When, instead of moving down the sidewalk with some bounce in your step, you are stuck on the ground with lead in your ass, it’s time to lighten your emotional load. It’s time to develop greater resilience so that you can recover from whatever difficult circumstances have knocked you down.
Begin doing this by increasing your self-awareness. The more you understand yourself in a positive light, the greater sense of well-being even as you face emotional struggles. This will enable you to think clearly about your situation and how best to proceed. Add to this the resolve to be persistent in your efforts, and you have resilience.
To develop self-awareness, focus on these five domains (STEAM): Sensations, Thoughts, Emotions, Actions, and Mentalization (explained below).
Sensations: What do you sense in your body?
Being self-aware includes an awareness of your physical self. When you’ve been knocked down by life, you might notice your back muscles are tense, your stomach is churning, or your body generally feels heavy. As you pay attention to these sensations, you may also notice that it opens you to greater awareness of other inner experiences, especially your emotions.
Thoughts: What are your thoughts?
When facing overwhelming problems, people naturally try to protect themselves. Sometimes their normally active minds go into hyper-drive with their thoughts racing nonstop. They get swept up in all the activity, which prevents them from reflecting on it. For instance, they might believe their thoughts that a recent mistake at work shows that they are a failure—not putting it in the context of their many successes.
By consciously observing your thoughts, you give yourself the ability to reflect on them. Rather than getting caught up in one thought or another, you can see all of the thoughts happening before you. You can recognize irrational fear or anger-based thoughts that inflate a relatively small issue into Mount Everest. With this clarity, you are in a much better position to decide which thoughts to believe and how to proceed.
Emotions: What are you feeling?
As you feel and identify your emotions, try to simply sit with them for a while—not running away in your mind or physically distracting yourself. Just keep gently asking yourself what you feel. But be sensitive to your level of distress. If you are overwhelmed, you might need to work through this a little bit at a time. Take breaks as necessary to distract yourself or move on to other aspects of life, re-focusing on your emotions later. Along the way, you might also find it helpful to share with a supportive friend. Or if it all feels like too much, you might seek professional help.
As you attend to your emotions, you notice many—even conflicting ones—at the same time. They can change and change back (such as from anger to sadness and back to anger again); and it can all feel overwhelming.
People who learn to acknowledge and tolerate their mix of emotions are able to let those emotions pass through them without feeling devastated. They find that they are more than their emotions at any given moment, and they find the strength to get up and move forward.
Actions: What are your actions and reactions?
Being resilient requires that you act in ways that enable you to create a path out of a difficult circumstance and on to a better one. So, it is essential that you observe your actions and reactions. Consider the effect they are having on you.
For instance, if you respond with intense anger to your partner explaining that they will be taking a job in another state, you may notice that it causes more tension between you. Your partner may step back, and this may even lead to the end of your relationship. However, if your response is more measured, showing happiness for their good fortune and sadness about missing them, you may notice that your partner tries to comfort you. The two of you might work together to keep the relationship going. Even if you do break up, you might notice that the more positive interactions help you cope with this and move on.
Mentalizing: Do you really “get” what’s going on with you and others?
Mentalizing is a psychological term that means understanding in your mind and connecting in your heart with what is motivating yourself or someone else. Based on your supervisor’s body language and facial expressions, you may “get” that they really think positively of you, even as they tell you that you are not getting a raise this year. Or, you may “get” that your angry response is more about how the company has treated you than an expression of your feelings about your supervisor. (If you want to learn more about mentalizing, check out: Emotional Struggles: One Concept Explains a Lot and Feeling Stuck, Lost, or Overwhelmed? There is Hope)
When you mentalize well, you can empathize better and have more compassion for yourself and others. You will also be better at thinking about how to help yourself get through the difficult times.
By increasing your overall self-awareness, you will strengthen your ability to manage difficult circumstances. You will be more successful in clearly seeing the problem and what you need to overcome it. You will be more successful in getting back up after life knocks you down.
If you would like to learn more about this topic, check out this brief video:
Leslie Becker-Phelps, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice and is on the medical staff at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, Somerset in Somerville, NJ. She is also a regular contributor of the WebMD blog Relationships and is the relationship expert on WebMD’s Relationships Message Board.
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Making Change blog posts are for general educational purposes only. They may or may not be relevant for your particular situation, and they should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional assistance.
Making change through compassionate self-awareness