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Emotional Resilience: Life Is What We Make Of It

  • Written by Syndicated Publisher No Comments Comments
    December 18, 2013

    For most people, it won’t be economic hardship that harms them, but their own lack of emotional resilience that does them in.

    After the fall of the former Soviet Union, in the years that followed, more than half of all premature deaths that occurred were due to the effects of excessive alcohol consumption:

    Alcohol Blamed for Half of ’90’s Russian Deaths

    MOSCOW — A new study by an international team of public health researchers documents the devastating impact of alcohol abuse on Russia — showing that drinking caused more than half of deaths among Russians aged 15 to 54 in the turbulent era following the Soviet collapse.

    The 52 percent figure compares to estimates that less than 4 percent of deaths worldwide are caused by alcohol abuse, according to the study by Russian, British and French researchers published in Friday’s edition of the British medical journal The Lancet.

    The Russian findings were based on a survey of almost 49,000 deaths between 1990 and 2001 among young adult and middle-aged Russians in three industrial towns in western Siberia, which had typical 1990s Russian mortality patterns.

    Professor David Zaridze, head of the Russian Cancer Research Center and lead author of the study, estimated that the increase in alcohol consumption since 1987, the year when then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s restrictions on alcohol sales collapsed, cost the lives of 3 million Russians who would otherwise be alive today. “This loss is similar to that of a war,” Zaridze said.

    (Source)

    It bears mentioning that while the times were economically hard in the former Soviet Union, and many people lost their jobs and therefore their sense of purpose in life, folks still had a place to live and food to eat.  Perhaps not a lot, but one marked difference between communism and capitalism is that the former provides at least the basics of sustenance.

    Faced with the loss of purpose and livelihood, many Russians turned to alcohol as the means of numbing themselves out from the despair they felt. Instead of seeing the loss of a job as an opportunity to do something new with their lives, even if merely to sit in reflection ten hours a day, they experienced the loss as a form of devastation from which they sought escape.

    And today, as we look around, we might notice that escapism is everywhere, whether it is found in excessive drinking, shopping, television watching, smartphones, video games, or drugs. There are lots of ways to numb out the world when it is not providing what we think we need (or deserve).

    Already, suicides are the leading cause of premature death in the U.S. which is another confirmation of the idea that it’s often people’s reaction to hardship that determines the outcome, rather than the hardship itself.

    This quote largely captures the dynamic in play:

    Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.’

                ~ C.G. Jung

    Where people react badly to events and then call it fate, it bears noting that that some people seem to be made stronger by adversity, and that’s not a matter of fate at all. Instead, it’s a matter of how they respond to adversity. And it turns out that such skills can be learned.

    Emotional Resilience

    We consider emotional resilience to be equally important alongside physical and financial preparation. That’s why we cover it in such depth in our live seminars. And we’re going to spend a bit more time covering the topic in our writings and comments here on the site going forward.

    One of the biggest keys to daily happiness and future emotional resilience is having the ability to alter your frame of reference, or point of view, so as to alter your perception of events.

    Two people can experience the exact same event, but one might be completely thrilled by it while the other could be utterly devastated. The difference is often the scripts each person has running in their heads, which determine their individual perception of the event.

    So if we can learn to alter our internal perception so that we experience more daily happiness and enjoy greater emotional resilience as a result, why wouldn’t we work on developing this ability?

    I recently rediscovered this gem of a short video that covers this idea beautifully.  It’s worth the quick watch:

    The ideas this video espouses are ones that I have found to be true for me.

    I’m the only one in control of my thoughts, and my thoughts control how I perceive the world around me. This means that I, and I alone, am responsible for which thoughts I allow to run through my head.

    When I’m projecting stories onto the people around me, as expressed in the video, it’s so much easier to be miserable, find faults, and think the worst. As David Foster said, the only thing that is ‘capital-T True’ is that I get to decide how I’m going to see the world.

    And that brings us to emotional resilience. If it’s ‘capital-T True’ that we’re responsible for our thoughts, and thoughts define our experiences, it means that one of the most important traits we can cultivate is the mastery of our own thoughts.

    Just a few short years ago, this would have been a preposterous thought for me, because I was still immersed in the idea that my thoughts were the same thing as reality. Of course I am thinking these thoughts. What other way is there to react to what’s happening around me?! That would have been my line of reasoning. I now know differently.

    Instead of my thoughts being generated by me, I now see it as a case where my thoughts generate the reality I perceive.  With some practice, I find I can control my thoughts, re-frame situations on the fly, and have entirely different emotional reactions to them than I otherwise used to.

    Admittedly, it’s only recently that I’ve begun to harness this skill. But I no longer believe in Fate like I used to.  Now I know that, as I’m the one creating my experiences, Fate has very little to do with 99% of life.

    This is a bit scary because it means I’m the only one responsible for myself – no more room for victim and victimizer thinking. But it’s also liberating because it means I am more fully in control of my thoughts which means I am more fully in control of my destiny.

    Again:

    Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.’

                ~ C.G. Jung

    So the first act of emotional resilience is to understand the ways in which your thinking controls your experiences. Then you can begin to uncover the ways in which your thoughts spring from the unconscious, rather than from some adult form of “you.”

    This is essentially re-framing your stories before they ‘direct your life.’  Re-framing is at the heart of resilience.

    Mental Mastery

    Placed into conventional terms that more may find accessible, in this case in an article from Forbes magazine about being a successful entrepreneur, we find many of the core principles of emotional resilience.

    I’m going to go through the first seven traits of mentally strong (i.e., resilient) people from the article here with my own comments interspersed along the way.  At a later date we can cover the remaining six traits.

    Mentally Strong People: The 13 Things They Avoid

    For all the time executives spend concerned about physical strength and health, when it comes down to it, mental strength can mean even more. Particularly for entrepreneurs, numerous articles talk about critical characteristics of mental strength—tenacity, “grit,” optimism, and an unfailing ability as Forbes contributor David Williams says, to “fail up.”

    However, we can also define mental strength by identifying the things mentally strong individuals don’t do. Over the weekend, I was impressed by this list compiled by Amy Morin, a psychotherapist and licensed clinical social worker, that she shared in LifeHack. It impressed me enough I’d also like to share her list here along with my thoughts on how each of these items is particularly applicable to entrepreneurs.

    1. Waste Time Feeling Sorry for Themselves. You don’t see mentally strong people feeling sorry for their circumstances or dwelling on the way they’ve been mistreated. They have learned to take responsibility for their actions and outcomes, and they have an inherent understanding of the fact that frequently life is not fair. They are able to emerge from trying circumstances with self-awareness and gratitude for the lessons learned. When a situation turns out badly, they respond with phrases such as “Oh, well.” Or perhaps simply, “Next!”

    2. Give Away Their Power. Mentally strong people avoid giving others the power to make them feel inferior or bad. They understand they are in control of their actions and emotions. They know their strength is in their ability to manage the way they respond.

    (Source)

    The above two are expansion on a favorite theme of mine, which is ‘trust yourself.’

    Inherent to the idea of trusting yourself are the concepts of being responsible for your own outcomes and not ceding your power to others.  By trusting yourself, you will not waste time feeling sorry for yourself, and you will assume responsibility for your own outcomes.

    You will spend less time feeling sorry for yourself and you will cease to give away your power.

    Both of these are liberating, and they are at the heart of emotional resilience. I am certain that many of the Russians who drank themselves to death felt sorry for themselves and felt utterly powerless to do anything to change their situation.

    There is always something that can be done, and the easiest thing over which you have the most power is how you think about things.

    3. Shy Away from Change. Mentally strong people embrace change and they welcome challenge. Their biggest “fear,” if they have one, is not of the unknown, but of becoming complacent and stagnant. An environment of change and even uncertainty can energize a mentally strong person and bring out their best.

    Can I get an “Amen!” for this one? Welcoming change is, of course, a biggie around here at Peak Prosperity and is perhaps the defining trait of our readership. But not everyone is suited to operate in an environment of uncertainty and change, and one of the things that needed to be learned by yours truly was to be patient and compassionate with those who are challenged, if not deeply threatened, by the prospect of change.

    The dark side of embracing change is what happens when you are ready for change, expecting it, and hoping for it, yet it does not come. That can be difficult; which brings us to the next pair of traits I’d like to highlight:

    4. Waste Energy on Things They Can’t Control. Mentally strong people don’t complain (much) about bad traffic, lost luggage, or especially about other people, as they recognize that all of these factors are generally beyond their control. In a bad situation, they recognize that the one thing they can always control is their own response and attitude, and they use these attributes well.

    6. Fear Taking Calculated Risks. A mentally strong person is willing to take calculated risks. This is a different thing entirely than jumping headlong into foolish risks. But with mental strength, an individual can weigh the risks and benefits thoroughly, and will fully assess the potential downsides and even the worst-case scenarios before they take action.

    Flipping #4 a bit, we should seek to control the things we can, especially if those things are currently out of our control. So all efforts to increase our own food, energy, or fuel production are actually acts of emotional resilience as well as prudence.

    Taking charge of the things you can control is an act of mastery, while letting go of the things you cannot control is a powerful act of surrender. Both are equally important traits to cultivate.

    At the same time, we accept that life is not always fair. It is full of risks for mature adults to weigh carefully and then take action.

    Moving along, I want to include this next one in today’s discussion because it aligns with the difficulty so many of us share in relating to others the important but difficult topics found in the Crash Course:

    5. Worry About Pleasing Others. Know any people pleasers? Or, conversely, people who go out of their way to dis-please others as a way of reinforcing an image of strength? Neither position is a good one. A mentally strong person strives to be kind and fair and to please others where appropriate, but is unafraid to speak up. They are able to withstand the possibility that someone will get upset and will navigate the situation, wherever possible, with grace.

    This one took me a long time to even begin practicing, and I am still not yet a master. Not by a long shot. But one of the more liberating ideas and associated set of practices for me was to begin to release my attachment to getting what I might call ‘favorable responses’ out of everyone.

    Truthfully, we cannot know how people are going to react to anything and everything we might say, because their past is unknown to us. Their wounds and shadows are unseen even by them. So we need to let go of the need to change their thinking. We should focus instead on planting seeds that hopefully will grow when conditions are favorable. They’ll eventually come over to our way of thought when they’re ready. Or they won’t. Either is okay.

    Skipping over a few to bring up the final trait for discussion, we get to the idea of being in a marathon as opposed to being in a 100-yard dash:

    13. Expect Immediate Results. Whether it’s a workout plan, a nutritional regimen, or starting a business, mentally strong people are “in it for the long haul”. They know better than to expect immediate results. They apply their energy and time in measured doses and they celebrate each milestone and increment of success on the way. They have “staying power.” And they understand that genuine changes take time. Do you have mental strength? Are there elements on this list you need more of? With thanks to Amy Morin, I would like to reinforce my own abilities further in each of these areas today. How about you?

    This one is really, really important. Staying power is everything in this game. The powers that be are doing everything in their considerable power to drag things along, deny reality, and pretend as if we’re the nutty ones for thinking that perhaps the way we are doing things is unsustainable.

    I’m interested in the ways in which we help each other celebrate our successes and the ways in which people apply their energy in measured and calculated ways.

    I know many of you are already doing these things, and I want to encourage you to keep sharing your successes and failures, because it’s important for others to see and learn from them.

    Conclusion

    If I could share one thing with everyone the one thing that has changed my life more than anything and helped me to become more prosperous, content, and happy it’s the importance of learning to control one’s own thoughts.

    To do this one has to be willing to turn inwards and face some troubling territory. What we might have thought was 100% real and true about ourselves, friends, enemies, co-workers, and life itself turns out to be uncomfortably malleable territory.

    In essence, becoming emotionally resilient is about going inwards and developing self-mastery. Even though I know that I will need these skills given the future I think is coming, I would be pursuing mastery here, because these skills are incredibly important, no matter when one happens to be alive.

    It is my impression that most Western cultures, mine especially, spend zero time on this subject. Worse, we’re conditioned to feel shameful in moments of emotional upheaval, and so we ship ourselves off for drugs and counseling to limit the gyrations.

    Those ups and downs are actually gifts, because it’s during these intense moments when we grow and learn the most. It’s actually how we are wired. I’ll go further and say that if the ups and downs were not meant to be experienced, then we wouldn’t be wired for them.  We’d be like turtles placid and unflappable.

    But we’re not turtles. We’re messy, vibrant, alive beings, capable of experiencing intense emotional swings, which I no longer label as ‘high’ or ‘low’ or ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ because those assign values to them, as if one set were to be sought and the other avoided.

    Instead, with mental re-framing, I now know that without experiencing one extreme, the other extreme has less meaning and thereby less value for me.  Phrased as a paradox: In order to love completely, one must come to terms with grief. That is, if you want to experience love more deeply, then expand your ability to withstand grief. And vice versa.

    Emotional resilience is not an easy thing to obtain, because it cannot be bought, and there’s no seminar that will give you mastery in a single weekend, no matter how pricey. It’s a set of daily practices that one commits to, and works with, and ebbs and flows with.

    We’re human. And mastering emotional resilience is a life-long challenge that is anything but a fixed target.  We grow and change, and the world is constantly shifting around us, and new circumstances constantly present themselves to us. So our job is to cultivate a broad set of skills that will serve us through the droughts and floods that will mark our individual lives. We’ll explore this theme in greater depth throughout 2014.

    And so I invite you to explore this topic with me and share your considerable experiences in working towards emotional resilience within yourself.

    Images: Flickr (licence attribution)

    About the Author  

    Executive summary: Father of three young children; author; obsessive financial observer; trained as a scientist; experienced in business; has made profound changes in his lifestyle because of what he sees coming.

    First of all, I am not an economist. I am trained as a scientist, having completed both a PhD and a post-doctoral program at Duke University, where I specialized in neurotoxicology. I tell you this because my extensive training as a scientist informs and guides how I think. I gather data, I develop hypotheses, and I continually seek to accept or reject my hypotheses based on the evidence at hand. I let the data tell me the story.

    It is also important for you to know that I entered the profession of science with the intention of teaching at the college level. I love teaching, and I especially enjoy the challenge of explaining difficult or complicated subjects to people with limited or no background in those subjects. Over the years I’ve gotten pretty good at it.

    Once I figured out that most of the (so-called) better colleges place “effective teacher” pretty much near the bottom of their list of characteristics that factor into tenure review, I switched gears, obtained an MBA from Cornell (in Finance), and spent the next ten years working my way through positions in both corporate finance and strategic consulting. From these experiences I gather my comfort with numbers and finance.

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