We all have to deal with frazzled, harried, extremely stressed-out people… some of whom are unfortunately ourselves. There are days where it feels like life is going to grab you by one ankle and one wrist and just wishbone you. These are the moments in any job, project, or career where you want to quit.
I discussed the issue of quitting in my first book but today we’re gonna focus on the not-quitting option: resilience. We hear this issue get discussed a great deal but that’s usually balderdash at scale. All emotional rah-rah, no predictive validity. Conveniently, they say, the only thing you need to do is sit on your butt and believe (or maybe buy something) and everything is going to work out. Just keep smiling and that letter from Hogwarts is going to arrive and your life will change…
But if you’re willing to make an effort, there are scientific insights that can help. In fact, for people rated at the lowest levels of resilience, studies show a 125% increase in three months by just doing five things. What are those things? Well, that’s why we’re here…
Gabriella Rosen Kellerman, MD, and Martin Seligman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, have a new book out that has answers: Tomorrowmind: Thriving at Work with Resilience, Creativity, and Connection—Now and in an Uncertain Future.
Let’s get to it…
There are moments where things get bad and we feel held hostage by our emotions. (Blink twice if anxiety has a gun to your head right now.) This is the first step toward wanting to throw your hands up and quit.
What we need to do is get a handle on those feelings so we can think straight. And that’s what Emotional Regulation does: allows us to flexibly manage our emotions so we can make smart decisions. ER is so powerful it was one of the techniques that increased Navy SEAL passing rates.
So how do we do this? There are two steps.
The first is to slow down and make some space between your negative emotions and your behaviors. Impulsivity is the enemy.
A sinister cabal of brain cells in your amygdala have mutinied and are telling you this situation is overwhelming. Those awful feelings are running a false flag operation in your head, pretending to be “you”. They’re not you. They’re just feelings. We’re going to listen to what they have to say in a second but first we need to realize they are just a lawyer making a case – you’re the judge.
So notice and name your emotions. Identify them and see them as “other”. Not you. Also, if it helps, focus on your body. This reminds you what is real, unlike those thoughts in your head which are telling you the world is ending. The thoughts aren’t real; your body is.
Naming emotions and focusing on the body should slow the onslaught of abuse coming from your gray matter. Alright, now we need to get logic back online.
And that leads us to the second step: reappraise. This is a tool from CBT, the most proven psychological therapy out there. Once you’ve stepped back from the emotions you want to reevaluate them. It’s a process of questioning: Is this situation objectively that bad? Is what the feelings are saying true or an exaggeration? Have you successfully handled analogous situations before? And most importantly: Are these feelings useful?
Sometimes that’s all it takes. Logic comes in and tells you you’re overreacting. Your rational brain hits the override switch and reroutes mental energy to bring up your emotional shields. And you calm down.
But sometimes this is only the start. You’ve dampened the feelings of worry and doom but aren’t steady enough to get going again. What attitude do we need?
Right now the lenses you see the world through are not rose-colored. They’re tinted with worry and sorrow. You might think that in your situation, anyone would give up… but that’s not true.
Back in the 1960’s, Seligman did a series of studies about “learned helplessness.” The idea was that when things feel futile, we become depressed and give up. But what he found was that a third of subjects never gave up.
It was due to their perspective. These people always saw setbacks as temporary (“This will blow over”), local (“it’s a one-time problem”) and controllable (“I can fix this”). This narrative allowed them to cope. The simple word for it: optimism.
We think some situations are “bad” and others “not so bad” but what we often forget is those categories are subjective. As Seligman says, “How tolerable a situation feels grows out of our belief about whether we can do anything to escape it.” The key word there is “belief.”
When we’re optimistic, we keep trying because we believe it’s going to work out. Sometimes it’s not an issue of making the situation objectively better; it’s just an issue of seeing it in a way that keeps you going.
So how do we become more optimistic? The proven intervention that helps here is called “Best Possible Self.” Pick a future time frame, maybe 15 years from now. Imagine everything in your life has gone right. You’ve got the career you want, success, good relationships – basically, everything you’ve dreamed of. Write about this for 10 minutes. Explore what you’d do in this scenario. How would you spend your time? What does it feel like?
You have no excuse not to do this. You’re basically being told to fantasize in writing for 10 minutes. (I wish every intervention was this much fun.) Over 30 studies show this exercise works. It not only increases levels of optimism but also improves the physical health of those who do it.
Okay, we’ve got Emotional Regulation and an optimistic attitude. But what if you’re naturally someone who fears the worst when things get hard and that overrides everything?
What’s the big baddy that best predicts poor resilience? Catastrophizing. This is immediately jumping to the worst-case scenario in times of uncertainty. Spouse is 15 minutes late? They must have died in a fiery car wreck. Obviously.
Needless to say, spending all your time dwelling on the most awful things that could possibly happen is not good. (There’s a reason the ads during true crime podcasts are all for therapy.) A study of 70,000 soldiers deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan showed the ones who catastrophized were more likely to develop PTSD.
We need “Cognitive Agility.” This is the ability to consider many possibilities before focusing and acting on one. Cognitive Agility gives you options – and focuses on the most realistic one, not the scariest one.
So how do we increase Cognitive Agility? By using an exercise called “Putting It In Perspective.” Next time something bad happens and your mind screams, “My spouse is caught in a wreck of twisted steel and flames!”, take a second to generate more options. A tapas of perspectives.
Draw a line on a piece of paper. Write “Worst” at the far left, and “Best” at the far right. Under “Worst” write “Fifteen car pile-up” and under “Best” write “Busy buying me a castle in France.” Now think of three “most likely” scenarios and put them along the middle of the line.
One of your “most likely” scenarios could be “caught in traffic and phone battery died.” Or maybe “Forgot when they said they’d be home.” Or “Is being a little lazy or selfish.” What would you bet the mortgage on: laziness or firefighters currently using the Jaws of Life on a car door? This is how you sharpen your Occam’s Razor. And how you realize things aren’t as bad as your first reaction tells you they are.
Now there’s a whole ‘nother kind of negativity that can be trickier to deal with and makes you want to quit: when you feel like the situation is your fault. You’re in an abusive relationship – with yourself. What do we do then?
Fine, you made a mistake. But before you break out the mental cat o’ nine tails to give yourself a lashing, ask yourself: “What do I usually do when someone else makes a mistake?”
You forgive them. Well, that’s the fix here. University of Texas at Austin professor Kristin Neff says self-compassion is when we take the compassion we show to others when they screw up and apply it to ourselves.
Friends overreact and you tell them it’s not that bad. You overreact and immediately assume it’s Armageddon on the installment plan. You’re compassionate with others but not yourself? What are you — an emotional nonprofit?
So how do we increase self-compassion? It’s easy. Imagine what you’re dealing with is happening to someone you care about. What would you feel? What would you say? What would you do to support them?
Sounds simple but it can be the emotional equivalent of a Master Cleanse. Use your gentlest inside voice and be a little kinder to the one person who is always there to provide you with support – you.
But — to respond to the rhetorical question you never really asked – what do we do if we successfully cope with all the feelings but don’t feel able to do anything about the situation at hand? You lack the confidence to actually get moving again after a big setback. What then?
This is a concept created by psychologist Albert Bandura in the 1980’s. Self-Efficacy is the belief in your ability to exercise control over what you do and the things that affect your life.
Levels of Self-Efficacy predict everything from how well you perform on the job to whether or not you achieve diet and exercise goals. And a big part of it is about agency: believing you can get things done and change what happens in the world. It’s the opposite of helplessness.
So how do we grow those Self-Efficacy muscles? The key here is “mastery experiences.” Getting competent at something boosts feelings of agency and confidence. And those feelings naturally carry over a bit. “If I can do this, I can do that, too.” Rather than just attempting to convince yourself with affirmations, you actually go achieve goals and by seeing yourself achieve goals, over time, you can’t help but start to identify as “a person who achieves their goals.”
Start small. Set a goal. Achieve it. Set a bigger goal. Achieve it… You get the point. It’s not “believe and do”; it’s “do and believe.” This builds agency that will generalize and carry over to other areas of life.
The most reliable way to increase confidence is by earning it. Proving it to yourself. Get good at things and overcome challenges until you become the kind of person who “always gets good at things and always overcomes challenges.”
This is why kneejerk quitting is so bad. You immediately fail and run away and then, sadly, it’s very realistic to say, “I am the kind of person who fails and runs away.” It’s not prophecy. It’s the accumulation of behaviors. Change the behaviors and you change the story. Change the story and you’re a different person. A resilient one.
Alrighty, we’ve learned a lot. Time to round everything up and learn the secret to making all this work…
Here’s how to be more resilient:
Everyone struggles. Everyone. Life is about how we see those challenges and how we respond to them.
The most important thing is to practice the above techniques. Do not let this post be another thing that just gets tossed into the attic of the world wide web. Until Silicon Valley invents a way for me to grab you by the lapels over the internet, you need to practice the above yourself. I’m just an NPC in the game of your life offering you a new quest.
Do not forget all the times that felt so horrible but you made it through. This is one of the critical lessons of life. All the times of shrieking madness that became little more than funny stories. “This too shall pass” isn’t enough…
I believe in “This too shall be hysterical.”