Everybody experiences painful emotions. From anxiety and grief to shame and disappointment, emotional suffering is both universal and unavoidable.
And yet, how we respond to emotional suffering varies dramatically from person to person. For many people, emotional pain triggers a cascade of negative thoughts, self-defeating behavior, and increasingly painful emotions. While others seem to bounce back almost immediately from emotional pain.
The difference is this:
Emotional resilient people are able to experience profound levels of emotional pain without being consumed by it.
And while the ability to bounce back from difficult moods, painful emotions, and traumatic experiences can seem like a superpower, it’s not quite as mysterious as it looks.
It turns out, emotionally resilient people tend to have certain habits that maintain their emotional resilience and allow them to manage difficult feelings and experiences so well.
With study and practice, we can all learn to cultivate these habits ourselves and become more emotionally resilient.
1. Accepting reality for what it is
You can’t be emotionally resilient if you’re living in denial.
It’s human nature to want to avoid pain—including emotional pain. Who wouldn’t prefer to feel happy rather than sad? Confident rather than anxious? Content rather than guilty and ashamed?
In our desire to avoid emotional pain, we all develop defense mechanisms—subtle strategies designed to avoid the pain of difficult moods and emotions. And one of the most powerful defense mechanisms we use is denial.
Here’s how it works…
Suppose you notice your spouse is becoming a little more distant and detached in your relationship over the past few months. You also observe that they’re spending a surprising amount of time at the office, working long hours on a project with that new (and very attractive) coworker. The thought crosses your mind that your spouse could be having an affair, or getting dangerously close to it.
But no sooner than the thought enters your mind, you experience a wave of anxiety and dread, and tell yourself “Oh, that’s silly… There’s nothing going on.” And you continue on with life, noticing the distance more and more but telling yourself “everything is fine.”
Because the potential pain of discovering that your spouse is in fact cheating on you is so great, you deny that it’s even a possibility and go on with life pretending everything’s fine without addressing the issue at all.
While denial makes you feel better in the short-term, it fragilizes you in the long-term.
Reality always catches up to you eventually. But if you’ve spent all your time pretending things are fine, you’ve also been avoiding taking corrective measures to prepare yourself for something truly difficult. This makes you fragile and weak—the opposite of resilient.
Emotionally resilient people are willing to face up to reality quickly and endure some short-term pain because they know that it leads to better outcomes in the long-term:
- Talking about your grief is difficult, but it’s a lot healthier than bottling it up and using alcohol to deal with it.
- Confronting your fears and anxieties head-on makes you more confident and self-assured in the long run.
- Acknowledging your mistakes quickly instead of getting defensive and blaming others makes life a lot easier long-term.
Emotionally resilient people understand that dealing with reality head-on is difficult but empowering. It’s how we learn and grow and become emotionally strong.
Reality always wins in the end. Better to be on the winning side from the beginning.
2. Cultivating purpose
It’s a lot easier to avoid getting lost if you have a map.
Consider the chronic worrier: Anytime you have a quiet moment, your mind always seems to drift toward worries and fears, leading to you getting stuck in vicious cycles of anxiety and stress.
You know you shouldn’t keep worrying, but it’s difficult to move your attention away from your worries. It’s as if the negatives in your life have this intense mental gravity that keeps pulling your mind toward them. And even if you manage to refocus on something else for a moment, the worries and negatives pull your attention back.
Emotionally resilient people have worries and fears too. The difference is, they also have strong, compelling positives in their lives that ‘outcompete’ the negatives. For example:
- It’s a lot easier to stop worrying if you have an exciting hobby to think about and get lost in.
- It’s a lot easier to avoid ruminating on past mistakes if you have a motivating goal you’re working toward.
- It’s a lot easier to let go of frustrations and resentments if you have new and exciting opportunities to look forward to.
In other words:
The secret weapon of emotionally resilient people is their strong sense of purpose.
When you have multiple things in your life that are meaningful and enjoyable and truly exciting to you, it makes it far easier to avoid getting sidetracked by negative patterns of thought and behavior.
But emotionally resilient people aren’t just lucky to have a strong sense of purpose… They actively cultivate purpose in their lives:
- They seek out new challenges because challenge leads to excitement and accomplishment and pride.
- They stick with new interests and hobbies because they know that the good stuff is always two or three layers deep.
- They practice curiosity, being interested in and open to new ideas and people.
Emotionally resilient people have a strong sense of purpose in their lives. But realize that ‘purpose’ doesn’t have to be something grandiose and magnificent. It can be as simple as a weekly hobby or a commitment to a small act of service.
If you want to be more emotionally resilient, work to cultivate little bits of purpose and meaning in your life instead of waiting around for them to fall in your lap.
3. Adapting to change willingly
Resilient people see change as an opportunity, not a threat.
For many people, change means dangers. Or at least discomfort. And so, they go about their lives consciously and unconsciously trying to keep things steady and stable, all in an attempt to minimize the emotional discomfort that goes along with changes in life.
Change is inevitable, whether you like it or not:
- People you love die or leave.
- Jobs and careers come and go.
- Friendships evolve and change.
- Plans get disrupted or ruined.
- Goals and priorities shift as quickly as the weather.
Life is change.
And if you’re not very good at dealing with change, it’s going to be a bumpy ride:
- People who struggle against change are often chronically resentful and disappointed because life never seems to go according to their plans.
- People who are afraid of change and try to avoid it, end up chronically anxious and overwhelmed.
- People who can’t stand interpersonal change, often end up lonely and isolated because they don’t allow themselves to be intimate for fear of getting hurt.
Emotionally resilient people embrace change by seeing it as an opportunity for growth and excitement and new experiences.
This doesn’t mean they’re Pollyannas who pretend that everything is good and always works out for the best. They acknowledge that change is hard and scary. But in addition to that, they work to see how opportunity and benefit can coexist with hardship and struggle:
- Losing a job can be an opportunity to explore a new career that better suits your interests and talents.
- Getting your book manuscript rejected can be an opportunity to find a publisher who’s a better fit for you and your book.
- Moving to a new city can be an opportunity to discover new interests and passions.
Look, I get that this probably sounds trite or cliche. But looking for opportunity in the face of adversity isn’t some cheap slogan or vacuous mantra—it’s a vital psychological skill. And if you want to become more emotionally resilient, you need to practice.
4. Controlling attention, not emotions
You can’t control your emotions any more than you can control the weather.
The concept of emotion regulation is actually a misnomer—or at least it’s misleading.
When people get told to work on regulating their emotions, they assume that they can regulate their emotions directly, like pumping the brakes on anxiety or anger.
But that’s not how emotions work. You can’t directly influence any emotion:
- You can’t turn up your happiness dial.
- You can’t slam the brakes on your anxiety.
- You can’t push the motivation button.
We can influence our emotions, but only indirectly by way of how we think and behave:
- If you tell yourself you’re a loser, your sadness will likely increase.
- If you remind yourself that making mistakes is normal and that now you know how to truly fix the problem, you’ll probably feel a little encouraged.
- If you write the first paragraph of that essay despite a complete lack of motivation, you’ll probably feel a little more motivated to write the second paragraph.
If you want to feel differently, you have to think and act differently.
But the gateway to changing your thinking and behavior is attention:
- To stop thinking of yourself as a loser, you need to shift your attention on to memories of when you’ve been successful.
- To remind yourself that mistakes are normal and feel encouraged, you have to shift your attention away from the mistake and on to what you can learn from it.
- To write that first paragraph despite feeling unmotivated, you have to shift your attention away from all the distractions you’d rather lose yourself in and keep it focused on your keyboard.
Emotionally resilient people know that trying to control your emotions directly is a fool’s errand. In addition to being a waste of time and energy, it can actually backfire: When you treat difficult emotions like problems to be solved, you train your brain to be afraid of its own emotion.
Instead, emotionally resilient people have a knack for temporarily ignoring how they feel and taking control of what they choose to focus on.
If you want to become more emotionally resilient, you must become a better steward of your attention.
5. Being curious about emotions, not combative
If you constantly try to get rid of painful emotions, you’re training your brain to be afraid of them.
The hallmark of emotionally fragile people is that they’re terrified of their own emotions:
- They get anxious about being sad.
- They get angry for feeling anxious.
- They feel guilty whenever they feel angry.
And because they’re so afraid of feeling any painful emotion, they design their lives around avoiding painful emotions:
- They avoid social situations that might make them feel embarrassed.
- They avoid taking on new challenges at work for fear of failure.
- They avoid having difficult conversations with their spouse for fear of somebody getting angry and upset.
And while all this avoidance of painful emotions ‘works’ in the short term, it’s devastating in the long-run.
Every time you try to get rid of or run away from a painful emotion, you’re teaching your brain that painful emotions are dangerous—threats to be monitored closely and then eliminated or escaped from when encountered.
This leads to a kind of constant hyper-vigilance to anything or anyone who might trigger a painful emotion. And the stress of living like this all the time is brutal.
But on top of that, when you do encounter a painful emotion, its intensity gets magnified because you add a second layer of fear on top of whatever other difficult emotion you experienced.
It’s hard enough feeling bad and without the burden of feeling bad for feeling bad.
Emotionally resilient people have the habit of being curious about difficult emotions instead of trying to avoid them.
- They approach painful feelings instead of running away from them.
- They ask questions about how they’re feeling instead of placing demands on their emotions.
- They validate their emotions as understandable if painful.
Cultivate an attitude of curiosity toward your emotions and they will become far more manageable than you could believe. And you’ll become far more resilient than you ever imagined.
Want to build emotional strength and resilience?
I teach a six-week course called Mood Mastery that’s all about building mental strength and resilience by cultivating a healthier relationship with your emotions. Learn more here →