Please read Part II here.
Within the last decade, the psychological literature on developing resilience has expanded in breadth and depth. Stories of resilience have taken stock with multitudes that cause the medical community to continually wrestle with its strength and quality that carry people onward in their journey. Whether the internally dark circumstances of losing jobs, experiencing career cutbacks, or navigating the foreclosure of a home, societal experiences are rife with opportunities to lose permanent confidence. Recent events with a pandemic that maintains a global footprint, stirrings of war, and a gradual economic recession are all context for urgency in developing personal resilience. Yet, even in the midst of a deep recession, there are many that choose to snap back into form and take advantage of the psychological clasp of personal resilience. In many ways, developing personal resilience has been a challenge to navigate for clinicians since this is ultimately dependent upon how individuals navigate setbacks, obstacles, and challenges. Either one climbs the mountain of difficulty to victory or becomes sorted by adversity. Dean Becker, President and CEO of Adaptiv Learning Systems, cites his observations when delivering trainings and programs on personal resilience, “More than education, more than experience, more than training, a person’s level of resilience will determine who succeeds and who fails. That’s true in the cancer ward, it’s true in the Olympics, and it’s’ true in the boardroom.”
History continues to inform us of provoking the development, empowerment, and nurturance of resilience in future generations. Starting in 1967, developmental psychologist Emmy Werner went on a personal journey to track 698 children from Kauai, Hawaii and how they persisted in life circumstances of stability or stress. Her research concluded that two-thirds of the children that were tracked into their third decade of life were notably “competent, confident, and caring young adults” because they consistently took advantage of the opportunities that came by in their lives. American researcher and pioneer in the resilience movement, Norman Garmezy, had previously studied why children of schizophrenic parents grew up to be adaptive in functioning and did not suffer any of the ill effects of their parents. He started to understand that there were significant factors that contributed to people becoming resilient within their mental health. The Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute observed the stories of various Holocaust survivors and noticed emerging themes that created what clinicians are now terming as a “plastic shield.” The substance that makes up this shield involves humor. Albeit dark, survivors had a sense of personal relief from humor can create a sense of perspective in the midst of challenging circumstances. Other factors include: the ability to form secure emotional attachments with others, socially moving toward others and developing social capital, and also cultivating emotional intelligence such that people are attracted even more to the individual in a challenging season. Rather than just giving acceptance to the role of genetics with resilience formation, an increasing body of evidence provides additional support that resilience is also taught whether in children of adverse experiences, survivors of decadent concentration camps, or in businesses that rebound from bankruptcies. Long-term studies that observed people over a 60-year span indicated that people can learn to become more resilient throughout their life time.
With all of this accumulative research and observation of individuals, groups, and families with their stories, we can identify three common themes that allow for acceptance of personal reality. Resilient individuals find and experience meaning, pursue core values, and maintain a strong capacity for personal ingenuity in their life circumstances. Truly anyone can bounce back from hardship and problematic circumstances with just one or two of these character qualities, but resilience requires all three according to the current resilience research. During times of deep recessions, resilience becomes a necessary ingredient more so than before to rebuild oneself from sinking further into despondence and a greater loss of confidence. Within the first building block of resilience, it becomes a necessity to pursue personal meaning and attach significance to the present circumstances that will help to build bridges from present-day hardships to a more fuller and better-constructed future. Austrian psychiatrist and Auschwitz survivor, Victor Frankl, reflects in his memoir Man’s Search for Meaning the importance of decision-making behaviors that produce significance in people’s lives. While at the concentration camp, Frankl became disgruntled and upset over how meaningless and trivial his life had become, and he was more eager to pursue a sense of purpose. This was accomplished with Frankl imagining a better future in which he was able to provide lectures on the psychology of the concentration camp after the Second World War would conclude. Unsure of his own survival, Frankl had written concrete and actionable goals that he wanted to work toward. He writes, “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.” Although meaning can be an elusive reality from one day to the next, accessing meaning-making constructs are essential for personal resilience.
Identifying, establishing, and operating out of individual and organizational value systems can be seen as another foundational building block for cultivating personal resilience. It will not be a surprise to note that many successful people and organizations possess a strong value system. You can read more here. Those with strong core values are empowered to interpret, understand, and perceive their conditions with an infused sense of meaning. The Catholic Church, as an example of resilience, has survived two millennia of schism, wars, and internal transitions largely due to its access to a defined set of core values. Johnson & Johnson, among other businesses, indoctrinates every new employee with their Credo, a document that clearly defines their organizational and pharmaceutical purpose and identified set of core values. As a leading parcel company, UPS initiates regular dialogue around its Noble Purpose. Sharing a common set of values and rallying around this purpose can assist individuals in gaining the necessary skills and capacity to weather enormous stress and change.
In critical seasons that demand greater resilience, emotional agility is needed. In a declining societal turnover of many variables, effectively navigating the inner terrain of emotional experiences within a rapidly evolving and complex global community continues to be marked with necessity for personal and work-related success. Not only in response to this current pandemic, but research from the University of London has been able to demonstrate that emotional agility will provoke individuals to healthily and proactively respond to stress, make strides in job performance, reduce margins for work-related errors, and become altogether innovative in their fields. Dr. Susan David, a psychologist and author on faculty with Harvard Medical School and CEO of Evidence-Based Psychology, a boutique business consultancy, demonstrates principles for this novel concept of emotional agility in her Ted Talk here and additional podcasts on her show Checking In here. Along with other leading experts in the field of understanding emotion regulation, this reflection is incomplete without considering that everyone has negative thoughts and feelings in the spectrum of emotional experiences that include self-doubt, criticism, and fear, and you can read more here. Susan describes this call to emotional agility as that “which enables people to approach their inner experiences in a mindful, values-driven, and productive way rather than buying into or trying to suppress them. 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.”
Here are several important considerations in choosing resilience and establishing the building blocks of emotional agility:
- Understand the way that you express yourself through behavioral patterns. With self-awareness and personal insight, it is possible to get unstuck and move toward change and progress.
- Adapted from principles with Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, choose to label the internal stream of thoughts and emotions and determine to view them as changing and transient, rather than permanent, wells of personal information.
- The next wave of emotional intelligence is emotional agility that provides a roadmap for navigating challenging emotions, enhancing joy in relationships, moving toward goals, and flourishing in adversity. A key to well-being and success, emotional agility, is linked with flexibility with thoughts and feelings that better serve us rather than getting hooked to an emotional rigidity that applies anger, shame, and anxiety into our daily emotional terrain.
- When we choose how we respond to our circumstances, we can also learn skill sets related to loosening up, calming down, and becoming more intentional.
- A growing body of research has acknowledged the space between stimulus and response. Growth alongside freedom will occur in this space that involves our personal responses. You can read more about post-traumatic growth and resilience here.
- Engaging in a complex, ever-evolving, global community within the digital revolution requires flexibility, openness, and receptivity in order to tolerate high stress levels and endure through setbacks.
- Journaling can become a supportive and encouraging source to better navigate difficult circumstances that cause us to lose our life narrative structure. Journaling is an important asset to create movement through trauma and current hardship as well as describe, make sense of, and process the experience.