20-somethings are often labelled a non-resilient ‘snowflake’ generation, and a quarter-life crisis is often met with an eye-roll and some mumbling around how we just need to ‘get on with it’. Recently I have found that most of my coaching conversations have led back to the topic of resilience, and I have noticed a more nuanced theme that seems to separate resilient and non-resilient people. Simply put, resilient individuals don’t try to control negative thoughts.
They seem to be able to accept two things:
- Negative thoughts are normal by-products of a difficult situation
- There is nothing we can do to change or stop negative thoughts, and doing so is a waste of time and energy
Here are two internal chains of events from a resilient and not-so resilient person to demonstrate the point:
The Not-So Resilient Person
When a not-so resilient person is triggered by a difficult event, a flood of negative thoughts arise. At this point, the individual will try their very best to regain control of the thoughts by trying to rationalise, change, or delete them. Here begins a negative cycle commonly known as a ‘spin’. Whilst all this energy is spent trying to prevent being washed away by a tide of internal chatter, there can only be two outcomes: the first is to react unhelpfully or unproductively, and the second is to not act at all.
The Resilient Person
When a resilient person is triggered by a difficult event, a flood of negative thoughts arise. The resilient person knows (either consciously or subconsciously) that trying to control thoughts does not work, and can accept them as a normal by-product of a difficult event. By accepting this, they bypass the spin and gain the mental space to be able to decide how to act helpfully and productively to the situation. In short, giving up control of thoughts allows us to gain control over our behaviour.
The important thing to note is that both individuals feel the negative thoughts. The difference is the degree to which they try to control them. Perhaps some people are born with a larger ‘resilience muscle’ than others, but just like a muscle, resilience can be strengthened with practice and time.
How To Strengthen The Resilience Muscle
- Notice when the negative thoughts arise and the wave of sensations they bring
- WAIT before acting. Do anything that will help you wait a moment, sing a little song in your head, take 5 breaths or ask yourself: ‘is what I am about to do helpful?’. There is a reason why parents say to children to count to 10 before reacting to a situation. By doing this, they can let their initial reaction pass through so that they can be in a better frame of mind to choose how they want to react.
- STOP TRYING TO CONTROL THE THOUGHTS. Remember it is pointless to spend your energy on trying to do this. It does not work and is like poking an angry bear.
- Ask yourself ‘what would be the best possible thing I could do in this situation?’ and do that.
Of course, this is much easier said than done, but unfortunately there is no silver bullet for being resilient. It is gritty and uncomfortable, especially when your resilience muscle is weak. Similarly to how the first few months in the gym are the hardest, it takes determination and repeated practice for our muscles to start to grow. And although we may never stop feeling the strain entirely, we may begin to feel comfortable with the discomfort.
If you have any tips about dealing with discomfort, or about the topic of resilience in general, I would love to hear your thoughts.