The Richard Nicholls Podcast

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Episode 159: Resilience

Despite their setbacks and failures some people seem to have the ability to brush things off and bounce back almost stronger than before, they seem to have a grit and determination not to let bad experiences affect them. Is this something than can be learned?
I see resilience as a mixture of a few traits.

Firstly, the perspective that failure is normal. Something that helps us to learn.
Secondly, emotional intelligence. The ability to to see the difference between feeling rejected and feeling angry for example.
And thirdly, being an optimistic realist.

So, let’s look at these one by one.
Failure is normal.
The issue with this is that as adults we have more going on in our head than we did when we were 9 months old and learning to walk. I’ve said this many times but it bears repeating, as a child we don’t hold ourselves back. If we fall over as a toddler we don’t have the cognitive ability to tell ourselves how useless we are. We just try again and probably fall over again and so we try again and again until eventually we’re walking, running and jumping.
So, as adults when we see evidence that we can’t do something very well, we need to catch ourselves before we start the negative language that would only demotivate. Something that takes deliberate practice for it to become second nature. As well as an acceptance of the concept that getting something wrong is just a part of learning how to get it right.
This is the same process whether you’re learning to play the guitar, learning how to be a grown up or learning how to handle adversity in such a way that you’re able to simply take a deep breath and move on from it.
Which brings me onto the second trait.
Emotional intelligence.
Never under-estimate the influence that emotion has on your body and vice versa. When your brain sees that something unexpected has happened, when we get a signal that says our expectations have not been met, we WILL get a fight or flight response. It happens when we’re nicely surprised and it happens when things don’t go our way. The only difference is the way we process it in our mind. So if being excited and being anxious are pretty much exactly the same chemical and physiological changes, only with a different cognition that either makes it feel acceptable, in which case we just feel it and we’re ok, or it’s unacceptable in which case we feel it and it gets worse and worse with every thought we have. Then the thinking is the problem.
So it’s important to practise thinking differently about the response that unpleasant experiences gives you. This starts by taking as much control as you can. As I said, never under-estimate the influence that emotion has on your body “and vice versa”. Your body will help you to influence your emotions.
When stressed out, the fight or flight response is looking for oxygen, it wants you to either fight the sabre toothed tiger, or hide in your cave. To do that it diverts blood flow from unimportant places like your stomach and squirts adrenaline into your bloodstream to get whatever oxygen you’ve got moving to where it’s needed. That’s why we’re so often told to take a deep breath, from the bottom of your lungs, pushing your stomach out on the IN breath, holding for a few seconds and breathing out slowly, swapping carbon dioxide for oxygen and breathing in again, deeply. And then do it again, and then again if you have to.
Your brain receives a signal that says that there’s no need for adrenaline, because you have enough oxygen in the muscles to fight or flee if you have to. That the threat must have gone because you’ve stopped thinking about running away now because you’re too busy focussing on your breathing.
It gives you the ability to identify WHY you feel the way you do. Rather than just “That has made me feel bad” you can see whether or not it’s made you feel rejected, alone, jealous or angry. With a better understanding of why you feel the way you do, you can learn from it.
Learning from it builds resilience to it the next time, it allows you to bounce back.
Being an optimistic realist.
I often see people in therapy who have been optimists all the life, their glass has always been half full rather than half empty and they’ve always expected good things to happen. But guess what? Life’s not always like that. Sometimes things go wrong. Sometimes our partner leaves us, sometimes our friends reject us. All the optimism in the world won’t stop our boss from restructuring the department and making us redundant. No matter what our goal is, there will be set backs.
Why we need resilience
Why You Need Resilience
If you plot your life on a line graph heading upwards towards whatever success means to you, it’s not a straight line, it’s a mountain range of peaks and troughs that hopefully leads you towards where you want to be, but is certainly not plain sailing.
To be an optimist but ONLY expect things to go well can cause people to painfully crash down to earth. Now the opposite is to be pessimistic and to constantly say “What if this goes wrong?” which is just as painful a place to live. So if you catch yourself being the pessimist and saying “What if this goes wrong?” rather than trying to be the optimist who argues with that inner voice and says “But what if it goes right?” it can be very useful to continue the going wrong scenario onwards. Because you could be right, it might go wrong. But by continuing it on, you can find that eventually it doesn’t matter, the realist in you can be ok with idea of something not going the way you wanted it to, because the optimist in you can still dominate and process problems as just part of life. Because it’s true, you might not get the job you wanted because the interview didn’t go well, you might have to move house because the landlord wants to turn your home into flats.
But if you can focus on the idea that it doesn’t matter, upsetting as difficulties can be there’ll be a time when they’re just part of your past, eventually long past and maybe even forgotten.