One afternoon in late November, my husband and I were sitting in an exam room waiting for the neurologist to return. Fred had already had an extensive neurological exam and, sitting there in silence, I could see the worry and fear on my husband’s face.
Eighteen months earlier he had started having muscle twitches in his arms and chest, but the neurologist at the time couldn’t find anything else wrong and diagnosed him with “benign muscle fasciculations.” Likely temporary, minor muscle twitches — nothing to worry about.
Now Fred was having problems enunciating words. Whatever was wrong must be serious. As I watched the neurological exam, I could tell that my formerly strong husband was having significant problems with his arms, hands, and tongue. What could be going on?
It took about 15 minutes before the neurologist returned, this time with another neurologist who started doing more neurological testing. After about 10 minutes they both sat down and the first neurologist started talking.
“Based on all the tests we have run, we are sorry to say that you have ALS.”
Thus began our journey of coping with a disease that has no treatment. It was a death sentence, that, ultimately would claim his life a year later.
We were devastated. We cried and yelled. He denied what was happening. I felt numb and overwhelmed.
I cried a lot over the next year until he died. And then I cried a lot more.
Normally, I’m the emotionally strong one — the trained professional other people turn to when life upsets them. But after Fred died, I felt emotionally fragile. Simple tasks — like changing a lightbulb — overwhelmed me.
I was puzzled when my friends and family told me I was doing well. I wasn’t doing well! What in the heck were they talking about? It made me feel like they didn’t understand what I was going through.
What I needed to know was that it’s possible to be emotionally resilient, even when you are caught in an emotionally trying time. If you lose your job, if your business fails, if your partner leaves — or dies — it’s possible to be emotionally resilient and come out the other side okay, even if you are a little different afterwards. I needed to know that being emotionally resilient doesn’t mean you don’t feel pain. Instead, it’s more about how you navigate pain you feel.
How can you best survive when you are coping with a difficult situation? Here’s what I know now that I wish I had known then. Emotionally resilient people:
1. Try to see things objectively. This means you look at situations from another’s point of view, as well as your own. If you can see the situation through another person’s eyes, you will gain a deeper understanding and have access to more information with which to guide your response. You can be fairer to yourself and others. Seeing things objectively also will help you reduce self-criticism, a key step in improving emotional resiliency (see #7).
2. Expect to deal with challenges. Life is full of stress, negative feedback, and unexpected events. Although challenges are hard to cope with, you understand that they are part life. First, you know that projects and new ventures will take effort. Second, although you may not have expected a particular turn of events, you don’t spend much time dealing with the surprise because you understand that unexpected things happen.
3. Don’t engage in self-pity (much). I believe we are all human and feel sorry for ourselves at times. But self-pity perpetuates negative emotional states. It keeps you focused on the negative and filters out positivity. It’s also a state of helplessness, which is disempowering and only serves to keep you as a victim.
4. Work to solve their own problems. Solutions to problems are not always obvious, but you can figure it out. Sometimes, it is as simple as breaking the problem down into manageable chunks. Be persistent. Do some research, reach out to others, and believe you will find a solution.
5. Know when and how to ask for help. There will be times you won’t know what to do. In this case it is important to ask for help. You may be amazed at the relief you feel when someone else knows the best course of action for your problem or situation.
6. Are emotionally stable. It’s not that you don’t feel emotions or aren’t affected by them, it’s that you take a little time to consider how your emotional reactions may impact the situation. Don’t “fly off the handle” or create drama. Instead, take a breath and use words to explain your reaction rather than acting out.
7. Practice self-compassion. When you are understanding, kind, concerned, and forgiving, you are being compassionate towards another. Self-compassion is that same understanding, kindness, concern, and forgiveness turned inward. Self-compassion is the ability to see yourself, with all your flaws, and know that you are okay just the way you are. Kristin Neff studies self-compassion and gave a wonderful Tedx Talk about self-compassion. You can find it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IvtZBUSplr4.
8. Set boundaries. Setting boundaries doesn’t mean you cut yourself off from others or their emotional reactions, it just means that you know the difference between what you are responsible for and what others are responsible for. For example, if someone is reacting poorly to your grief, you understand that their reaction is their responsibility, not yours. Setting boundaries also means being willing to tell others your limits and stick with your limits in a tactful way.
9. Take responsibility for their own emotions. Taking responsibility for your own emotions means not blaming others when you are upset. If you are upset, it’s your job to calm yourself down. For example, if you are disappointed and your disappointment is making you angry, you talk about being disappointed as your core reaction.
10. Accept all their emotional reactions, including negative emotions. You don’t try to escape negative reactions or criticize yourself for having them. You understand that negative reactions are part of the human experience. When you have an emotional reaction, your emotion is simply information about yourself, your preferences, expectations, and values, among other things.
11. Live in the present moment. You avoid dwelling in the past or worrying excessively about the future. Dwelling outside the present moment leads to feelings of anxiety and depression and causes undue emotional strain.
12. Manage their time well. You understand the importance of not putting yourself into unnecessarily stressful situations. For example, being on time to events or appointments avoids the stress of being rushed and the guilt of being late.
13. Understand the importance of doing “the little things.” This has several meanings, including finishing the last details on a project, keeping your environment tidy, and following through on tasks that you should do even when you don’t want to. Being willing and able to do “the little things” is a sign of pride in your work, an element of self-care, and indication you understand that managing your life isn’t just about the fun times.
14. Are persistent in pursuit of their goals. It’s not talent that will get you the outcomes you want in life, it’s persistence. When you set a goal or have an outcome in mind, you work hard to overcome obstacles, rather than give up when things get difficult (see #2 & #4).
15. Know when it is time to let go, when more effort is futile. This applies to other people, relationships, jobs, financial endeavors, and just about anything else where you would invest time, money, or other resources. Letting go is hard, but when used in conjunction with other resiliency skills, such as seeing things objectively, taking responsibility for your own emotions, and self-compassion, it can be easier to see when letting go is the appropriate decision.
16. Enjoy themselves and the life they are living. When you understand your emotions and give yourself the freedom to own your emotions (see #9 & #10), then you are free to experience positive emotions, too. You may even choose to focus on pleasant aspects of your current experience, even if it isn’t all positive, just for the joy of having a positive emotional experience.
17. Work to achieve their purpose in life. Of course, this means you know your purpose in life. Again, other traits of emotional resilience help with this, such as understanding emotions and persistence. And even if you don’t yet know your life purpose, you allow your priorities and values to influence your decisions and behaviors.
18. Monitor their progress. This trait is an interesting combination of knowing where you are starting and being able to evaluate whether you are making progress. Knowing where you are starting requires understanding and accepting your emotions and well as a dash of self-compassion. Evaluating your progress implies a willingness to make appropriate adjustments, which takes problem solving, persistence, and letting go.
19. Seek to grow stronger. With this trait, you are dedicated to seeing challenges as a way of learning and growing. You understand the importance of life’s full journey, rather than allow anyone devastating detour distract you from that journey for very long.
What does all this mean for me? Well, I can’t say that I felt resilient in my grief. It felt destabilizing and overwhelming. But, I do know that I have practiced many of these 19 characteristics throughout my life.
Do I miss Fred? Oh, you bet. Yet I can see now that even in my grief I understood my emotions, exercised self-compassion, reached out for help, and did not engage in self-pity — much. Since I had unknowingly incorporated most of these characteristics into my general outlook and approach to life, I appeared to others like I was handling things well. Now I know what they were seeing and have been seeing all along. Even when I wasn’t feeling emotionally strong, I was being emotionally resilient.
How do you handle stress and emotional upset? Do you take responsibility for your emotional states, or blame them on others? Do you manage your time, strive to achieve goals consistent with your life’s purpose? If you don’t know your purpose, are you clear about your priorities and values? Are you flexible in your thinking and able to solve problems?
Look for future posts where I will give you tips on becoming more emotionally resilient. I can’t keep you from experiencing negative emotions, but you will have a better sense of what to do with the emotions you are having. And, if you’d like to read more on any of these 19 traits, just leave me a comment.