaped the imagined humiliation. But sooner or later I had to face that demon. The process was gradual and it eventually became easier. It's still a challenge, however.
So let's consider the man with a fear of speaking to a group at work or small gathering such as a wedding. He has an almost pathological fear of public speaking and often considers how he might avoid these situations. As such he does so successfully but never gets to experience the associated growth.
An event at work comes up where he can no longer defer his fear. He is cornered by his own fear and is now forced to face it. He is possessed by fear, self-doubt, anxiety and stress–he is about to enter the fear zone. However, by taking on his fear, he may enter the learning zone. He is learning new skills, and once he persists, he will reduce the severity of his symptoms and negative thinking, eventually expanding his comfort zone.
Now this example is all very simplistic and perhaps sterile, but it is no less reflective of a possible series of events. If this man had stayed in his comfort zone, hemmed in by his fear, growth and development would not have been possible.
Step Three: A comfort zone situation
Think about your own life, your work and relationships, hobbies you've been putting on the long finger, or family problems you're avoiding. Is there something keeping you in your comfort zone?
Write out the details of your situation.
Step Four: Identifying Fears
What does your fear look like? What's going on in your body? What are the thoughts that cross your mind? What is your mental conversation? Remember, nobody's watching or judging you. You're in a safe place where no one can hear or see you.
Write down your fears.
Step Five: Identifying learning opportunities
Now, what are the opportunities you're missing out on? Are you missing promotions at work? Denying yourself a loving partnership? Are you avoiding the work you'd really love to do?
List the biggest opportunities you're missing.
Step Six: Identifying your potential & Taking Action
Finally, consider how your career, business or personal life would expand and grow were you to step out of the comfort zone, face your fear and enter the learning zone.
List the likely benefits of learning these new skills. These benefits must be compelling. They must weight more than the potential for failure.
Now take the first step.
5. Focus On Your Sphere of Influence
Human beings spend a lot of time trying to control factors beyond our personal control. We believe we can control our partners, our children, friends. Some of us believe we can control our thoughts, our health and our experiences. A certain level of control may be possible, but that extent is often exaggerated. Although we may have conscious free will over certain moment to moment decisions, we certainly do not have personal control how other people think and behave.
Research on controlling thoughts conducted by Wenzlaff & Wegner (2000) 16 has revealed that when we try to control our thoughts, it actually increases the frequency of these thoughts. Becoming aware of the limits of our personal control is important for effective self-regulation and achievement of goals.
Step One: Identify Positive Goal Outcomes
Write down a feeling goal you want to achieve. Make sure to format the goal in a direct and positive way. For example, “I want to feel happier in my work”, rather than in a negative way, for example, “I don't want to feel unhappy any more.”
Step Two: Consider The Action Steps
With your feeling goal in mind, what would be the first action step you could take? Make this a realistic step, one in which you believe you can achieve. Now continue to write down initial actions steps you could take up to five.
Step Three: Identify What's Under Your Control
Consider each action step. Which ones are under your direct control? In other words, what action steps do not rely on other people or convenient circumstances in order that you can follow through?
Step Four: Identify Factors Outside Your Control
Consider the actions under your control from step three. What are the aspects of these actions that are outside your control? Who has influence over these actions or their outcomes?
Step Five: Take Action
Of the five action steps you have identified, and over those of which you have personal control, choose one and act on it. Then take action on the next and so on. As you progress, complete the process until you achieve your goal.
A Final Word on Resilience
Challenges persist for everyone always–they are an unavoidable aspect of life. They are the mountains on the plains, the stormy seas and the wintery nights. However, in order to live happily and healthily, which means accepting the balance, we must be willing to face these challenges head on. Avoiding them merely makes the inevitable encounter more uncomfortable and damaging.
Practical Ways To Build Resiliency
There's a lot of information in this articles, so much so that you might well feel overwhelmed. So if I was to sum the above up in a few sentences and offer you a means to build your resiliency, then it would be the following;
Build Your Network
Prioritise your personal and friendly relationships. Find and hang out with people that have the same interests as you. This can be done in tight online communities but it's better in person. Connecting with people who understand you and can help you navigate difficult times. Fellowship helps support the growth of resilience.
In addition to close personal relationships, being active in community groups, religious or sporting organisations provides valuable social support 17. Visit your local community centre, charity or church and find out about where people with similar interests gather.
Mind Your Mind & Body
Keeping your body fit and healthy is a legitimate practice for maintaining good mental health and building resilience. That’s because stress has both a physical and an emotional component. Anxiety and depression can be countered by the brain which is a veritable chemical factory, prompted into production by physical activity.
Get centred by developing a meditation practice and finding private space to be alone. You don't need to understand how it works, but it does. So practice journalling, meditate, or pray, instead of ruminating on negative aspects of life. Also, avoid drugs, alcohol and other stimulants. These things tend to exacerbate our negative states.
Give of Yourself Without Expectation
Find a local charitable organisation where you can volunteer. Give your time, even of it's only a couple of hours per week, to help people in difficult situations. Helping others in need builds a sense of purpose, self-worth, connection, and indeed, resilience.
What about the local school or even an elderly neighbour? How can you contribute and foster in yourself a sense of purpose and meaning by providing simple tasks to others like doing their shopping, cutting their grass or walking their dog?
Ask For Help
Having the bravery to ask for help when you need it is a crucial component in building your resilience. For many of us working alone, using the kinds of strategies listed above may be enough to build resilience. But it's not unusual to get stuck or have difficulty making progress on the road to resilience. If that's you, there are resources that can help, so reach out.
Psychological Society of Ireland
British Psychological Society
American Psychological Society
BPS: Building Resilience
APA: Building Your Resilience
Pieta Suicide Support
Research often finds that those who are most resilient, are exposed to a balance of both challenge and support early on and throughout life. Mapping our way through challenges is not easy, but it is necessary and you don't have to face it alone. In fact, the assistance of a coach or mentor can help bring you through difficult periods and challenges safely. Behaviour science research shows us that fear and anxiety are conditioned responses. Just as we have learned to react with fear to life's challenges, we can also learn to manage better. Perhaps the preceding material has offered you the basis to make a change.
Take Action: Build Your Resilience
We have explored in-depth the concept of resilience. Get 1-to-1 coaching and learn to apply the psychological skills you need to remain composed under pressure and perform to your best.
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