Resilience - Chapter 2

Charlottesville, Virginia

May 4, 2020



Studies have shown that even among children exposed to several risk factors -- like poverty, poor parenting, and genetic loading for mental illness -- only half succumb. The other half thrive. How? When we examine the interviews with these children through the lens of our notion of resilience, we see that the children applied their resilience in all four ways identified in Chapter 1. They overcame the early obstacles of poverty, ill health, and abuse, steered through the ongoing adversity of absentee parents, and had enough resilience to reach out for life’s adventures and new experiences.

Early childhood circumstances affect a person’s resilience well into adulthood. Why are these effects so longlasting? Because they shape children’s belief systems and abilities, and these remain stable even as they grow into adults.

Resilient people:

1. They are able to monitor and regulate their own emotions and monitor the emotional states of others.

2. They stay focused and intent on solving problems.

3. They can accurately distinguish between those aspects of an adversity over which they have control and those they do not.

4. They rate high on self-efficacy -- they believe they can master their environment and they have the confidence to take action.

5. They have strong connections to others, and they rely on those connections to help them through the tough times. And those who reach out see challenges as opportunities and they are willing to take risks if it means broadening their lives.

Non-resilient people lack these abilities and beliefs.

Childhood environmental factors -- such as poverty, divorce, mentally ill parents -- are history. They are beyond our ability to change. But beliefs can be changed and abilities can be boosted.

The nature of resilience shows that it is comprised of seven abilities:

1. emotion regulation,

2. impulse control,

3. empathy,

4. optimism,

5. causal analysis,

6. self-efficacy, and

7. reaching out.

These seven concrete factors can be measured, taught, and improved.

The seven skills we have developed are designed to boost the seven abilities.

1. Emotion Regulation and Resilience

Emotion Regulation is the ability to stay calm under pressure. Resilient people use a well-developed set of skills that help them to control their emotions, attention, and behavior. Self-regulation is important for forming intimate relationships, succeeding at work, and maintaining physical health. People who have difficulty regulating their emotions often emotionally exhaust their partners at home and are difficult to work with. Research shows that people who lack the ability to regulate their emotions have a hard time building and maintaining friendships. There are probably many reasons why this is so, the most basic of which is that negativity is a turnoff. People don’t like to spend time with people who are angry, sullen, or anxious. Not only is it a drain, but emotions are contagious.

Just as life’s luster is dulled if we keep our emotions under total wraps, so does being a slave to your emotions interfere with your resilience and drain it from those around you.

Some people are prone to experience greater amounts of anxiety, sadness, and anger than others and have a harder time regaining control once they are upset. They are more likely to get stuck in their anger, sadness, or anxiety and are less effective at coping with adversity and solving problems. And they find it nearly impossible to reach out to others and new experiences when they are being held captive by their emotions.

The most effective strategies for regulating emotions are those that work to alter your beliefs about adversity -- the actual thoughts you have when problems arise and that are the source of your emotions.

2. Impulse Control and Resilience

The marshmallow experiment.

Those children who could control their impulses, who could delay the gratification of one marshmallow to get two, were doing significantly better socially and academically 10 years later.

It makes intuitive sense that emotion regulation and impulse control are closely related. The connection in these areas exists because they tap into similar belief systems in us. So if your impulse control is low, you will accept your first impulsive belief about the situation as true and act accordingly. Often this produces negative consequences that can hamper your resilience. As with emotion regulation, the first key skill for impulse control is Learning Your ABCs (Chapter 4).

ABC tracks how our thoughts determine our emotions and behavior. Having mastered ABC, you can move to Avoiding Thinking Traps, which will guide you to detect the impulsive beliefs you commonly entertain and how they work to derail your resiliency. And once you get to Challenging Beliefs, you’ll be able to boost your impulse control and generate more accurate thoughts that will lead to better emotion regulation and result in more resilient behavior.

3. Optimism and Resilience

Resilient people are optimistic. They believe that things can change for the better. They have hope for the future and believe that they control the direction of their lives. Compared to pessimists, optimists are physically healthier, are less likely to suffer depression, do better in school, are more productive at work, and win more in sports.

Optimism means that we see our futures as relatively bright. Optimism implies that we believe we have the ability to handle the adversities that will inevitably arise in the future. And this reflects our sense of self-efficacy, our faith in our ability to solve our own problems and master our world, which is another important ability in resilience.

Optimism and self-efficacy often go hand in hand. Optimism is a boon if it is linked with true self-efficacy because optimism motivates you to search for solutions and to keep working hard to improve your situation.

The key to resilience and success, then, is to have realistic optimism coupled with self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is a result of successful problem solving, which in turn can be significantly enhanced using “Challenging Beliefs” and “Putting It in Perspective” -- two skills that enable us to gain mastery over those elements of our world that are in our control.

4. Causal Analysis and Resilience

Causal analysis refers to people’s ability to accurately identify the causes of their problems. If we’re unable to assess the causes of our problems accurately, then we are doomed to make the same mistakes over and over again. “Explanatory style” is a thinking style that’s particularly important to causal analysis. It’s the habitual way you explain the good and bad things that happen to you. Everyone’s explanatory style can be coded on three dimensions:

  1. personal (“me – not me”),

  2. permanent (“always – not always”), and

  3. pervasive (“everything – not everything”) ways of thinking.

A “Me, Always, Everything” person automatically, reflexively believes that she caused the problem (me), that it is lasting and unchangeable (always), and that it will undermine all aspects of her life (everything).

When problems arise, a “Not Me, Not Always, Not Everything” person believes that other people or circumstances caused the problem (not me), that it is fleeting and changeable (not always), and that it will not affect much of her life (not everything). Such a person interprets the same situations very differently from the “Me, Always, Everything” person.

It’s easy to see how explanatory style affects our causal analysis. Those people who ruminate about the “always - everything” causes of their problems cannot see a way to change their situation. They become helpless and hopeless. People who focus on the “not always - not everything” causes are galvanized and capable of generating solutions that they can put into action. But the most resilient people are those who have cognitive flexibility and can identify all the significant causes of the adversities they face, without being trapped in any specific explanatory style. They are realists in that they do not ignore the factors that are permanent and pervasive. They also don’t reflexively blame others for their mistakes in order to preserve their self-esteem or absolve themselves of guilt. Nor do they waste their valuable reserves of resilience ruminating about events or circumstances outside their control. They channel their problem-solving resources into the factors they can control,and, through incremental

change, they begin to overcome, steer through, bounce back, and reach out.

5. Empathy and Resilience

Your empathy represents how well you’re able to read other people’s cues to their psychological and emotional states. Some of us are adept at interpreting what psychologists call the nonverbals of others -- their facial expressions, their tone of voice, their body language -- and determining what people are thinking and feeling.

Others have not developed these skills and therefore are unable to place themselves in the other person’s shoes, estimating what the person must feel and predicting what he or she is likely to do. This inability to read nonverbal cues can be costly in business, where progression through the ranks often requires networking skills, and for managers, whose job it is to understand how best to motivate their employees. It also can be costly in personal relationships, where people need to feel understood and valued. People low in empathy, even well-intentioned ones, tend to repeat the same old non-resilient patterns of behavior, and they’re known to “bulldoze” others’ emotions and desires.

[I continue to think that compassion is more important than empathy. But the two go hand in hand.]

6. Self-efficacy and Resilience

Self-efficacy is our sense that we are effective in the world. It represents our beliefs that we can solve the problems we are likely to experience and our faith in our ability to succeed.

At work, people who have faith in their ability to solve problems emerge as leaders, while those who aren’t confident about their efficacy find themselves lost in the crowd. They unintentionally broadcast their self-doubt, and their colleagues listen -- and learn to seek the counsel of others.

7. Reaching Out and Resilience

Resilience is not just about overcoming, steering through, and bouncing back from adversity. Resilience also enables us to enhance the positive aspects of life. Resilience is the source of our ability to reach out, and a surprising number of people can’t do it. Why are some people afraid of reaching out? For some people, it’s because they learned early in life that embarrassment was to be avoided at all costs. Better to remain in one’s shell, even if it means a life of mediocrity, than to expose oneself to public failure and ridicule. For others this reflects the tendency to overestimate the likelihood of future adversity. And people often overvalue sins of commission and underplay sins of omission. That is, failure due to an action is falsely considered more detrimental to success than the failure to act.

The reaching out of other people is compromised by their fear of plumbing the true limits of their ability. People with this thinking style, known as self-handicapping, subconsciously place limits on themselves: “If I don’t try and then don’t succeed I can always tell myself that I failed because I didn’t really try, rather than having to face the fact that I just might not be good enough.” Such people tend to overestimate the probability that failed attempts will lead to catastrophic outcomes.

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