How to Build Emotional Resilience
Life in a time of Emotional Distress
As a psychotherapist I help clients recover their wellness when it is fractured, while as an educator I show people how to build emotional resilience beyond that baseline of wellness. One of these kinds of work is urgent and usually obvious when needed. The other gets sidelined by life, distractions and the minimization of our needs. I bet you know which is which.
We are living in a time of great uncertainty that is so difficult to cope with that one out of six Americans began therapy for the first time in 2020. I have no trouble believing this statistic as I have had scores of calls from people seeking therapy since the onset of the pandemic and every therapist I know has been wait listing all year. It’s clear that the work toward getting back to the wellness baseline has assumed the lead, and no wonder.
There’s never a bad time to enter therapy and get back to feeling strong and hopeful. Sometimes it can be hard to know what we need. Whether we’re struggling, just uneasy or doing quite well, given the widespread uncertainty everyone is facing, now is a great time to focus on becoming more emotionally resilient.
In this post I will talk more about what emotional resilience is, why it is more important now than ever before, why we struggle with how to build emotional resilience and what we can do to re-calibrate our systems to lean into this important work, becoming more insulated from emotional turmoil.
Maybe you’re among the one-in-six people who started therapy for the first time this year. Maybe this year brought you back to therapy for the first time in a long time, under the crunch of angst and uncertainty. Or perhaps, like so many people, you’ve felt like you needed some support and guidance to keep it together but didn’t feel like therapy was quite necessary.
Wherever you are in this equation, by the end of this post, you will have more clarity around your own level of emotional resilience, why stopping intentional inner work when we reach “okay” leaves us lacking, and how building emotional resilience is the closest thing you’ll ever get to an insurance policy on your wellness.
Ready? Let’s jump in!
What is Emotional Resilience?
There are a lot of definitions out there when you seek to learn how to build emotional resilience. So what is it exactly? By many measures it is thought of as an ability to bounce back from something difficult. Almost like elasticity or flexibility. Miriam webster refers to resilience as “an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change”. In these respects, emotional resilience is a way that we show up and a way that we respond.
That’s nice. It would also be nice to have the ability to go to the moon, or change my oil or build a grownup treehouse in my back yard. But I don’t know how.
I like a clear, concrete definition as much as the next person but let’s be honest. Understanding something helpful abstractly, and understanding how to develop it for ourselves so we can use, feel and enjoy it, are different things.
To that end, I’d like to offer you my definition of emotional resilience:
[A purposely cultivated inner resource of skills, tools, perspective and self-awareness, and the conscious insight to use this resource to regulate emotions when we feel destabilized].
Thinking about resilience as a resource, rather than an ability, does a few good things for us.
First, it becomes a means rather than an end. We can understand resilience in terms of actions we take (building the resource and becoming skilled at using it) rather than just a way we might be. When resilience is a resource that we build and learn to use, we go from being a spectator to a participant. Heck yeah!
Second, by making us a participant, this definition of emotional resilience empowers us to have agency and self-determination. In other words, it gives us more access to a ‘can do’ attitude toward resilience.
Creativity is another concept that we tend to think about as an ‘ability’, when it is, in fact, a process that anyone can step into and develop. It’s so easy to default to “can’t” when we identify as simply lacking that ability – as if the Resilience Fairy or Creativity Fairy just skipped over us in the cabbage patch. Nope. The truth is we all have base elements of these ‘abilities’ within us already. We often just need a little guidance from the outside. With that, each one of us is 100% capable of becoming more emotionally resilient. (And outwardly creative, too!)
Lastly, my definition of emotional resilience is an invitation to make the most of who we already are. As you may know, the theory that informs all my work, Internal Family Systems, states that we already have within us a resourceful, strong and capable ‘Self’ which holds core qualities that facilitate emotional resilience.
My definition offers more accessibility to emotional resilience than others – we’re not seeking this thing on a mountaintop. No. We’re finding it buried within, shining it up and living with more confidence and courage because we did. We’re meeting ourselves differently, and more deeply, and becoming more resilient as we go.
Is my definition of emotional resilience exclusive, correct, or ‘the way’? No. I offer you my definition simply as a useful alternative to help you think about it less in terms of an aspiration and more in terms of an on-board set of qualities you can actionably, creatively, cultivate and strengthen.
Why Emotional Resilience is more important than ever
Doubling down and amplifying your resilience, building up those emotional muscles, is like having an energetic and emotional savings account. We all know that nice feeling of security. There’s more padding. More cushion. You have deeper reserves of resource to manage unexpected draws on the account of your emotional life.
When I think about emotional resilience, I think about the baseline of wellness, getting there and safeguarding our wellness by insulating it. Getting even further and further from the baseline, in the right direction. I think about the difference I have observed at times in my life when I handled really big, hard news well and with grace, versus times when something that seemed small took me out at the knees. Most of us can relate to having both kinds of experience.
What I am noticing today – and what I suspect has driven one in six Americans into therapy in the last year – is that what’s on the other side of the baseline seems to be chasing us. Like a silent, stealthy lurker, the angst and noise of what’s happening in the world creeps up. And there we are, going along through life, feeling the sun on our shoulders. Then we glance back (or turn on the news or pop open social media) and there it is. Another catastrophe. Another senseless death, act of violence, angry force of nature, wild misfortune, rogue brutality in some distant government, technological fail or even pandemic virus sweeping the globe. And it keeps coming.
While it’s true that we’re living in a world full of difficulties, and even atrocities, it’s also true that we are being force-fed a diet of this content at nearly every turn. Writer and philosopher Mark Nepo refers to this as the ‘noise of destruction’ and he suggests that we’ve become somewhat addicted to it. That’s another post, but the point is that when we are fielding a daily onslaught of things that feel emotionally destabilizing – when the baseline is chasing us – it’s more important than ever to build up that bank account of emotional resilience.
Apart from what’s difficult in the world today, there is also simply more of everything. More headlines. More opportunities. More choices for every single part of our lives. We jump from one point of focus or decision to the next, often all day long. Our focus is sometimes divided so many times in a single day that nothing is truly tended, and we are left without enough attention to cultivate anything within ourselves.
What gets in the way of building our Emotional Resilience?
The content and pace of our daily lives both drive up the importance of emotional resilience and, concurrently, stand in the way. Creating dedicated time for our wellness, and saying ‘no’ to the noise around us are imperative to the work of personal security.
The upside down part of building emotional resilience – turning your attention toward your growth when things aren’t on fire – is that often it feels like wasting time. Without a sense of urgency or ‘must’, turning within may feel like spending where it isn’t needed. Luxurious. Frivolous. Unnecessary. And the next thing we know, the effort we were investing in ourselves falls off the map.
Without that attention and intention, we don’t get further from the baseline. So when the next wave of noise, or struggle, or uncertainty comes, we don’t have much to hold onto. And we lather, rinse, repeat.
This perception, the non-urgency, is often the thing that most staunchly stands in the way of building emotional resilience. Feeling good is great, sure. But growing, deepening, cultivating and expanding that good? ….Nah. The problem here is that we perceive our wellness in a very binary way. We’re either Good or Not Good. Not Good = action is necessary. Good = cool, let’s go ride our bikes! That old adage of “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” sure does prevail.
I prefer a viewpoint shared with me by my former clinical supervisor, which he heard from his son, “if it’s not broke….let’s make it better”. Precisely!
Recalibrating our outlook for greater Emotional Resilience
I’d like to invite you to take stock in your own perception of your wellness and to become more aware, without judgement, of how you regard your needs. Below are a few simple exercises to implement over the next 30 days to begin shifting toward building emotional resilience:
· Notice each time something you take in gives you a felt-sense of the emotion. If you see something on the news or social media that’s distressing, do you notice it in your body? Keep a page in your journal or just a simple list nearby to track this.
· Each night before bed, take an inventory of your daily data intake, and simply scan for distress. Keep a pen and paper by your bed and rate the day on a scale of 1-10 each day, 1 being not much and 10 being a super distressing piece of information. Do this for 30 days. Look for trends, and at the overall picture of your distress intake.
· Consider your own history of response to distress. Journal for 10 minutes about each one of these experiences:
o A time when you responded to notable distress with calm, clarity and didn’t become destabilized by it…
o A time when something that seems small in retrospect took you out at the knees…
o After you write about each experience, reflect on what factors might have contributed to how you responded at that time
· Read the following statement and rate it as: False / Somewhat True / Very True / Non-negotiable
My car is a large investment that makes life easier and protecting it is very important to me. It’s worth a lot, so I carry an adequate insurance policy on my car. This means that if something happens to my car, some misfortune or loss, I will not have to be without it or try to make life work without my car for very long. It feels really good to know that if something happens to my car, the difficulty of that won’t last too long.
Now read it again, and rate it as False / Somewhat True / Very True / Non-negotiable
My wellbeing is a large investment that makes life easier and protecting it is very important to me. It’s worth a lot, so I carry an adequate insurance policy on my wellbeing. This means that if something happens to my wellbeing, some misfortune or loss, I will not have to be without it or try to make life work without my wellbeing for very long. It feels really good to know that if something happens to my wellbeing, the difficulty of that won’t last too long.
How we regard our need for emotional resilience has a great deal to do with the condition we find it in. If we don’t regard it as essential, and if we aren’t well aware of the factors in our lives that necessitate emotional resilience, it’s easy to say in a low-grade place of feeling – maybe not terrible, but – pretty blasé. And aren't we all here for more than that?
I urge you to spend some time reflecting on your own emotional resilience, the role it plays in your life and whether or not yours could use some cultivating. If so, please sail over to my website, Phases of Change, to join my mailing list at the bottom of any page. I’ll check in by email from time to time and keep you updated on my wellness courses and workshops.