We feel angry at the injustice. The anger may energize us, and it can feel a whole lot better than depression.
We’re all faced with challenges that test us — a critical boss or co-worker, a disappointing job outcome, a failed relationship. Is it true that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger? Maybe. But not always. I’ve spent the past two decades researching predictors of resilience — the factors that can maximize our chances of bouncing back from stressful circumstances, and maybe even becoming stronger from them — and I have found that how we think about what has happened to us makes a big difference.
Let’s take a concrete example. Think of a time that you received negative feedback about something you created or a project you completed. The feedback may have come from a boss, colleague, friend or family member. Of the following alternatives, which would probably be MOST typical of your IMMEDIATE thought process:
- “I’m not smart enough,” “I’m not creative enough,” etc.
- “My boss/colleague/friend/family member is being unreasonable,” “The task was too difficult,” etc.
- “It was just a bad day,” “Bad luck,” etc.
- “I messed up,” “I wonder what I could do differently next time,” etc.
It’s likely that you can think of situations that trigger different thought processes, that involve more than one of the above, or that begin with one but morph into another. But think about your typical or first “go to.”
Let’s take a look at what each of these alternatives does for us.
Many people respond to unhappy events by blaming themselves, in a personal way that they can’t change. This kind of response would be reflected in alternative A above. What does this stance bring? If very specific — for example, “I guess I’m not good in this particular area” — it may lead to a realistic evaluation of one’s talents. But often the thoughts are very general and broad and reflect a type of self-blame that is demoralizing. This pattern is, in fact, termed the depressive explanatory style, and it increases a person’s risk for depression and sense of hopelessness.
Alternative B, in contrast, shifts the blame to external factors. It’s common to look for a person or thing to blame for our situation. We feel angry at the injustice. The anger may energize us, and it can feel a whole lot better than depression. But we can become mired in the anger in a way that isn’t productive. We may become so involved in finger-pointing that we do nothing to improve the situation.
What about alternative C? It was just a bad day. It’s nobody’s fault. There’s nothing anyone can do about it. Just hang tight and let the hard times pass. Tomorrow may be better, but maybe not — how can we know? We’re not motivated to change things because we can’t even predict what will happen. This style can lead to apathy.
Resilience — the ability to bounce back under duress and maybe even come back stronger —requires more. We need to brainstorm about our role. Did we work as hard or as smart as we could? What can we do to make things better for the future? Research supports the importance of adopting a problem-solving orientation to the disappointments in life — to look at disappointments as opportunities to learn for the future. We should take charge, think about what we can DO, and adopt an orientation of personal responsibility. This is the resilient explanatory style.
We can’t always prevent, or even predict, unfortunate events. But it’s important to consider whether there is something we can learn from them or something we can do to make the future better.
When we’ve done all that we can to think about what we might have done better or could do for the future, we must also be able to let it go. It’s important to strike a balance between considering whether there is anything more we could learn to improve the future and being able to move on. And that’s where such activities as mindfulness meditation and strategies that allow us to regain perspective come in. Take a long walk and admire awe-inspiring nature. Run and allow the endorphins to heal dark thoughts. View the world — and your problems — from a distance, as if from far above on a cloud. Enjoy the comfort of supportive friends or family.
I hope we all have a good year ahead!
Marylie Gerson is a psychology professor at California Lutheran University and has a clinical practice in Westlake Village. Her research over the past two decades has focused on strategies to build resilience.