Not long ago, I got a plaintive message from a reader who asked, “Is there anything I can do to bounce back after things go wrong? How do you build up resilience if you still struggle with issues of self-esteem?” It’s a good question, especially if, historically, you’ve had trouble picking up the pieces.
Resilience is a skill set learned in childhood
Those who grow up with loving and supportive parents—those with secure attachment—are better at making a comeback after life goes south. That has to do with their self-confidence, on the one hand, and their general understanding that missteps and even failures are an expected part of life.
Those who grow up under a parent’s unforgiving glare—whether that’s the one of a parent high in narcissistic traits, one who is a perfectionist or hypercritical, or one who is controlling or combative—tend to see success as a test of the self and failure as a mark of shame. Their fear of failure not only makes them more risk-averse but also makes it harder for them to come up with productive strategies and recover when there is a setback.
Another theory of personality sees some people as approach-oriented, motivated by goal-setting, but realistic enough to anticipate setbacks. They are folks who are comfortable with having a Plan B in their pocket, which is part and parcel of resilience. The people who go down for the count are those who are avoidance-oriented, who see the mountain to be scaled and are filled with fear and tend to find ways not to climb it at all.
So, if you see yourself in these descriptions of those whose resilience skill set is neither honed nor burnished, what can you do to recover when life heads south?
Following are suggestions gleaned from psychological research and interviews conducted for my books, Quitting—Why We Fear it and Why We Shouldn't—in Life, Love, and Work and Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life.
1. Don’t compare yourself to other people.
Yes, competitiveness is supposed to spur you on, but the reality is that when your life isn’t going smoothly, the worst thing you can do is make a list of everyone you know who is doing so much better. Years ago, I realized that when I was struggling with a book idea, the worst place to find myself was in a bookstore, staring at the book jackets of all those lucky writers and feeling that there were no new ideas under the sun.
Do compare what’s happened to you at other moments you’ve faced a crisis, and see whether there are things you’ve begun to handle better or new moments of understanding. This isn’t meant as a permission slip to play Pollyanna, but to spur you on to take a thoughtful look at what, if any progress, you’ve made.
2. Defang self-criticism.
If you’re someone who tends to be very hard on yourself and who defaults to blaming your innate character flaws for setbacks, try to nip that in the bud. Talk back to the voice that tells you that you’re a hopeless dud and figure out where that voice is coming from. Is it an echo of what a parent used to say to you? Or maybe a bullying sibling?
Instead, take a deep breath, and see what part of the disaster you’re dealing with was actually your responsibility. (Yes, think responsibility and not fault.) It will help you analyze if you see the problem as if it happened to a stranger; distance permits us to see things we might otherwise be blind to.
3. Work on managing your emotions.
Dealing with your feelings of upset, pain, and disappointment is the major task at hand, especially if you see setbacks as evidence of your lack of worth. Being able to label what you’re feeling and why will enable you to begin to pick up the pieces productively. If you’re prone to emotional flooding, do seek counseling; again, emotional intelligence is a learned behavior and can be strengthened and bolstered.
4. Re-focus when there’s a sinkhole by making concrete plans (and write them down!).
In addition to managing your emotions, you need to be able to begin to look forward and make plans for the future. Research shows that coming up with a concrete plan will motivate you enough to kick-start the process of recovery and getting back on track, especially if you write your goals down. (Yes, there’s actually research that shows that writing down your goals motivates you more than just thinking about them.)
So, do it. Plot, plan, and do it in writing! Depending on what it is you’re recovering from—a breakup in a friendship, a love relationship, a job, or trajectory thwarted—the goal planning basically works the same.
5. Deal with life in quadrants, and don’t try to change everything at once.
Many years ago, when I was readying my house for sale and despairing of imposing order on what was chaos, my friend Leslie—someone who is way neater than I, the kind of person who immediately makes stacks of things—gave me really helpful advice: “Tackle every room in sections. Divide it into halves, quarters, or thirds first.”
When things go south in our lives, many of us want to fix everything at once, which, inevitably, overwhelms and paralyzes our efforts. Whether it’s your life, your closet, or your attic, divide first and then conquer piece by piece.
6. Subtract your blessings (don’t count them).
This bit of wisdom is drawn from one of my favorite pieces of research ever, inspired by the movie, It's A Wonderful Life. Remember the scene in which Clarence, the angel, shows George what would have happened to all the people in his life if he’d never been born? Well, the researchers wondered whether people would actually feel more gratitude if they mentally subtracted their blessings, rather than counting them.
And guess what? Imagining those people and things that bring a smile to your face gone from your life will make you feel more grateful than the act of counting. So, counterintuitively, when you’re struggling with a loss, take an inventory of all that remains by subtracting!
7. Put the relentlessly upbeat people in your life on hold for the moment.
Our culture tends to be very impatient about recovery from a loss or setback, and there is, unfortunately, a whole group of people who seem to believe that there’s an expiration date on getting back on your feet. Then, too, there are those who believe “that everything happens for a reason,” and while it may be helpful for them to approach life that way, it’s not going to help you.
Do surround yourself with people who will listen to you without preaching. Hearing that you’re being too pessimistic or that you need to look on the bright side isn’t going to help you, no matter how well-meaning those folks actually are.
Recovery is a process, not a single step. Seek help and guidance if you need it, and above all, practice self-compassion.
Facebook image: Muhd Imran Ismail/Shutterstock
Elliott, Andrew and Todd Thrash, “Approach and avoidant temperament as basic dimensions of personality,” Journal of Personality (2010), 78 (3), 865-906.
Masicampo, E.J. and Roy F. Baumeister, “Consider It Done! Plan Making Can Eliminate the Cognitive effects of Unfulfilled Goals,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, (October, 2011), 4, 667-683.
Koo, Minkyung, Sara B, Agoe, Timothy D. Wilson, and Daniel T. Gilbert,” It’s a Wonderful Life; Mentally Subtracting Positive Events Improves People’s Affective States, Contrary to Their Affective Forecasts.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. vol. 95, no.5 (2008), 1217-1224.