The past year has tested the enduring fortitude of the entire human species. The year 2020 ground its way to a close with heartfelt pleas for a better 2021, but by all accounts, this year will offer collective and personal challenges of similar proportion.
The global pandemic impels us to better understand and master the noble concept of resilience.
The words of the enigmatic American novelist Ernest Hemingway provide us with a chilling introduction to a very timely exploration into the nature of resilience:
“The world breaks everyone,
some are strong at the broken places.”
Without access to our current biological insights, Hemingway seemed to understand nature’s intricate design that makes positive response to injury not only possible but highly successful. Our bodies are a thriving balance of breakdown and reconstruction. We have an ingenious design, where teams of dedicated chemicals and cells destroy the old and broken while other teams follow them around rebuilding and rejuvenating. Even bone, the strongest of human tissue, is constantly being remodeled, adapting to physical stress to optimize its performance.
It is well proven that the healing process often leaves an injured site stronger than it was before the insult. I’m sure this is true for our emotional and spiritual existence, too. Hemingway’s quote reminds us of the tremendous power to be gained in healing, both physically and emotionally. As in the case of bone, we develop new strength to accommodate new stresses and pressures, and this strength often exceeds anything we had before.
Resilience is a topic of much interest to both social scientists and growth seekers, for good reason. It drives two outcomes we care about: happiness and success. Happy people bounce back with smiles. Successful people roll with the punches, getting up quickly to continue their journeys.
But here is the terrifying observation lurking in Hemingway’s quote: Not everybody gets stronger after facing adversity.
Only some respond positively to injury.
Only some come back stronger.
Only some get back up.
Only some keep moving forward.
So what drives our ability to respond with resilience? How can we be sure to be in the tiny group that returns stronger after injury?
Our inquiry should be inspired by the powerful insight of the well-known human rights champion Nelson Mandela, who touched lives around the world with his iconic fortitude in the face of massive personal hardship:
“Do not judge me by my success;
judge me by how many times I fell
and got back up again.”
The reality is that levels of resilience vary between individuals. Some have it in abundance and keep bouncing back, all the way up the ladder, while others seem to wither at the first setback. Resilience can even fluctuate over time in the same person, as I’m sure each one of us can attest to, and can vary between different domains. For example, you may bounce back quickly at work but struggle in your personal life.
First, we must understand that resilience itself is a behavior, not an attribute. It’s the outcome of a number of mindsets. Like the symptoms of a disease, we’re better off understanding the underlying cause. It doesn’t work to just say to someone, “Be more resilient.” Resilience isn’t something that can be turned on, like flipping a switch. Instead, we need to look behind the scenes to understand what drives resilience and build on it from there.
In our physical bodies, we have the opposing forces of degeneration and rejuvenation at work all the time. This is no different in our mental and emotional domains. Just as your physical body has two armies at work—one destroying and one building—so too does your mental and emotional being.
And the default is degeneration. If we do nothing else, life breaks us down.
So, we must actively drive mental and emotional rejuvenation if we want to be resilient. Just as we pursue exercise, caloric balance, and good sleep to drive physical rejuvenation at the cellular, chemical, and even genetic levels, so we must find and feed the mental and emotional “builders” within.
There are six methods we can use to feed those mental and emotional builders:
- Having a neutral emotional response to setback enables rapid recovery. You won’t often find me recommending that you disengage emotionally. Most of the time I advocate strongly for the value of emotional engagement. But think about the way that your body copes with injury. If your immune and inflammatory cells went into mourning when you sustained a minor laceration, you might never heal. Instead, without hesitation, your body sends in the cells of rejuvenation to repair your injured tissue. We should emulate this in our lives. Get over setbacks fast and heal. Like your bones, your mind will remodel to cope with the new stress or circumstances that could otherwise derail you.
- Second, embrace your vulnerability. We’re not always right in our attitudes and planning. Things go wrong, and that’s okay. Be vulnerable. Mistakes and setbacks are loaded with learning. Embrace both, and bounce back stronger.
- Yield to forces greater than you. I call this the art of situational yield. As we get older, our bones become harder. While this may seem like an advantage, it is actually a disadvantage when we encounter trauma because hard bones are more brittle. Instead of yielding to the stress, they fracture. While embracing an overall determination and unwillingness to give up in our day-to-day lives, it is vital to recognize where yielding protects you and preserves your strength for more important matters. Don’t make your next heroic act your last.
- Your psyche thrives on thinking positive thoughts. Feed it. Your cerebral cortex is under your voluntary control and has the ability to overrule any unhelpful negative messages in your mind. Actively engage in the proliferation of positive thoughts on an ongoing basis to nourish your capacity for resilience—every day, before you need it.
- Sleep is the physical mode in which mental and emotional rejuvenation occurs. Many ambitious people believe that they can repair and refuel on the go. This is patently untrue. We are built to recover while we sleep, and sleep debt reduces your resilience significantly. While you sleep, you feed and nourish the army of good. So, sleep and rest.
- Build an external environment that favors resilience. There is strong evidence that we have become more fragile and less resilient as we have moved away from tribal cultures toward more insular, independent lives. We need to actively maintain those close relationships that support and stimulate mental and emotional recoil. Positivity is mirrored. Surround yourself with supportive family and friends who give you energy and enhance your propensity for resilience.
We are the architects of both our internal and our external environments. Smart design in both arenas enables resilience, which drives success, a concept well known to beloved American football coach and sporting legend Vince Lombardi, who said:
“It’s not whether you get knocked down:
it’s whether you get back up.”
Working to build your capacity for resilience is only half of the battle, though. You also need to immunize yourself against resilience’s deeply destructive enemy: helplessness.
Helplessness is the inability or unwillingness to pick yourself up from the floor, dust yourself off, and get on with life after a fall. Martin Seligman, distinguished professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and founder of the Positive Psychology movement, spearheaded our current understanding of helplessness.
Seligman and his colleagues identified a state he termed “learned helplessness.” In this condition, the subject habitually acts helpless under duress. In early experiments, his laboratory dogs literally lay down in response to what they perceived to be overwhelming circumstances. You may have felt this way at the end of a hard week full of setbacks that have tested your resilience.
When he delved further, Seligman found that helplessness is often the result of experiencing 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. Imagine the young child who tries to win the approval of a parent or teacher by working hard at school. But, regardless of their efforts, their parent or teacher focuses on the questions that the child got wrong or the talent of the children who got better grades. This child learns that their actions 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 we are at risk of extrapolating our helplessness to other situations. Some personalities, especially those with more pessimistic tendencies, are likely to allow this helplessness, which began as a specific reaction to a particular circumstance, 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 who are taught that their actions are meaningful, especially those who are optimistic by nature, grow in confidence and resilience. It is easy to see how this becomes a virtuous cycle and how resilience becomes a major contributor to success.
But let’s return to the helpless for a minute.
Seligman and his colleagues were not content to rest after discovering learned helplessness. They also 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 learned helplessness, what arises in its place are optimism, hopefulness, a belief that life’s problems are surmountable, and a resilience that enables newfound success.
And that’s not all: Seligman and his team were able to demonstrate that you can teach hopefulness.
By teaching young animals and humans that their actions were meaningful, they were able to build lifelong 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.
What does all this mean for you?
Doubt, fear, pessimism, and helplessness are products of our primitive, reptilian brain. 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.
To counteract those negative forces, Mother Nature has equipped us with a massive cognitive (or thinking) brain, which is under our voluntary control and has immense power over the rest of our brain.
We must use our cognitive brain to drive optimism and resilience. We can think our way to success, if we choose.
We are helpless when we believe that our actions are meaningless. Belief is driven by thoughts. Thus, in the context of helplessness, our thoughts offer largely negative explanations for our painful and challenging experiences. But we can confront these negative explanations using the following five steps:
- Recognize the automatic negative 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. Remain hopeful in your ability to recover.
- 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. Challenge those assumptions at every opportunity, to fend off helplessness even before it presents itself.
As always, life is a journey. None of this progress will happen overnight. I hope that the insight and pointers I’ve presented here will help you to fortify your own resilience.
Rocky Balboa, the come-back hero from the well-known Hollywood glory movie of the same name summarized his life philosophy, learned in the blood and sweat of the boxing ring, as follows:
“It ain’t about how hard you can hit.
It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.
How much you can take, and keep moving forward.”
I love quotes. They give us rapid access to deep pools of rich intellectual and emotional insight in a few well-chosen words. I hope that you will write out one of the quotes used in this article, spoken by famous people who intimately understood resilience. Put it in a prominent place to remind you about the science of resilience and to help you stride forward with optimism and hope into the second of two very challenging years in the global arena.
Your success is in your hands, always!
Note: If you are experiencing severe helplessness, anxiety, depression, or suicidal thoughts, please seek out professional help. In particular, look for someone who understands Positive Psychology and cognitive therapy. These are powerful interventions, and there is every reason to believe that you will get an excellent result.