Your guide to handling adversity with authenticity, patience, and acceptance.
“Just stay positive.” Ah, the familiar refrain from supportive friends when something in life goes wrong. Yet despite our best efforts, we often find ourselves slipping back into anger, sadness, and negativity—and then feeling even worse by blaming ourselves for it.
Harvard Medical School psychologist Susan David has a better idea. Instead of forcing a smile through every challenge, she writes about developing emotional resilience, the ability to adapt to tough situations and bounce back stronger than ever. Here are her top 5 strategies for cultivating your own resilience, to help you take on whatever comes your way.
1. Don’t fight your feelings.
Trying to suppress negativity does more harm than good, says Susan. In fact, “When we push emotions aside, it actually undermines our resilience.” But if you give yourself permission to feel angry or sad, you can address your feelings honestly, and then learn to move forward.
2. Write it down.
Susan explains that when she was 15 years old, her father was diagnosed with terminal cancer. When a rigid, “always stay positive” attitude failed to help her cope, she began journaling about her thoughts and feelings. “I came out of that experience feeling really resilient, feeling like I’d grown,” she says. By taking the time to articulate her emotions, Susan was able to accept and process them in a healthy, productive way.
3. Widen the space between stimulus and response.
Susan relates how Viktor Frankl, a survivor of the Nazi death camps, wrote about the space between a stimulus and our response, a space in which we can point ourselves toward empowerment and growth. “When you say something like, ‘I am stressed,’ you are identifying all of you with being stressed,” says Susan. So instead, try “I’m noticing that I’m feeling stressed,” which transforms stress from an identity into a passing phase. With this newfound distance between yourself and your emotion, you now have the power to choose: how would you like to respond?
4. Expand your emotional vocabulary.
How can we manage our emotions if we don’t know what they are, or how to describe them? “We often use just three or four emotions to describe what we’re feeling,” says Susan. “And yet the research shows that when we use more differentiated language about our emotions . . . it actually helps us over time to become more resilient.”
5. Step out of your emotions.
If you’re no longer struggling with whether you should or shouldn’t feel something, you have the energy and attention to examine what an emotion is trying to tell you. “It’s important for us to recognize that our emotions are data, not directions,” says Susan. They contain information about our priorities and what we care about, though they are not imperatives. Just because you feel guilty, doesn’t mean that you have to, says Susan.
And that’s the beauty of emotional resilience. You cultivate the courage to process the difficult emotions, and the strength to move past them.