Resilience—the ability to recover quickly from setbacks—is an enormously valuable skill.
It might seem more like a personality trait than a skill, but (lucky for us) resilience is something we can develop. And there’s no doubt it’s worth developing—both common sense and scientific literature (check out the work of Norman Garmezy and George Bonnano) tell us that if we can bounce back from problems fairly easily, we’re likely to lead more effective and enjoyable lives.
I’ve worked hard to become more resilient, and though I’ve got a long way to go, I can tell you from personal experience that it’s worth working on. Below are 6 ways to get started!
1. Adjust your worldview: expect change
Here’s one of the worst positions we can find ourselves in: desperately attached to our current circumstances.
There’s a big difference between “Oh no—this looks like change. How could this be happening? How do I stop it?” and “Well, I knew change was coming eventually, and here it is. Time to adapt.”
Learning to expect change is more of a shift in mindset than anything else. And while nobody’s prepared for truly life-shattering events, we can all decide to expect and accept minor changes more readily.
2. Let yourself mope, but set a time limit
Bad stuff happens. Sometimes it’s our fault, and sometimes it’s not. Either way, we all have a tendency to bemoan our circumstances and feel sorry for ourselves.
I think that’s okay—for a set period of time.
My bike was stolen last Monday. It vanished from my front porch in the middle of the night. In addition to messing up my daily rhythm (it was my primary vehicle), there was an emotional component to the damage—it had been my Grandpa’s bike.
I knew intellectually that a stolen bike is not the end of the world. I have multiple bikes, and my connection with my Grandpa isn’t based on any physical object. But I was still frustrated, and I tried to let myself be frustrated for a while. I gave myself a day to wallow in self-pity. After that, I tried to focus on the lesson to be learned:
”You don’t live in a utopian paradise, dude. Lock your bike!”
By the way, if you see a black Diamondback Centurion Interval whizzing around the streets of Kirksville, please let me know.
3. Remember past difficulties you’ve overcome
We’ve all been through more than we realize.
I suggest a brief exercise: make a list of all the major setbacks you’ve overcome. From major depression to getting fired, write them all down. The next time you’re shaken by some new problem, read over your list. You’ll think, “Wow, look what I’ve been through. This new challenge doesn’t stand a chance. I will crush it like a bug, ignoring its strangled cries for mercy.”
Or something like that.
4. Embrace long-term thinking
Aside from the death of a loved one or a terminal illness, nothing is as serious as it seems at first. It often takes us a long time to realize this, but it doesn’t have to.
When you’re knocked off your feet, pivoting quickly to long-term thinking is a great habit to develop. Here’s a specific question to ask yourself as soon as possible after a setback (I do this all the time):
”Will this matter in 5 years?
The answer is almost always “definitely not.” This is a habit that I’ve developed with careful practice, and I can now employ it at will. It’s highly calming, and it comes in handy almost weekly.
5. Focus on someone who has it worse
We’re self-centered creatures, and we struggle to see our own experiences from a broader perspective. Placing our hardships in their proper context is a great way to feel better very quickly, and here are two ways to do so:
Read about someone who’s survived, (or even thrived in) worse circumstances than yours. Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl survived horrors most of us can’t even imagine, losing most of his family as he struggled for survival in three Nazi concentration camps. Out of his experiences came the famous book Man’s Search for Meaning and monumental contributions to the field of psychiatry.
Help someone who’s worse off than you. You’ll make yourself feel better in the process, both because your focus is turned away from your own problems and because helping others just makes us feel good.
6. Learn to observe your emotions instead of following their instructions
This is just a hypothesis—I can’t back it up with data—but I wonder if you’ve noticed the same thing: Many top performers seem to view their emotions dispassionately. They don’t give too much credence to how they feel in any given moment; instead, they take note of those feelings and return to the task at hand.
Consider Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, who in 2009 deftly landed US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson river after both engines failed. He saved 155 lives.
Suddenly a national icon, Capt. Sullenberger gave an interview with Katie Couric shortly after the incident. It’s a fascinating interview. Throughout, he describes ignoring his emotional state and doggedly focusing on the task at hand. In our own, smaller-scale crises, we can practice the same discipline.
Whatever your current life circumstances: remember that resilience is a skill. We can become far more resilient, and doing so is a goal worth pursuing.