Most people think about emotional resilience as a skill, something you can build and train with practice.
And even though this is partly true, there’s a deeper truth about emotional resilience that most of us miss:
Becoming emotionally resilient is often about what you do less of, not more of.
As a psychologist, I work with many people who look like though they don’t have much emotional resilience:
- The slightest fear or anxiety throws them into spirals of worry and panic
- The smallest negative comment leads to instant insecurity and self-doubt
- Small frustrations quickly escalate into hours or days of angry rumination
But most people don’t actually lack the capacity for emotional resilience. Instead, they’re held back from their innate emotional resilience by a collection of bad habits that get in the way.
If you’d like to become more emotionally resilient, learn to identify these habits in your own life and work to eliminate them. I think you’ll find that your natural emotional resilience is not far behind.
1. Beating yourself up after mistakes
After the fact, it’s not so hard to see that kicking yourself when you’re down is not an especially good way to get better—much less feel better.
And yet, in the heat of the moment—immediately following a mistake—so many of us instinctively go straight to intense self-criticism:
- God, why do I have to be such a screw-up all the time.
- That’s it, now everybody’s gonna know what a fake I am and how I don’t deserve any of this.
- Why can’t I just be more like Jessica? She’s also so cool and confident…
But self-criticism only makes us feel worse about ourselves. And in the long run, the worse we feel about ourselves, the harder it is to perform well and live up to our potential in any situation—from our work to our marriage.
So why do we do it? Why do we instantly beat ourselves up as soon as we make even the smallest mistake?
Self-criticism is often an unconscious attempt to motivate ourselves to do better.
See, most of us grow up learning that in order to succeed, we need to be hard on ourselves. So we go through life, beating ourselves up, managing to be relatively successful anyway, and assume that we’re successful because of our self-criticism and negative self-talk.
But here’s the thing:
Most successful people are a success despite their self-criticism, not because of it.
Emotionally resilient people know that self-criticism is completely counterproductive. Of course a little self-reflection after mistakes is often a helpful thing, but that’s very different than the judgmental, harsh, and even nasty forms of self-criticism most of us self-inflict.
If you want to become more emotionally resilient—to be able to handle setbacks and mistakes calmly and with balance—try letting go of your habit of self-criticism:
- Let go of all the negative self-talk.
- Let go of the self-judgment.
- Let go of the perfectionism and unreasonably high standards.
If you do, not only will you be happier, but you’ll probably perform better too.
Simplicity, patience, compassion. These three are your greatest treasures.
– Lao Tzu
2. Taking things personally
Deep down, I think most of us understand that when people criticize us, it’s usually not personal—the other person doesn’t mean we’re a terrible, incompetent person and they’re not trying to be mean.
But in the moment it sure feels that way:
- Our blood boils with anger and resentment
- We get immediately anxious and insecure
- We feel a wave of shame and embarrassment
Many people learn at a young age that criticism of a behavior means criticism of the person.
If you have a history like this, you learned to internalize any kind of criticism as a mark against their character or self-worth.
And even though you’ve grown up, circumstances have changed, and you actually know intellectually that people aren’t attacking you personally, it still feels that way.
Taking things too personally is usually the result of subtle habits of negative self-talk.
A couple of examples:
- Even though you know intellectually that your boss respects you as a person, her criticism of your most recent proposal feels like a slight against your character. The reason? Because the first thing that runs through your mind is a negative self-talk script like Ugh, she probably thinks I’m an idiot.
- Even though you know intellectually that your spouse loves and respects you, his recent criticism of how you handled your son’s meltdown feels like he thinks you’re an awful person and probably unlovable. The reason? Because the first thing that ran through your mind was I’m such a bad parent. He should have married someone else.
How we habitually feel is the result of how we habitually think.
Emotionally resilient people know that the way they talk to themselves about what other people say—the story they tell themselves—is what matters most.
If you want to stop taking things so personally and overreacting to criticisms, you must change your story about what criticism means.
Even though you feel like the character in a bad story, remember that you are also the author of your story. Change your story and you will change how you feel.
Self-consciousness is the enemy of all art, be it acting, writing, painting, or living itself, which is the greatest art of all.
― Ray Bradbury
Rely on coping skills
The trouble with coping skills is that they treat the symptoms but not the underlying cause:
- Deep breathing exercises may reduce your stress a little in the moment, but it does nothing for the fact that you’re working a job that makes you miserable and chronically stressed.
- Repeating a positive mantra may help you feel a little better about yourself right now, but it won’t fix the fact that you consistently break promises to yourself and have low self-esteem as a result.
But there’s an even bigger problem with coping skills: You become dependent on them…
- When you call your sister for reassurance every time you feel anxious, your muscle for confidently managing your own anxiety atrophies.
- When you watch those inspirational YouTube videos each time you feel unmotivated, you weaken your ability to do hard things even when you don’t feel good.;
When you rely too much on coping skills you end up ignoring the real problems, and eventually, losing sight of them altogether.
If you want to be more resilient, stop relying on coping skills and build better habits instead.
Here are just a few examples:
- Instead of practicing dozens of stress management techniques, get in the habit of managing your stressors instead.
- Instead of avoiding or placating difficult people in your life, get in the habit of being assertive and enforce healthy boundaries.
- Instead of looking to other people for reassurance and relief, work to build better habits of self-talk.
Coping skills should be a last resort.
True emotional resilience comes from cultivating good habits that make coping skills necessary in the first place.
Through pride we are ever deceiving ourselves. But deep down below the surface of the average conscience a still, small voice says to us, something is out of tune.
― Carl Jung
Running away from your emotions
Trick question: When you touch your finger on a hot frying pan and feel pain shooting through your hand, is the pain bad?
Answer: Definitely not!
In fact, it’s just the opposite: the pain is a good thing.
Pain is the body’s way of signaling to you that something’s wrong. When your finger rests on the hot pan, the pain isn’t actually dangerous. What’s dangerous is the tissue damage that would happen if you left your finger on the pan. Pain is just the messenger trying to help you.
Well, it’s the same principle with emotional pain:
- Anxiety doesn’t feel good, but it’s your brain’s way of telling you it thinks you’re in danger. Anxiety itself isn’t bad.
- Frustration doesn’t feel good but it’s your brain’s way of telling you something isn’t right and needs to be corrected. Frustration itself isn’t bad.
- Grief doesn’t feel good but it’s your brain’s way of telling you that you’ve lost something incredibly valuable in your life. Grief itself isn’t bad.
Trouble is, most of us have spent our entire lives making a simple but powerful mistake:
We assume that when something feels bad it is bad.
So we learn to try and avoid painful feelings because we assume they are actually bad for us.
Unfortunately, when you get in the habit of running away from your painful moods and emotions, you train your brain to believe that they are in fact dangerous.
This means the next time you feel sad or anxious or angry, you’re going to feel bad about feeling bad.
And this is why so many people struggle to be resilient in the face of painful emotions: Every emotion instantly becomes a double emotion when you’ve trained yourself to see them as dangerous.
- This is why anxiety about anxiety leads to panic.
- This is why anger about sadness often leads to depression.
As human beings, painful emotions are inevitable. You can’t avoid them.
But you can avoid feeling bad about feeling bad by training yourself to see emotions as painful or uncomfortable but not dangerous. And when you do, you’ll find yourself far less emotionally reactive and much more resilient.
One is a great deal less anxious if one feels perfectly free to be anxious, and the same may be said of guilt.
― Alan Watts
Trusting your emotions
Wait, you’re a psychologist and you’re telling me I shouldn’t trust my feelings?
Here’s the deal: there’s nothing inherently special or mystical about emotions.
As much as our culture tends to glorify them, they’re just one more part of our psychology along with thoughts, behaviors, beliefs, instincts, and all the other stuff that rattles around between our ears.
Sure, emotions can often be quite helpful:
- Fear is often an indicator of danger and can help you stay safe.
- Guilt is often a sign you’ve done something wrong and can help you remember to do better next time.
- Anger often tells us when something is unjust and motivates us to correct it.
But as often as emotions are helpful, they’re also capable of being profoundly unhelpful:
- Fear causes you to avoid asking that person out even though you really like them and think being with them could be an incredible experience.
- Guilt often becomes so extreme that it leads to self-harming behavior and chronically low self-esteem.
- And God knows we all can think of plenty of examples—both personal and historical—where anger has not brought out the best in humanity.
My point is simple:
If you’re in the habit of always trusting your feelings, you’re going to end up making a lot of unhealthy decisions.
Emotionally resilient people have a more nuanced relationship with their emotions: They listen to them but rarely trust them.
When you’re overly trusting of your feelings you end up becoming a slave to them—unable to resist strong emotions that pull you in one direction or incapable of making tough choices when you’re “not feeling it.”
Think of emotions like people: Even a very close friend you wouldn’t trust all the time and in every situation.
For example: You might trust an accountant friend to give you good money advice. But if they’ve got a string of unhealthy relationships in their past, you probably wouldn’t trust their dating advice.
Respect your emotions but don’t let them control you.
Chaotic times are not the period to abandon rational thinking but just another reason to cherish its existence.
― C. Savastano
All You Need to Know
To become more emotionally resilient, let go of these unhealthy habits:
Beating yourself up after mistakes
Taking things personally
Relying on coping skills
Running away from your emotions
Trusting your emotions