My experience with emotional resilience
Imagine you’re visiting the mountains and it’s a beautiful day so, you decide to take a hike. You meet someone who tells you about a great trail with amazing views; this intrigues you, so you head in that direction with map in hand. Along with the gentle inclines and well-worn trail, there might be twists and turns and scrambles; there might even be wildlife. How do you make sure you can safely maneuver the challenges and unexpected problems you might face?
Perhaps you’ll talk to others who have done the route before and gather some tips before heading on your adventure? Maybe you’ll prepare by learning all you can about hiking, then outfit yourself with the right gear for taking on whichever trek you choose. Or, perhaps, do the hike with a guide or other experienced people. Whatever you choose, with the right knowledge and resources, you’ll make it through the challenges of your hiking adventure; and emerge more confident and courageous afterwards.
What is Emotional Resilience?
The word ‘resilience’ comes from the Latin word ‘resilio’ which means ‘to bounce back’ or retaliate.
“Emotional resilience is an art of living that is entwined with self-belief, self-compassion, and enhanced cognition. It is the way through which we empower ourselves to perceive adversities as ‘temporary’ and keep evolving through the pain and sufferings.” (Marano, 2003).
In life, we will experience twists and turns and scrambles at times. To put it simply, resiliency is being able to get up after a fall, bouncing back from adversity, or seeing alternatives in a stressful situation.
We all have different levels of coping with stress or adverse events. Our level of resilience to these events are based on a spectrum of being slow to recover to being fast to recover from adversity. It’s the difference of being able to shake off setbacks or suffer a meltdown. If you make a mistake, do you ruminate and reprimand yourself, or think about it as a learning opportunity? If someone cuts you off in traffic do you rage on and tailgate them to teach ‘em a lesson, or do you shrug it off and tell a different story, “maybe they didn’t see me; or they’re rushing to an emergency”? When obstacles and setbacks happen, do you climb back up and get on with life, or do you melt into a puddle and give up? Or, you might land somewhere in the middle.
Certain events will cause us more stress than others, for example: getting a traffic ticket will cause less magnitude of stress than the death of a loved one. How we respond to adverse events is called our “coping ability”. The good news is that, thanks to neuroplasticity, our coping ability is learned and can be changed through a number of practices (I’ll get to that…).
Research shows that negative events don’t affect us as much or for as long as we expect them to because our brains are wired to look for meaning. Our brain looks for ways to explain the meaning of uncertain or stressful events. In his memoir, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl describes how he survived the horrors of an Auschwitz concentration camp by developing meaning and purpose in his situation. “We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed.” Frankl believed that the most significant freedom is the ability to choose our attitude.
There’s no doubt that self-awareness plays a part in resiliency. Self-awareness means understanding one’s own emotions, strengths, limitations, values, and intentions. Cultivating curiosity about our emotions, actions, behaviours and the role emotions play in our work and personal relationships is essential for self-awareness. In her book, Rising Strong, Brené Brown describes the commonalities of resilient leaders:
“they recognize the central role that relationships and story play in culture and strategy, and they stay curious about their own emotions, thoughts and behaviours. They understand and stay curious about how emotions, thoughts, and behaviours are connected in the people they lead, and how those factors affect relationships and perception; and they have the ability and willingness to lean in to discomfort and vulnerability.”
Resilient and self-aware people muster the courage to confront tough emotions. Being able to read one’s own emotions starts in the body. Dr. Dan Siegel coined “name it to tame it” in reference to naming our emotional experience in order to regulate it to make better decisions, this is known as Emotional Literacy. In order to create meaning and experiences, we need to identify and name the emotion. In Dare to Lead, Brené Brown adds, “emotional literacy is a prerequisite for empathy, shame resilience, and the ability to reset and rise after a fall.” (p.147). In fact, a study with school children revealed that teaching them emotional literacy helps them to manage their strong emotions and feel calmer resulting in less stress, less conflicts, better grades… the list goes on. Recognizing and understanding emotions are only part of the components in emotional intelligence; other components of emotional intelligence that increase resiliency include balancing optimism with reality.
Optimism is the ability to look at a brighter alternative and maintain a positive attitude even in tough times. This is not to say that we constantly wear rose colored glasses. Reality testing is being able to see things as they are, not how we want them to be. Balancing optimism with reality testing is about acknowledging and experiencing the painful emotions while keeping a hopeful perspective.
The year that I was completing graduate studies was probably the most stressful I’d ever experienced, and at 52 years old (not a spring chick). During the final months of completing my research project, I was also learning a new role at work, struggling through a crumbling 30-year marriage, and trying to deal with an adult addicted child who was plunging toward rock-bottom. It was a year of heartbreak and hope. After waiting several weeks for approval to complete my project from the university ethics department, I finally opened the email: DENIED. I was stunned. I collapsed into a ball of snot and tears because it was just… One. More. Thing. Eventually I needed to crawl out of the negative vortex and look for the possibilities. What this meant was that a re-focus was needed…a muster of courage to get back up on the trail. Luckily, I have a network of amazing and talented people who have the ability to ask the right questions to help shift my perspective. As it turns out, my twists, turns and scrambles worked out better than expected. That’s because I have a healthy dose of optimism, a support network to keep reality in check, and a growth mindset.
A desire to learn and embrace challenges, persist in the face of setback, strive for continued growth, embrace feedback and learn from the success of others are all components of a growth mindset. In a growth mindset, experiencing a failure is a potential for learning and improvement. The opposite is a fixed mindset, the belief that your qualities and abilities are “carved in stone”, the hand you’re dealt with. When faced with a challenge or failure, a fixed mindset will tell you: I’m a failure. I’m not smart enough. I give up. Your negative self-talk or inner critic limits your ability to believe in yourself and your potential and can be pretty harmful contributing to added stress, anxiety or depression.
Another element of resiliency is positivity. Disclaimer: this is not about Toxic Positivity; the idea that no matter how dire or desperate a situation, that one should always be positive and optimistic. Denying authentic emotions and using positivity to mask our tragic or heart-breaking emotions becomes toxic. Demanding that people think positively regardless of the challenges they face can potentially destroy their self-esteem or discourage them from seeking help.
The positivity I’m referring to is the one that quashes anger, judgment, contempt, and negative self-talk. Negative emotions narrow our perspectives; positivity can pull you out of the negative vortex. It opens your heart and mind to a broader range of possibility. Researcher and author, Barbara Fredrickson introduces ten forms of positivity: joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration, awe, and love. A positive outlook can cut through dark times, it helps retain perspectives of joy, love, gratitude, and inspiration and eliminates a negative downward spiral. Positive emotions are the active ingredients that enable people to bounce back from adversity. Studies revealed that positive emotions not only grew resiliency levels in people, but also have physical and mental health benefits. Since the pandemic, so many people have been feeling meh- or languishing; positivity is the antidote to languishing. (check out Adam Grant’s insightful New York Times article on Languishing)
Like so many others, when the Covid pandemic hit, I was surprised, confused, fearful… all of it. At the start of the pandemic, my work shifted from frequent travel and face-to-face education sessions, to immediate stop and stay home. I optimistically thought I’d be back in the classroom in a matter of a few short months. As so many theories and stories wafted through every social media platform, it was hard to believe what was truth. Confusing. It didn’t take long to jump on the home-full-time version of life. Like so many others, I kept busy learning to meet virtually, baking sourdough, binge-watching Netflix; and I had the best garden ever. All the while, I had that odd sense that I was not focused. I didn’t know what day it was, time moved on and I felt like I was standing still. I was languishing. And so I leaned into learning mode. That’s where these emotional resilience findings were born.
Bouncing back or seeing new perspectives isn’t always easy though. How do we nurture and use these elements to be more resilient?
Gear to face life’s twists, turns, and scrambles:
In the previous sections, you got a pretty good idea of elements that impact the level of resiliency in a positive way. Here, I’ll include some tried and true strategies to increase resiliency levels and create a well-being life.
Exercise. You don’t have to spend hours in the gym to reap the benefits. Just move. Everyday. Exercise can have profound benefits on mental health, as well as physical health. The list is long on the health benefits of exercise; a few deserving a mention are: improved heart health, reduced the risk of some cancers, improved sleep, increased energy, boosts mood, and gives a sense of well-being. Find something you enjoy, anything: dance, stretch, lift, climb, peddle, walk…
Control & Influence. Take a realistic look at your situation and identify what’s in your control and out of your control. I’m in control of my own thoughts, feelings, behaviours; and whether or not I take action on something (like exercising). If it’s out of your control, do you have any influence? I have influence on the input I make in team meetings; I have influence if a friend asks me for advice. If you don’t have control or influence over the situation, is this something you worry about? Remember, worry is like a rocking chair, it gives us something to do, but doesn’t get us anywhere. In fact, over 90% of the things people worry about never come true!
Change your mind. Increase self-awareness and emotional intelligence by paying attention to your feelings, strengths, challenges, values, and motives. In life, we develop deep rooted beliefs, assumptions, or generalizations that influence how we see the world and take action, known as our mental models. Challenging our mental models requires an open mind to see our shortcomings. One way to do this is by journaling to help self-reflect and consider alternatives in a difficult situation. Another way to increase self-awareness is a feedforward exercise. Contrary to feedback which focuses on past behaviour, feedforward focuses on future behaviour. Pick a behaviour that you want to change and that will make a significant difference in your life, then, ask several people that know you for one or two suggestions that could help you achieve your positive change. The suggestions should be future-focused and not on past behaviour.
Managing thoughts and feelings is essential to success, whether you’re leading 100’s of staff in a large organization or you’re leading kindergarten kids through a playground. Because we’re biologically wired to be on the alert for threats, our thoughts often go straight to the negative. The trouble is when we are “hooked” by the negative thoughts and treat them as fact. For example, “I totally messed up that presentation. I always mess up. I’m a failure.” Moving away from this type of rigid thinking is what psychologist and author Susan David calls Emotional Agility. David writes:
“the process isn’t about ignoring difficult emotions and thoughts. It’s about holding those emotions and thoughts loosely, facing them courageously and compassionately, and then moving past them to make big things happen in your life.”
Mindfulness. The Mindful.org website defines mindfulness as “the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.” You can practice mindfulness doing absolutely anything. It’s about being present and noticing what is happening in the moment and not letting your mind drift to the hundred other things you need to get done. Meditation is another way to practice mindfulness, and so is yoga. Among the many meditation apps out there, my favorite free app is Smiling Mind. And what about a walking meditation? Next time you’re out for a walk, try this: take some nice deep breaths, and focus on all the sights for a few breaths. Then, focus on all the sounds you hear for a few breaths. Next, focus on what you’re feeling. Do you feel a gentle breeze, the ground beneath your feet? You get the picture, keep going.
Self-Compassion. How do you talk to yourself? If you’re like most people, often we criticize and judge ourselves for our imperfections. Our negative self-talk is often very demeaning and damaging; it creates unhappiness (or worse) and keeps you in a negative vortex. Self-Compassion is treating yourself with the same compassion that you would with another person. Leading expert Kristin Neff, describes three parts to self-compassion in her self-compassion break exercise: 1. mindfulness, 2. common humanity, and 3. self-kindness.
Think of a situation that is difficult or causing you stress; feel the emotional discomfort in your body, then say to yourself:
1. Mindfulness: acknowledge your situation. “This is a moment of suffering, it’s hard”
2. Common humanity: normalize your situation. “Suffering is part of life, it sucks! I’m not alone.”
3. Self-kindness: a phrase of kindness to yourself. “I forgive myself”, “I am strong”, May I give myself the compassion that I need”.
Make the statements your own; or write a few statements to yourself that bring in these three parts.
And so, I’ve learned that fostering emotional resilience has so many elements of leadership, positive psychology, and well-being that whatever you choose, with the right knowledge and resources, you’ll make it through the challenges of your life’s journey; and emerge more confident and courageous afterwards.
My learning journey continues. I hope you can glean a nugget for your own learning journey.
The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”
 Davidson, R. (2012). The emotional life of your brain.  Csikszentmihaliyi, M. (1999). Flow.  Gilbert, D. (2006). Stumbling on happiness.  Goleman, D., Boyatzis, R., McKee A. (2013). Primal leadership.  Brown, B. (2015). Rising strong.  Brown, B. (2018). Dare to Lead.  Dweck, C. (2016). Mindset: The new psychology of success.  Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Top-notch research reveals the upward spiral that will change your life.  Senge, P. (2006). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization.  https://marshallgoldsmith.com/articles/try-feedforward-instead-feedback/  David, S. (2016). Emotional Agility  https://self-compassion.org/