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Mentoring: The Secret to Building Resilience

Connecting to others' experiences helps avoid the "Debbie Downer" syndrome.

Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash
pug covered with blanket on bedspread
Source: Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

A number of years ago Saturday Night Live featured a popular character named “Debbie Downer,” played by Rachel Dratch, who was constantly bringing down the mood of any room that she walked into with her consistently negative outlook on life. In this clip she even manages to take the fun out of Disney, the “Happiest Place on Earth,” with her running commentary on all of the dangerous and awful things that possibly could happen there. Not only is she completely depressing, she’s a know-it-all, piping up to share her encyclopedic knowledge of terrible facts at any chance she can.

We all know someone like this. They suck the energy out of rooms, conversations, and relationships. As colleagues or acquaintances, these people are easily ignored and frequently the subject of office chatter and rolled-eye reactions. They lack the general self-awareness, self-management, and relationship-management tools which are critical to emotional intelligence, and critical for personal and professional success.

These are the people who get into career ruts, unable to see their way to a better outcome because they have become so accustomed to being sad or depressed that they start to feed off of it. They may ask for advice and guidance on finding that next step, but then create mental roadblocks at every step along the way, developing disaster scenarios for each potential outcome. It’s the “oh, woe is me” syndrome. Eventually, the advice-giver starts running the other way when these people approach, which then has a cyclical effect: if you perceive yourself as being turned down, dismissed, or ignored at every opportunity, how do you pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and keep moving forward?

One solution to this dilemma is to find a mentor who can help you to build your resilience skill set. Resilience is a term that has gotten a lot of press over the past few years, overused to the point that, as this New York Times piece notes, “It’s a word that is somehow so conveniently vacant that it manages to be profound and profoundly hollow.” But in focusing on the overuse, we miss the potential power in the ability to positively (or negatively) impact one’s life circumstance. One of the great attributes of resilience, as Maria Konnikova informs us in The New Yorker, is that it is a skill that can be learned and applied. It’s not something that is reserved for the fortunate few. It’s not an innate ability that you are either born with or not. And, in fact, it is the presence of challenge and adversity that allows us to learn resilience, yet another confirmation that failure is something to be valued not avoided.

So, then, what is it? Resilience, according to Psychology Today, is

that ineffable quality that allows some people to be knocked down by life and come back stronger than ever. Rather than letting failure overcome them and drain their resolve, they find a way to rise from the ashes. Psychologists have identified some of the factors that make someone resilient, among them a positive attitude, optimism, the ability to regulate emotions, and the ability to see failure as a form of helpful feedback. Even after misfortune, resilient people are blessed with such an outlook that they are able to change course and soldier on.

Sounds awesome, right? I want to live in that world. Of course, a bit too much of it and you risk becoming a “Pollyanna,” someone who willfully ignores anything negative to his or her detriment. Not enough of it and you become the “Debbie Downer,” always seeing that cup as half-empty and out to ruin your day. We each need to operate somewhere in the middle, able to see reality for what it is, but not be paralyzed by it. We need to be able to take stock of setbacks and learn from them to do better in the future. We need to see failure as a learning experience, and be able to shift our perspective from threat to opportunity.

And this is where managers, mentors, colleagues, and even friends can use the strategies of effective mentoring as a tool to build resilience in others. Instead of growing frustrated or irritated with the other person’s lack of EQ, try the following to build the other person’s self-awareness and self-management:

  • Acknowledge their emotions and the present situation. Don’t gloss over what the other person is feeling or tell them to get over it. Acknowledge that he or she is having a tough time, and that we all do, from time to time. It’s normal, and it’s completely OK to honor those feelings.
  • Draw upon personal experience. Share a story that describes how you have faced setbacks in the past, and the steps you took to learn from them. Don’t rob the other person of his or her experience, but use stories as a point of connection: we all face moments of struggle and challenge.
  • Ask thoughtful questions to create learning opportunities. Gently push with open-ended questions to help the other person examine the current situation and what he or she might learn from it, moving forward. This will not be the last time they face a loss or a disappointment. What will they do differently the next time?
  • Follow-up. Don’t allow this to be a one-time conversation. Check in to make sure the other person is still moving forward and not paralyzed by sadness, shame, or negativity. Accountability checks are a great method for demonstrating care for another person.

Perhaps most importantly, recognize that facing adversity is a universal experience that comes in different forms, depending on the person. If you need someone, find someone. And if someone needs you, be that someone. Whether it’s in this exact moment or another, there will come a time that you too will need a shoulder to cry on or an understanding ear.

More from Allison E McWilliams Ph.D.
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