Build Resilience, Scientifically!
The opposite of resilience is helplessness – the inability or unwillingness to pick yourself up from the floor, dust yourself off, and get on with life after a fall. The great news is that you can immunize yourself against helplessness, increasing your resilience.
This is the third in a series of three articles exploring the subject of resilience, prompted by a famous Hemingway quote.
“The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.” (Ernest Hemingway)
The first article discusses the importance of resilience and its relationship with success. Levels of resilience vary between individuals. Resilience can fluctuate over time in the same person, as I’m sure each one of us can attest, and can vary between different domains of your life. For example, you may bounce back quickly at work, but struggle in your personal life. The second article explores the biological analogy used by Hemingway, and looks to Nature for hints on improving our resilience.
This article looks at some fascinating work done in social science laboratories over the last two decades, defining helplessness and coming up with strategies to avoid its negative consequences. Martin Seligman is a professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is well known to be one of the founders of the Positive Psychology movement. In collaboration with many global thought leaders, he spearheaded our current understanding of helplessness.
Initially in animals, and subsequently in humans, Seligman and colleagues identified a state he termed “learned helplessness”. In this condition, the subject acts helplessly under duress. In early experiments, his laboratory dogs (that I’m sure he treated with great kindness) literally lay down in response to what they perceived to be overwhelming circumstances. You can see the close analogy to the pugilist that doesn’t get up from the canvas after a big punch, or to the way you feel at the end of a hard day that has tested your resilience.
When he delved further, Seligman found that helplessness is often the result of preceding circumstances in which we are taught that our own efforts are meaningless.
Whether at home, or in school, or at work, or all three, when we are taught that our actions are of no consequence, we become helpless. This is “learned helplessness”. Imagine the young child who tries to win the approval of a parent (or teacher) by working hard at school. Regardless of their efforts, their parent (or teacher) focuses on the questions that the child got wrong, or the talent of the children that got better grades. The child learns that his or her actions (how hard they work) have no impact on the desired outcome (affirmation from the parent or teacher). There is grave risk of this young person developing learned helplessness.
Rather than bouncing back after a particularly hard exam, they may lie down and give up.
This situation is extremely dangerous, because children and young adults are at risk of extrapolating their helplessness to other situations. Some personalities, especially those with more pessimistic tendencies, are likely to allow this helplessness, which was specific to their school grades, to extend into other functional domains. They begin to feel that their actions are meaningless across a broad range of important issues.
Of course, the opposite is true too. Children that are taught that their actions are meaningful, especially those that are optimistic by nature, grow in confidence and resilience. These are the people that always seem to bounce back quickly from even major setbacks. It is easy to see how this becomes a virtuous cycle, and how resilience has become a major contributor to success.
Let’s return to the helpless for a minute.
I’m sure each and every one of us (at least the honest ones) has felt helpless at some time in some domain of our lives. Even if it’s only on a topic as big as global warming, where we throw up our hands and say, “I care, but what can I do?”
Seligman and colleagues were not content to rest after discovering helplessness. They wanted to know if it could be alleviated.
In a fascinating array of experiments, they were able to show that both animals and people could be retrained to believe that their thoughts and actions mattered. Through a variety of techniques that became the foundations of positive psychology, these pioneers demonstrated that we could systematically unlearn helplessness.
As we diminish helplessness, what arises in its place, like the traditional Phoenix, is optimism, hopefulness, a belief that life’s problems are surmountable, and a resilience that enables newfound success.
That’s not all. The next discovery was thrilling. Seligman and his team were able to demonstrate that you could teach hopefulness.
By teaching young animals and humans that their actions were meaningful, they were able to build their life-long resilience. Seligman called this phenomenon “immunization” against helplessness. When they encountered unpredicted setbacks later in life, those who had been immunized were more resilient than their peers who had not received this training. Bravo!
What does this mean for you?
First, if you’re seriously debilitated with helplessness or it’s big brother depression, please look for professional help. In particular, look for someone that understands Positive Psychology and Cognitive Therapy. These are powerful interventions and there is every reason to believe that you will get an excellent result.
For all of us, let this serve as a reminder of the power of the cognitive brain.
Doubt, fear, pessimism and helplessness are products of our primitive, reptilian brains. This part of our brain is responsible for protecting us and keeping us safe. It does a great job, for the most part, but if we allow it to dominate our lives, we’re in trouble.
Nature has equipped us with a massive cognitive brain, under our voluntary control that has immense power over the rest of our brain. We must use our cognitive brain to drive optimism and resilience.
The five steps of traditional cognitive therapy may be useful as you work to develop your own resilience. Understand that we are helpless when we believe that our actions are meaningless. Belief is driven by thoughts. In this context, our thoughts are largely negative explanations for our painful experience (being knocked down).
Confront these negative explanations using the following five steps:
- Recognize the automatic negative thoughts, the helpless thoughts, when you meet resistance.
- Dispute the negative thoughts using objective arguments. Your explanations about helplessness are seldom correct!
- Replace these helpless thoughts with different explanations. Rather than being knocked down because you are weak (and therefore helpless), explain to yourself that your opponent struck a well-timed, powerful blow. You remain hopeful in your ability.
- Distract yourself from negative thoughts. Recognize when you brood and hold onto helpless explanations. Action is a great distraction.
- Over time, with patience and diligence, you will recognize the common negative assumptions you hold that precipitate helplessness. For example, if you often feel helplessly unloved, it may be because you believe that everybody should love you. When a single person doesn’t, or makes a single unloving statement, you collapse helplessly. Challenge your assumption that everyone should always love you.
Finally, scrutinize your conduct with your children, your students (if you’re a teacher), and your subordinates (if you’re a boss). You’re in a powerful position to evoke either hope, or futility. Especially with children, you will influence their long-term resilience by your actions. Choose wisely.
As always, life is a journey. None of this progress will happen overnight. I hope that the insight and pointers help you to fortify your own resilience.
Here’s a bonus reward for your efforts: there is ample scientific evidence that optimism improves health and drives longevity, even strengthening your body against some of our greatest medical fears, like cancer. How’s that for an incentive?
Have fun. Your success is in Your hands, always!
Dr. Roddy Carter, MD, has over 30 years of experience working across a range of medical disciplines and corporate settings.
At the height of his successful career, Roddy experienced a personal health and happiness awakening. During this profoundly transformative time, he began applying his deep knowledge of performance neuroscience to his everyday life. He discovered that, in moments of stress, the brain develops intricate psycho-protective adaptations to ensure our short-term survival; however, these adaptations often impose substantial residual limitations, create profound (and often hidden) distress, and prevent us from reaching our innate potential.
Today, Roddy is an executive coach and author dedicated to helping others unlock their full potential throughout their lives by applying compassionate neuroscience and sharing his unique approach to Personal Mastery™.