As submitted for publication in Recorder Community Newspapers, May 10, 2007

As I look at the buds pushing their way out from otherwise lifeless branches, I am reminded of Samantha*, a five-year-old girl I once knew. She had repeatedly seen her mother attempt suicide and her father beat on her mother. Yet, she was social, did well in school, and was often happy (though clearly not carefree). She was truly a metaphor for the flower whose beauty is all the more miraculous when we think of the cold winter that preceded it.

Samantha was not untouched by the pain in her life, but she was incredibly resilient. This strength is something that we all have, to a greater or lesser degree. We find ways to adapt, survive, and even thrive when faced with stressful or traumatic situations. And although some of us seem to be naturally blessed with more emotional resilience than others, we can all learn to increase it. In researching resilience, I’ve come to see that there are five basic ways to develop it.

Self-awareness: This is the ability to recognize your feelings, thoughts and beliefs. Being self-aware is like finding the “you are here” spot on a map. In doing this, you are likely to reduce anxiety you have about feeling lost, even if you don’t like where you are or don’t immediately see how to get where you want to go.

To develop your self-awareness, you need to observe your experiences. Pay attention to your thoughts and feelings as you move through your day. Stop occasionally and ask yourself, “What am I feeling about this? What do I think about it?” Some people keep a journal in which they review their daily experiences, thereby gaining perspective about their thoughts and feelings. You might also consider practicing meditation to quiet your “monkey mind” which naturally jumps around, keeping you distracted from being conscious of your inner experiences.

Emotional management: This is the ability to manage feelings and impulses in a healthy manner. When you are not managing your emotions, you blindly react to them in a preset way.

While preprogrammed responses are sometimes just what a situation calls for, repeatedly depending on the same ones can leave you frustrated with life. It’s like owning only summer clothes and then cursing Mother Nature when the other seasons arrive. For instance, if you are an empathic mother, you are probably very effective in nursing your child’s emotional hurts. However, when your child gets seriously injured, you might relate so intensely to your child’s pain that you fall apart. On the other hand, your not-so-sensitive husband (who barely responds when your child cries about being teased) might perform extremely well during this crisis. Clearly you would benefit from being able to distance yourself a little during a crisis while your husband would benefit from some added sensitivity at other times.

To help make changes such as these, begin with learning to accept all of your emotions as a valuable source of information. So, for example, your anger might be a signal that a friend is taking advantage of you. With this awareness, you can then decide whether you want to remain a doormat (not something I would recommend), respond with verbal or physical aggression (also probably not the best of choices), have a much-needed conversation, or kick that person out of your life.

Positive self-image: This occurs when you view who you are as a whole person in a positive light. You focus on your strengths and have confidence in your abilities. Inherent in this perspective is your belief that you can cope effectively in the world, a key to emotional resilience.

There are many ways to nurture your self-image. Begin by noticing what you do well. If you have trouble thinking of things, ask supportive family and friends. They will be happy to share what they see. Also, pay attention to the courage it takes when you try something new. And, please, try new things!

Promoting a positive self-image also involves knowing that you have a place on your own priority list—and actually keeping yourself there. Attend to your mind, body, and spirit. Make sure that you cover the basics of eating well, sleeping enough, exercising, and having time to relax and enjoy life. That can make all the difference when you need strength to bounce back.

Effective planning and self-motivation: This includes the ability to make realistic plans; and to carry them out. Once you’ve mastered these skills, you will find it easier to remain goal-directed even when you are emotional. You can avoid impulsiveness and delay self-gratification.

When faced with a stressful situation, set realistic goals to make it through that situation. Think about what small steps you can take to move toward those goals. In this way, you can keep yourself motivated and prevent (or at least manage) feeling overwhelmed. Resilience will come naturally.

When you are in a difficult situation that you cannot change, remember that you can control how you respond to it. Step back to gain a broader perspective. Then decide the best ways to manage your emotions and the situation– and act accordingly.

Nurturing relationships: Caring, supportive relationships provide reassurance, encouragement, and sometimes a much needed sounding board. There is a lot of research that shows a strong support network is extremely important in being emotionally resilient. So, attend to the family and friends who are already in your life. Also consider expanding your support network. Make the effort to get to know an acquaintance better. Or, consider becoming active in a social, religious, civic-minded, or any other groups that interest you. Just remember that all relationships must be nurtured to stay strong.

For some people, like Samantha, many of the skills described above come relatively naturally. Others need to make more of a conscious effort to develop them. Either way, these skills create an emotional resilience that helps us to endure the hardship of life’s harshest winters. And this makes sunny spring days that much warmer.

* Not her real name

The Recorder Newspapers has over 250,000 readers and publishes weekly editions in 19 newspapers, which cover Morris, Somerset, Essex and Hunterdon counties of New Jersey.

Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD
Basking Ridge, NJ