“You must bear losses like a soldier, the voice told me, bravely and without complaint, and just when the day seems lost, grab your shield for another stand, another thrust forward. That is the juncture that separates heroes from the merely strong.”
― Margaret George, The Memoirs of Cleopatra
From the Covid-19 pandemic to an epidemic of economic loss, personal loneliness and isolation, and deep uncertainty about what’s in store, this is a time when even the toughest of us can find ourselves feeling stress, fear, and exhaustion.
How do we recover despite the changing world around us? We need to tap into our innate human capabilities of resilience. Resilience is the capacity to bounce back from change and challenge – no matter what the circumstance.
The stories we tell make a powerful difference in how we handle our circumstances. Take this brief quiz to determine your primary storytelling style when things get tough:
Your teenage daughter is frustrated with school. She’s just run to her room and slammed the door. You’re more likely to think:
a.) She’s got to get this together. I’ll let her be upset and then we’ll talk about it.
b.) She’s a moody teenager and she’s just going to act like this for the next few years. I’m not equipped to deal with this.
There’s a leak in your kitchen ceiling and it’s the last thing you want to deal with right now. You react by telling yourself:
a.) I’ve got this. I’m not a plumber but I’ll figure this out and ask for help.
b.) This is the last thing I need. I can’t fix this, I just needed one thing to go right but nothing works out for me.
Zoom meetings are on the rise, and you have been invited to at least five meetings a day all week, all on video. Your immediate response is:
a.) This is a challenge. If I do all of these meetings I won’t be able to function because I’ll be too tired to focus. I’m going to determine which ones are most important and do those on video, and the others I’ll be there but audio only.
b.) I never have enough energy, and this is going to exhaust me. I’ll show up so I can at least show my face.
The news shows a record number of people with Covid-19 in your local vicinity. Your initial response is:
a.) The world is changing. There’s an opportunity to refocus on what’s important.
b.) Everything is different now and everything is falling apart. I haven’t prepared for this.
You’ve been told that most of your team will be made redundant in the next week. You are sure that:
a.) I may not be in this job for long. Time to reach out to some of my network and start thinking about alternatives in case I need a new plan.
b.) I am not going to make it and there are no other jobs out there right now. Why do I always lose out when there’s competition?
It’s been a rough day and you’ve realized you have forgotten an important work deadline. Your first thought is:
a.) I’d better confess and take the consequences. I might be able to convince my boss that my deliverables will be even better with more research.
b.) I always forget to pay attention. If I lose my job I’ll lose my place to live. This is a disaster.
The stories we tell demonstrate the lens through which we view everything in our life. When we have confidence and optimism, so much can be achieved. Whatever our circumstances are, we can look at those circumstances from an optimistic or pessimistic viewpoint. It’s up to us!
If we listen to the stories we tell about ourselves, about others, and about what happens to and around us we can re-shape our worldview. This approach is called altering our “explanatory style.” It is how to explain events in the world. Numerous researchers have associated an optimistic explanatory style with better academic, athletic and work performance, better coping skills, less likelihood of succumbing to depression, and better physical health.
If you answered primarily Bs: You tend toward a more pessimistic explanatory style. When we adopt this style we re-affirm what positive psychologists call “learned helplessness.” With a pessimistic explanatory style you tend to blame yourself for failures or problems, and you may not give yourself credit for the good things that happen in your life. You may feel that you don’t have power or influence to change your own experience. The great news is that when we learn to reframe our challenges into a more positive story it can make a powerful difference in our outlook and our outcomes.
If you answered primarily As: You tend toward a more optimistic explanatory style. Congratulations – you may have an easier time believing that bad situations are temporary and situational. You remember that life is about change, and that this too shall pass. If you can continue to be conscious about your own explanatory style, you can also help others to recognize when they are drifting into a story that disempowers them.
Explanatory style revolves around the “3P’s” that were identified by Martin Seligman, one of the progenitors of the positive psychology movement and author of “Learned Optimism” and many other books on happiness, optimism, and positivity. These 3Ps are: Permanence, Pervasiveness, and Personalization.
• Permanence: Believing a bad situation will last forever
• Pervasiveness: Believing that situation applies across all parts of your life
• Personalization: Believing that ultimately the problem is you, instead of considering that outside factors are at play
The most important tool in your resilience toolkit is the power of stories to change how you perceive your reality. The more you focus on telling stories of growth, of empowerment, and of positivity the more access you’ll have to your own resilience.
If you are experiencing challenges right now, you’re in good company. Albert Einstien’s teacher told him he would “never amount to much” and he became the most globally renowned scientist of the 20th century. The Beatles were told they had no future in showbusiness by Decca records and became the bestselling recording artists of all time, and Oprah Winfrey was told she “wasn’t fit for television” before she became the world’s most influential talk show host. What unifies these people? That they KEPT GOING in the face of negativity and obstacles. Best guess, they used an optimistic explanatory style to motivate them and shift their experiences to learning and growth.
The stories we tell can become self-fulfilling prophecy. When we have a pessimistic style we can defeat ourselves before we start. An optimistic style positions us to take action and keep going in order to tackle the obstacles in our way.
In order to shift into an optimistic explanatory style remember:
– View your situation as temporary versus permanent. “This too shall pass. It is difficult right now, but nothing lasts forever. There are things I can do to move through this situation gracefully.”
– Stop taking things personally/ don’t make them about yourself. For example “I didn’t create the economic challenges in my city, it’s not about me. I just need to find a way through this circumstance.”
– Envision that whatever is happening is sectioned into a specific aspect of your life, versus pervasive throughout all areas. For example “I’m struggling in school, but that doesn’t mean I’m struggling with my friends and family or my sports team. There are areas of my life that are working well.”
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