Resilience isn’t about being tough

Resilience isn’t about being tough

We use resilience in the face of adversity which comes in many forms, from the impact of a pandemic to the somewhat lighter arriving late to an appointment or spilling coffee down our favourite top.

There is no absolute agreement in psychological research about resilience, but one way it’s been summarised uses the three R’s – Resistance, Recovery, and Reconfiguration.  The first of these is often translated as toughness, but I don’t think that’s helpful.  Let’s look at the other two before returning to Resistance.

Having asked hundreds of people, I’d say that Recovery is the most common of the Rs we use to describe resilience, typically using a phrase like the ‘ability to bounce back’.  This might bring to mind the analogies of the sapling flexing in the wind or the more literal bouncing back of a ball.

Bouncing back can be a good analogy, but like most complex things that involve humans, it isn’t perfect.  For example, bouncing back implies a ‘fast’ return, quickly recovering to where we started, which is perfectly reasonable for those lighter adversities but less so for something like the loss of someone close.  Even with great skill, recovery may take some time, and that’s normal.

Reconfiguration refers to the growth we may go through while dealing with adversity. It’s common for people to describe that although they wouldn’t choose to go through their difficulty or wish it on anyone else, now they are different.  Somehow stronger, more skilled than before, or with a better appreciation for the value of life.  I used to wish I could have this kind of growth without going through adversity, but I’m not sure it works like that!

If you are currently going through adversity, and many of us are, I find it helpful to appreciate that growth is a possible outcome and even asking ourselves, ‘how can I grow from this?’ If it seems insensitive, or your answer is ‘I can’t’ then it might be too early, or the question needs phrasing differently.

And finally, we get to Resistance.  The image this suggests for me is an oak tree – majestic and solid.  But even the mighty oak will flex and move in the wind.  The core may look solid, made more so by its growth through adversity from a sapling, but the leaves and branches still flex, and forces still create strain through the roots.  For me, this describes how we may have developed skills, mindsets and resources – the three aspects that I suggest make up resilience – that allow us to work with difficulty and continue to function well in the face of adversity.

One of those skills, for example, is our ability to work with unpleasant emotions rather than them working us.  Blocking out emotion, which for many is the epitome of toughness, is rarely a helpful long-term strategy.  Having the skills to face and feel unpleasant emotions, working with them and responding wisely is a real resilience skill – and a fundamental one.  It helps us to be flexible, see options, function, and perhaps learn from our adversity.

Business consultant Tom Peter suggests that business leaders often consider the hard stuff of finances to be the bottom line, the fundamentals of business.  When the actual hard stuff is what we often call the soft stuff, how we treat our customers and staff, the consideration we put into our services – it’s the bottom line that’s soft, totally dependent hard stuff of working with people.  He coined the phrase “Soft is hard.  Hard is soft,” which is a perfect analogy here – the soft stuff of emotions, for example, is actually the hard stuff of resilience.

It’s not toughness we develop; it’s skills, mindsets, and resources for working effectively with adversity – as, if you reflect, you already know.

The soft skills that are crucial in the modern workplace

By J Shaw for reachremarkable.com

Workplaces are changing — and you need to keep up if you want better opportunities. Now that organisations are disrupting their processes with automation and other technologies, recent LinkedIn data revealed that job skillsets have already changed by a quarter since 2015. Professionals need to further step up their upskilling considering that job skillset changes are again expected to double by 2027.

With automated tools handling more work processes, employers are now more interested in the soft skills that professionals can offer. In the new face of the workplace, these are the soft skills that are taking over:

Creativity
Many individuals limit their perception of creativity to artistic talents. However, this soft skill is becoming crucial in workplaces, especially because it sparks innovation.

Creativity can be a lifesaver in tricky career challenges, which is why our article on the ‘Three Easy Everyday Creativity Tips’ suggests that you should dare to be different. Rather than keeping up with industry trends, you can try to suggest products and services that you may have encountered in your personal life. You can also get inspiration by reading books, movies, or even TEDTalks about highly creative individuals.

Agility
Industries have had to change working conditions and processes in the past few years, forcing employees to learn how to become more agile and flexible.

Given the drastic changes, it’s no surprise that 24% of professionals listed agility as their top answer in LHH’s poll on the top soft skills to develop in 2022. Since agility is a key part of resilience, you’ll often see it described as flexibility in resources that discuss the importance of resilience in the workplace. Being adaptable to change is a necessary skill to develop in the modern workplace since it teaches you how to become open to various processes in your professional life.

Communication
Workplace communication was already a big problem for some companies, but this became even harder once remote and hybrid teams were established.

Communication skills are often taken for granted, and Business Advice points out that this can result in misunderstandings, arguments, and even financial losses. So if you think that you need to be better at presenting your ideas and handling arguments, then you have to practise delivering concise messages and treating your co-workers with respect.

Self-confidence
Many professionals think that confidence is a value, but it’s actually something that you can develop through learning, practice, and persistence.

Instead of ignoring negative self-deprecating thoughts, our article entitled ‘Mindfulness is Not…About Stopping Your Mind Thinking‘ suggests that you can start by being aware about your thoughts on yourself and your work. Once you’ve become aware of these perceptions, whether negative or positive you can properly acknowledge your thoughts and let go. By keeping these thoughts in check, it’ll be easier to focus on your unique strengths and become more confident handling work projects, meetings, and more.

Time Management
Big work responsibilities can get so overwhelming that many professionals end up using more time worrying about the task itself than actually doing it.

Instead of worrying, time management expert Julie Morgenstern suggests that you dedicate 15 minutes of attention to the tasks you want to accomplish. Since it’s easy to set aside 10 to 15 minutes of your time, you can use this as a chance to draft an important e-mail or to do some quick research, freeing up your mental space for other tasks.

Strong soft skills are able to help your hard skills shine in the workplace. By developing your soft skills, you’ll find it easier to cultivate work relationships and accomplish crucial tasks.

 

Small actions, big changes

We know how leverage works – as Archimedes is quoted as saying, ”give me a lever long enough and a place to stand and I shall move the world.”  Or said in another way, it’s not the size of the task; it’s how I go about it. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time, etc. etc., we know the theory.

A habit is anything we do or think automatically in response to a trigger or prompt.  When we get dressed in the morning, we likely put on clothes in the same order, or whenever I hear that voice, I get a burst of excitement… or dread.  These automatic ways of doing things rule much of our lives (lesson one of my mindfulness course – running on autopilot.)

It’s these automatic ways of responding that have got you to where you are today, though admittedly with the occasional tough decision, whether chosen or forced along the way.

If we want to create change in our lives, we often start by imagining where we want to be, which might look very different from where we are now.  Whether it’s a promotion or new job, losing or gaining weight, a career switch, a change of partner or close relationship, moving home, and so on.  Each of these and any significant change will require a myriad of actions, and each action will require a decision.

Any decision requires a process, and the outcome isn’t fixed, hence the term ‘decision.’  Yet, it is in these decisions that we often fail. Making one decision at the start might be easy. Making decisions every day, or multiple times every day, when any of those outcomes could take you toward or away from your intended change is often the problem.

Back to habits.  How hard is the decision to clean your teeth at night?  Is there even a decision at all?  It’s just what you do, there’s no noticeable decision at all.  And that’s what we want to leverage.

For change x, what daily actions, y and z, can you make habitual?  Or, how can I take away the need to decide and just do y and z.

One approach that might help cultivate automatic is to make the things you want to do as easy as possible and things you don’t want to do as hard as possible.

I love crisps / chips.  I also know that if I were to eat them every day, it wouldn’t support my health goals.  One way to achieve ‘fewer crisps’ is not to buy them.  If I really wanted some, I’d have to make a special trip to the shop – which is a barrier bigger than my desire, most of the time.  But, I chose to carry on buying them, deciding to only eat crisps on weekends and to remove them from my kitchen so I wouldn’t have to make the decision every time I opened the food cupboard!  At my house, you’ll find crisps in the cupboard with coats and shoes… which works for me.

On days when I do formal exercise, I get dressed in workout gear as soon as I get up.  It takes away a decision and action (to get changed).

These are simple examples, though they are real, and both lead to meaningful outcomes for me that were once part of a change to focus deliberately on my health.

Is there a change you want to make?
• If so, what are the small actions you can take each day that will eventually deliver that change?
• When you know the actions, how can you make them automatic?

Don’t depend on willpower

Sometimes change is easy; perhaps you or someone you know changed or started a new habit and found it straightforward. But, it’s not the typical path. We might decide to eat differently, maybe following the 16/8 fasting approach we’ve heard about, where you eat within an 8-hour window (and so not eat for 16 hours), deciding, for example, that you won’t eat after 7.30pm or before 11.30am.

In the moment we make the decision, we’re healthy, not hungry, and the evidence seems to suggest it’s worth trying this fasting approach, so it’s an easy decision.

The first day, buoyed with enthusiasm, we follow the approach. The next day, Friday, we’re watching our favourite TV show at 9pm, the one where we usually have a glass of wine, or our favourite snack… and we’re faced with the reality of craving. Aghh, I really want that snack and come on, it is Friday, and so the craving wins. And that’s the end of this silly 16/8 fasting lark.

The challenge is not just establishing a new habit; it’s dealing with all the existing ones! We often put too much trust in our willpower which is often not up to the job. To say this isn’t to suggest that any of us is weak. In our example, the combination of habit, emotion and biology are all rooting for the wrong side, and willpower is easily overwhelmed.

Those with the best results know not to rely on willpower. What we need are strategies! Firstly, anticipate the craving (or remember it from the past), and decide what to do when it inevitably comes — when faced with the craving, what will you do?

The strategies don’t have to be complex or sophisticated, how one or more of:

  • Drink water – expanding the stomach can reduce hunger perception
  • Clean your teeth – who wants to spoil that minty freshness
  • Sit in a different seat – the trigger leading to craving may depend on several time and place elements coming together
  • Remove the snacks – don’t buy them, hide them, lock them up, …
  • Allow snacks once per week, e.g. only on Fridays
  • Get support from family, friends, a coach, or community
  • Watch a different program

These examples may or may not work for you, the key is to use strategies that don’t leave you at the whim of willpower.

If you find change difficult, then welcome to club human. Disrupting established patterns in our lives, even when we know they are unhelpful patterns, can include a mix of physical and mental obstacles that make change messy.

So, if you’re using the new year as an opportunity to initiate change, go for it, but take along a bag of strategies to support you along the way.

We become what we think about

Have you ever tried not to think? Even better, tried not to think about something specific – like white bears or noisy chickens? Once we become aware of something, consciously trying to avoid it often encourages the mind to keep checking in, to make sure we’re not thinking about it – and so, repeatedly thinking about it.

This phenomenon was tested formally in the late 1980s by psychologist Wegner and colleagues, leading to the theory of ironic mental processes of thought suppression, or the white bear phenomenon. It appears anytime we use thinking to try and stop thinking. For example, when we try not to think of unpleasant things or use thinking to try and create something that requires us not to think – consider ‘forcing’ ourselves to fall asleep or choking in sport.

Now consider how we learn. In short, to consciously learn something, we focus on it or engage in it repeatedly over time. And eventually, our brain creates more persistent neural networks that we see as skills or understanding.

This learning process isn’t just about external skills like driving or gardening; it’s everything, including how we think. If we repeatedly think in specific ways, we get better at automatically thinking in those ways. If we’re always self-critical, we get better at being critical, and if we’re always supportive, we get better at that too.

We get better at doing what we repeat. Which you might word as: we become what we think about most.

At what would you like to better? When I’m asked variations on this question, my initial response is often that I want to ‘stop’ doing x or y, stop criticising my children’s behaviour, stop spending so much time on Facebook, stop…

Unfortunately, this ‘stop doing’ thinking pattern, supported by ironic mental processes, can have the opposite effect in the long run (even if there’s an initial reduction). So, what might we do?

You probably already know. It’s the what can I start doing approach. For example:

  • What can I do?
  • How will I behave when…?
  • How can I help?
  • What is a wise way to respond?
  • What would support my wellbeing here?
  • What response would support the wellbeing of others?

To help unseat persistent unhelpful (or ‘negative’) thinking, we might also start writing about the situations or the thinking itself to see it a little more objectively. The process of noticing our thinking patterns rather than trying to ‘stop’ them can cultivate a lighter emotional approach, which both reduces their unpleasant impact and allows us to start choosing how to respond or what to start doing.

Mindfulness isn’t the only approach here, but it is a comprehensive one (though mindfulness isn’t about stopping your mind from thinking).  And we can combine it with other methods for resilience, leading to more proactive ways of choosing who and how we become.  So, when you find yourself saying ‘oh, it’s just how I am‘ remember, you’ve practised yourself into how you are now AND you can practice your way out.

Three easy everyday creativity tips

Creativity is helpful for those particularly sticky challenges, but it’s also a great approach in daily life.  When we get too wrapped up in the minutia of our days, we operate mostly on automatic pilot. Although that’s fine for some things, it’s often not the best approach if we’re feeling fed-up, upset, or generally unmotivated.  And, it’s even easier to be swept up in autopilot with all the time most of us are spending at home.

Here are three easy everyday tips to break into our natural creativity.

1. Let go.  If you’re trying to solve a problem, whether an external one (re-organising the kitchen, getting that project on track) or an internal one (feeling unmotivated, or frustrated), often the harder and longer we try to tackle it, the more we get stuck.  When it’s our inner state, we might get stuck in rumination, going over and over the problem – and whereas the intention is good, the effect is often not.  One of my favourite ‘scientific’ models, because of its overly complicated name for such a simple thing, is transient hypofrontality – temporarily not thinking much.  That’s not to dismiss the effect though (or the work of Prof. Arne Dietrich who studied it).

When you’re engaged in something like washing up, exercise, or showering, it’s light enough that your brain can also run the more complex work of insight in the background.  Most ‘aha’ moments come when we’re not in the heat of the moment, but later when we’re driving, washing up, exercising…  When you allow yourself to let go and engage in something functional, it’s like the brain can get down to what it’s really good at.

2. Do something different.  It’s easy to think of what we can’t do, but what could you do that’s different from usual?  Perhaps you know someone who loves jigsaws, but it’s not your thing, do one anyway;  write a poem about a problem you’re working on; get a games lesson from a young person; walk in the woods; make a papier-mache tree, or learn how to say the alphabet backwards.  Doing something novel is a great way to allow your mind out of its usual box, and novel experiences enhance our creative insight.

3. Read or watch something creative or uplifting.  Just reading about someone creative (recent for me are Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic and The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin), watching an imaginative movie, or a movie about someone or something creative, like Dead Poets Society, or Eat, Love, Pray or something else uplifting, Slumdog Millionaire or Pursuit of Happyness perhaps, can also help to break out of that one-track mind.  Or delving into some of those TED videos you’ve put on the back-burner.

The pandemic restrictions will ease at some point, so, have a go a nudging your creative-o-meter before all that ‘normal’ stuff floods back in.

(Check out other creativity related posts)

Have you improved your resilience?

We went into a protective COVID-19 lockdown, then came out.  We had a mostly glorious summer.  Then, schools, colleges and universities went back to having students in classrooms with people standing in front of them teaching (who’d have thought this would ever be a surprising thing?).  There were some real challenges in universities initially, but things even there are heading back towards ‘normal’.  Even if you have no direct connection to people starting back to full-time education, you may be impacted by the slow creep of our old normality re-establishing itself, even if we have to wear face coverings whenever we’re close to others.  Now we’re back into a lockdown.

Near the start of the lockdown version 1, my monthly newsletter mentioned how we might be adapting to the new normal… and then we started to go back to our old normal, and now a slightly new normal.  The signs look good for a 2021 COVID-19 vaccine (e.g. see The Conversation here), so things are likely to swing back, but this is a time of testing.  So what have you learned about yourself?

Shakespeare’s Hamlet includes the phrase, “There is nothing good or bad, only thinking makes it so.” I dislike this quote because we could read it as blame – if you’re suffering, it’s your own fault – a mostly unhelpful perspective in my view.  Some of us are dealing with higher vulnerability, perhaps with the loss of loved ones, financial or relationship challenges and many other issues caused by a situation that we couldn’t reasonably predict.

But, it also represents an element of hope.  How we feel doesn’t have to be the whole story.  Psychological flexibility is a key aspect of resilience.  If we’re flexible, we’re more likely to see options and opportunities.  Unfortunately, unpleasant emotion – anger, fear, frustration, sadness and so on – tend to take away flexibility.  They can cause us to narrow our attention to the object of our emotion.

My own experience of homeschooling my eleven-year-old son during the first lockdown is a good example for me.  Math’s was a real challenge.  I would get frustrated, he would get frustrated – and in that frustration, we would close down, lose flexibility.  I couldn’t see another way!  Explaining something in a slightly louder higher-pitched voice, for some reason didn’t help.

Eventually, I would take a break.  Slowly, alternative ways of describing a problem or ways of dealing with the situation would creep in.  Over the weeks, I learned a lot – yes, about my son, and about angles in triangles (it’s been a long time), but I also learned how to spot and manage my and my sons rising frustration before it took away our flexibility.

I learned to be aware of the rising frustration and work with it through mindfulness, which itself is a learnable skill that has been invaluable in my own life.  I’m sure that you have been through change, and with that change have developed.  In what ways have you developed that will help you deal constructively with future challenge and adversity?

There’s nothing quite like real life for learning lessons – but it also requires an openness to learning.  William B. Urvine’s book, The Stoic Challenge, describes seeing challenges as tests of your ability to get through something while maintaining creative control of your choices [that’s my summary] – which is one way of maintaining a creative and realistic outlook.

Perhaps you feel like you know yourself a little better, know when to take a break, or when to speak openly with friends or others who will support you.  How the amount of sleep you have impacted you for better or worse;  how to mentally stand-back, maybe taking a few breaths to gain some perspective rather than ploughing into an argument?  Maybe you’ve learned how much impact your environment has on how you think and operate?  Perhaps you’re a little more open to change, able to adapt more flexibly?

Reflect, and see how the challenges of recent times have helped you develop.

Using daily life to grow resilience

Schools and colleges shortly universities have gone back to having students in classrooms with people standing in front of them teaching.  Who’d have thought this would ever be a surprising thing?  Even if you have no direct connection to people starting back to full-time education you may be impacted by the slow creep of our old normality re-establishing itself, even if we have to wear face coverings whenever we’re in close proximity to others.

Near the start of the lockdown, my post Staying flexible when it’s tough mentioned how we may be adapting to the new normal… and now we’re doing it again!  The signs look good for a 2021 COVID-19 vaccine (e.g. see The Conversation here), but this is a time of testing, so what have we learned about ourselves?  I don’t mean as a whole, I mean each of us as individuals.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet includes the phrase, “There is nothing good or bad, only thinking makes it so.”  I dislike this quote because we could read it as blame – if you’re suffering, it’s your own fault – a wholely unhelpful perspective in my view!  Some of us are dealing with higher vulnerability, perhaps with the loss of loved ones, financial challenges and many other issues entirely caused by the situation that we couldn’t reasonably predict.

But, there’s also some truth in there, and it represents an element of hope.  How we feel, doesn’t have to be the whole story.  Psychological flexibility is a key aspect of resilience.  If we’re flexible we’re more likely to see options and opportunities.  Unfortunately, unpleasant emotion – anger, fear, frustration, sadness and so on – tend to take away flexibility.  They can cause us to narrow our attention to the object of our emotion.

My own experience of homeschooling my eleven-year-old son is a good example for me.  Math’s was a real challenge.  I would get frustrated, he would get frustrated – and in that frustration, we would close down, lose flexibility.  I couldn’t see another way!  Explaining something in a slightly louder higher-pitched voice, for some reason didn’t help.

Eventually, I would take a break.  Slowly, alternative ways of describing a problem, or ways of dealing with a situation would creep in.  Over the weeks, I learned a lot – yes, about my son, and about angles in triangles (it’s been a long time), but I also learned how to spot and manage my and my sons rising frustration more frequently before it took away our flexibility.

This ability to be aware of the rising frustration and work with it are aspects of awareness, which is a learnable skill – most commonly through mindfulness training – that has been invaluable in my own life… and of course something that I’ve now been teaching for seven years (see Mindfulness at work, or my public courses).