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5 Tips to strengthen your emotional resilience

What is emotional resilience?

For a lot of people, it represents being tough/strong/emotionless. Always.

For others it is about having awareness of when an emotion hits you and then figuring out ways to stop them from overwhelming you in the moment.

Both notions are fraught with complications. Because it assumes that (a) one can turn emotions on and off at will (a command and control system), and (b) that showing emotion is a bad thing. On the first one, in theory, yes, it can be done, but up to a point. The breaking point. The emotional piggy bank grows and eventually outgrows its confines, possibly metamorphosizing into something ugly and unrecognisable too (ala the Ghostbuster sludge monster) that releases when least expected.

The second one has somehow become the business norm, possibly even a societal norm where showing emotion = weakness. Showing emotion = lack of control. Showing emotion = stay away from her, she is needy. And I use her deliberately because *cue the gender bias, patriarchal system*, women are ‘more inclined’ to cry more often than men. Showing emotion = I will ignore because I do not know how to handle it/comfort/may be sued for harassment. The list is a lengthy one.

With all of this going on, it is no wonder that both men and women are floundering in their ability to cope with stress, anxiety, frustration, guilt, empathy, and kindness.

To answer the definition question posed upfront, emotional resilience should simply be knowing how to adapt your emotions to suit the situation at hand be it positive (happiness, prides as examples) or negative (such as fatigue, stress, distrust). Do you gush when you are happy? Building on the earlier point, it may signal that you are uncontrolled and uncontrollable with your emotions. Prefer not to show emotion? Again, the perception could be that you are cold and distant.

It is this double-edged sword of perceived judgement by others that leads most people down the path of finding some neutral ground of managing how they show emotion. Calibrating it as it were but often unsuccessfully. Why do I say that? Because how many times have you found yourself recalling the situation repeatedly in your mind, each time reacting with varying levels of emotion and content or building up and amplifying a particular emotion? My guess is regularly.

What this shows is in that trying to find that neutral emotional ground, one moves away from one’s authentic self. In the new normal of 2020, with new balancing acts being struck and more time to spend on and by yourself and loved ones, maybe you have started to move closer towards your truer self again, which is great.

My tips below will enable you on that journey of reconciling what your true emotions should be and how to embrace and build on that for a more resilient you.

Tip 1: Label your emotions correctly

To regulate emotions effectively, one needs to know what emotion you are dealing with i.e. awareness of the emotion. Are you happy or perhaps proud, maybe even feeling confident about something? My first tip is to expand your vocabulary on what emotions you’re actually feeling. The image in the next column is the work of Dr Gloria Wilcox, who created this feelings circle in 1982 to increase levels of awareness around emotions.

The circle features three rings, the innermost of which includes seven core emotions: happy, surprised, bad, fearful, angry, disgusted and sad. These are go-to emotional states, but they are vague. The outer two rings, however, drill down into the specific emotions associated with those larger emotions to give you a better sense of what to do about them. For example, you may be feeling sad, but the sadness may stem from feelings of guilt, or loneliness. Your coping mechanism for dealing with guilt would be different to that of loneliness, thus knowing the difference changes the plan or outcome.

The feelings circle can also be used to identify your goal emotions. An example of this is if you’re feeling anger with respect to your job, you might look across the wheel at anger’s opposite emotion, joy, and then seek out a new job (or situation within your current job) which enables the second and third-tier emotions associated with that feeling of joy, such as pride and success. In other words, you can use the outer rings of the wheel as a guide to back yourself into major positive mood states.

Tip 2: Validate your emotion with permission to feel

Now that you have expanded the emotion vocabulary, it is time to let yourself off the hook. That means giving yourself the permission to feel that emotion. Repeat after me: “I will be ok if I cry/laugh/am frustrated (insert relevant or significant pent up emotion here)”. Release the pressure from your pressure cooker by letting the emotion surface. The catharsis may be overwhelming but that feeling will likely quickly be replaced with relief, possibly more freedom thereafter.

Tip 3: Acknowledge the emotion and try to understand its significance

After experiencing the emotion, dig deeper to understand why you felt that way. Using the previous example, perhaps you felt anxious because the last time you spoke up in a meeting, your idea was shot down. Thus, the anxiety could be related to a fear element of not wanting to be rejected.

Tip 4: Grow your emotional capital by investing in yourself

It is all well to label, feel and understand your emotion but how do you deal with this insight thereafter? Invest in a personal, non-judgemental interface, such as a professional coach, to help you wade through the various emotions productively, for positive outcomes for yourself and those around you. If there are fears of rejection, for example, creating tangible action plans with your coach to ensure you don’t continue to sell yourself short and are able to put your great ideas forward, will grow your confidence to take ownership and control of your narrative again.

Tip 5: Practice your new skills, regularly

Now this is probably the most daunting of tips I can share but this is how patterns and behaviours shift over time, with practice. If we go back to your source code, the brain, you represent your world and process information in a certain preferred way that is part of your DNA. Over time, based on inputs like experiences, language, actions – you would have cultivated response patterns to cope. Thus, your neural pathways would have developed a practiced, habitual response to keep you safe. Safety is good but it can sometimes mean that you trade-off growth. Using our example on anxiety, if you expose yourself to situations where you feel anxious about voicing an opinion, after having put together your plan of action of a new coping mechanism, you will find that this updated, more productive response mechanism becomes your new blueprint to how you approach a situation. New neural pathways form and your productive habits fortify. This also enhances your agility, to be able to respond effectively and quicker than previously possible. Practice makes perfect and adapted or new neural pathways are only strengthened when you practice.

Forge ahead with the process: Awareness → Feel → Insight → Action/Will → Solidify.

Find Your Prerna (inspiration). Be bold. Be brave.