Our effectiveness in enduring discouragement, hurt, pain and trauma while navigating life and creating acceptable or highly desirable outcomes is greatly determined by the quality of our emotional resilience.
We don’t talk about it much and we vary in our level of development and skill yet it’s vital to gain a deeper understanding and realize it’s a critical life requirement in our professional and personal lives.
“A standard definition is the ability to bounce back from difficult situations,” Rachel Green says of resilience. Green, the Director of the Emotional Intelligence Institute and a specialist in emotional intelligence coaching and development, however, likes to define it differently.
“I personally prefer a broader definition which includes not only bouncing back after getting stuck in some emotional baggage or painful experience but also not getting sucked down into emotional tension, stress or discord in the first place,” she says.
“At a practical level this means that if someone makes a snide comment to you, you are able to let it wash over you like water off a duck’s back instead of harbouring hurt, taking it to bed with you and plotting revenge at 3 a.m.”
That quality of response might not be natural for most people yet it is possible to learn, develop into a competency and quite possibly master.
“A high level of emotional intelligence is required for this level of resilience to be a consistent action,” Green says. “We all differ in our level of emotional intelligence and in our reactions to different emotions.”
She explains just how different we can be under sharp emotions, something to consider when interacting with different people.
“Some of us can feel overwhelmed by pressure and some of us can be excited by it. In contrast, others may be able to ride over negativity and nasty comments and dismiss them logically, while others are hurt and wounded by them far more easily. These kinds of factors naturally impact on our ability to stay emotionally resilient,” Green says.
Just because we struggle now with our resiliency however doesn’t mean we are beyond becoming stronger in capacity and practice. Green uses herself as an example of continual improvement and gained benefits.
“It is an ongoing journey for me to develop emotional resilience in my own life. I was easily hurt and labeled as ‘too sensitive’ when I was growing up, but now I have a far better balance in what upsets me and what doesn’t,” she says. I have my goal every day to stay calm. I don’t always make it but I do far more than I used to and I am more resilient and less buffered by the emotional turmoils of other people now.”
She asserts that humankind innately has a foundation for resiliency already present in our psychological programming.
“At a very basic level we are all resilient, otherwise we would not survive from childhood to adulthood. However, like all skills, we differ in our levels of it,” Green says. “We will all have experienced different situations, had different role-models, been exposed to different techniques, have different emotional make-up and have individual genetic variations.”
In the most challenging of times, individually, socially or within an organization, Green has learned who best navigates through high stress and anxiety well.
“The people who are successful, especially in times of crisis or change are the ones who have resilience and agility, emotional agility,” she says. “The person who is resilient is more likely to smoothly and quietly deal with difficulties as they arise.”
She says there are a few tenets to know and remember.
“Emotional resilience is a habit. Emotional resilience can be learnt and developed. Emotional resilience occurs because of what we do,” Green says.
She says there are three pillars that we should aim to learn and develop into reliable skills.
Keep calm. Being calm does not mean we let people walk all over us but that we are far more likely to be able to think clearly and well.
Calm down quickly if we do get upset. Emotional reversibility is vital. I consider self-soothing a great asset for resilience and emotional well-being.
In most circumstances it is not how we feel that matters but what we do with the feelings and that’s where emotional intelligence comes in.
Being able to understand what we are feeling, to know the cause, and then to be able to process and release the emotions, that’s what may help us to stay resilient. We cannot afford to stay stuck in (stressful) emotions for any length of time without it taking a toll.
Generate pleasant emotions deliberately, on a daily basis, irrespective of our surroundings and how the people near us are feeling.
Unfortunately, many of us have only been taught to manage our anger and to try and avoid emotions such as anxiety.
We may not have not been taught how to evoke, savor and notice the pleasant emotions that keep us well. If I am generating pleasant emotions there is far less space inside me for the other more painful emotions to arise and develop.
There are many techniques that we can all learn to help us to self-soothe, stay calm and process our emotions to return to a more positive place.
Different techniques suit individual people and it’s important that each one of us experiment with a variety of techniques to find out which brings us the greatest emotional adaptive abilities.
Techniques range from journal writing, painting, toning through to exercise, meditation and tapping.
In association with this, we need to develop high levels of emotional self-awareness and a strong habit of self-reflection.
If we understand what triggers strong emotional responses in us, we can prepare to manage or circumvent them when we know they may arise.
For example, if I know that I am going to have a difficult meeting I will practice loving-kindness meditation the night before and send kind thoughts and feelings to the people that I will be meeting. This helps me to be calm on the day.
Green says society benefits more from understanding and feeling comfortable with and managing their emotions rather than just talking about ‘mental health.’
“Why don’t we name the emotional condition? We don’t say ‘he has a physical problem,’ we say ‘he has a sore shoulder,’ she says. “Therefore, let’s say ‘he is anxious about being unemployed’ or ‘he feels lonely living on his own.’ Labeling all emotional aspects of our lives as ‘mental health’ still leaves us wondering what is wrong and why it is not being called out for what it is.
Green provides an example from sports.
“I notice, for instance, that if one of our football players has to take time out for his mental health we are never told why, yet we are told if he is going in for surgery on his groin. Why can we not just be told he’s ‘feeling dismayed because his mother died.’ then we would understand and not be frightened,” she says.
Green’s commitment and passion is to help healthy people feel comfortable with uncomfortable emotions. She describes how this is accomplished.
“First of all, I think we need to develop our emotional literacy. Many of us have a very limited vocabulary of feeling words and yet, if we were to go online, we would probably find up to 3,000 words in English that describe emotions,” she says. “When we can name the emotion accurately, and know what it is, we have some chance of becoming comfortable with it.”
The next step is a rocky road for most people.
“There is a second step in becoming comfortable with uncomfortable emotions and that is to be able to stand back and watch what really happens. Emotions are not permanent, they arise and they fade away,” she says. “Yet we react to them as if uncomfortable emotions are going to be there forever and we will never escape from them, and so we become more frightened.”
From that point, Green suggests curiosity, patience and honesty with ourselves.
“It can also help if we look at why we have the emotions and then take the necessary action,” she says. “For example, we might be feeling gutted. Why do we feel such an overwhelming sense of sadness? The sadness is telling us that we have lost something very significant to us and we need to be able to acknowledge this.”
This process can prove informative, educational and valuable.
“We need to learn that emotions contain useful information for us and if we look for that information and acknowledge it, then uncomfortable emotions may be easier to tolerate,” Green says.
The benefits are clear, she says.
“This gives us far more choice in our lives because we are not left at the mercy of our emotions nor constantly trying to run away from those that are uncomfortable, and therefore our resilience will be stronger.”