Not to brag, but I think I’m on my way to wining the gold medal in emotional resilience. Emotional resilience, ICYMI, is the ability to adapt to a stressful change or recover from a painful experience efficiently, and my year has had plenty of that. But, uh, is there a way to toughen up yourself up emotional without going through traumatic events?
Well, like a paralyzing fear of change, research long suggested the emotional resilience was something relatively genetic or inherited. My suspicion: if you’re highly neurotic like me, the predisposition to be resilient is not really there. Like, you fear change, and then you cry about it. The good news, though, is that you can build up emotional resilience like you can build up washboard abs (I mean I can’t, but someone can). In fact, there are courses in the United Kingdom and New Zealand that teach emotional resilience. If you don’t have the cash for a plane ticket, though, we do have some advice on hand.
To psychologist Helene Brenner, PhD, author of I Know I’m In There Somewhere, emotional resilience isn’t about effortlessly bouncing back from disaster with a big grin on your face. It’s about exerting emotional control in a healthy way.
“You’re human, you have emotions for a purpose,” says Dr. Brenner. “Often, resilience is more like quick recovery. You’re thrown off balance, but you feel it, you go through it, but you bounce back pretty quickly. You get knocked over, you hurt, you spin, maybe you feel like you’ve lost it for a short time—but then you find your balance and move forward.”
Essentially, it’s not simply about being so tough nothing phases you, but rather it’s about learning how to be vulnerable when appropriate—which in turn makes you stronger.
Learn how to share your emotions and keep yourself grounded
I’m learning to do this a lot in therapy: share what my feelings are, realize they’re valid, but acknowledge they’re also not indicative of any reality but my own. You don’t need to be in therapy to realize this, though it always helps; having at least one trusted friend you can healthily vent to is what matters.
“If you can, share your feelings with someone who is safe, who can accept them nonjudgmentally,” say Dr. Brenner. “Share them as feelings, not as facts. If you’re thinking or feeling something awful, you can tell people that you know it’s ‘irrational,’ but it’s how you’re feeling right now. Accept your feeling and let it be, let it flow, but don’t mistake it for something permanent and altogether factual and objective.”
Train at being smart and “mindful” about your feelings
While you’re navigating the emotional waters of All The Feels, it’s important to recognize where the negative emotion comes from. Break it down into little parts. Sadness, for example, is typically about loss and grief; if you find yourself all blue about something, try to unravel what you’re afraid you lost. You can apply the same unraveling technique to anger.
“Anger can be a response to a violation of your physical or psychological integrity, or it’s a response to a threat,” says Dr. Brenner. “What feels like it’s been violated? What feels like it’s been so threatened that you have to get ready to fight to get it back? What are you trying to stop from happening? And sometimes anger is just a safer feeling to feel than vulnerable. Be honest with yourself.”
Anxiety is the feeling of being unsafe. Identify the danger and work with it. Shame is a reaction to the idea that you’ve done something terribly unacceptable and it makes you want to hide. Don’t hide. Talk to someone safe.
In short, when it comes to emotions: name it, be clear about it.
Work in ABCs: Acknowledging, Being With, and Compassion
We already tackled acknowledging, which is feeling yourself without judgement, and being able to name and identify the feeling. The next step is to be with the feeling, like you’re having a cup of tea or coffee with a friend who’s going through something difficult.
“Hang out with it, describe it,” says Dr. Brenner. “Be next to the feeling, not in it. Keep it company. This takes practice, but it’s a great relief!”
Finally, learn how to be your own best friend and by providing the support and gentleness you deserve.
“Give yourself compassionate self-talk, the kind of understanding you’d want a friend to give you,” suggests Dr. Brenner. “Be gentle with yourself, even or especially if you think you shouldn’t be as upset as you are. It will work much faster to calm you than telling yourself you’re being ridiculous or over-reacting.”
To wit, sometimes emotional resilience is embracing that cry sesh in front of your therapist, or allowing yourself a moment to self-care. It’s not denying your emotions, it’s learning how to process them as they come, and move on in a timely manner. Once you master that, well, I think the silver and bronze medals are still up for grabs.
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