How can we build our emotional muscles and become resilient?

I have received feedback after the article a fortnight ago about emotional muscles and resilience. I had highlighted the story of a young man who was exposed to several adverse events, but had marched on and triumphed despite the odds. A true modern day hero indeed. The majority of the responses have essentially sought to clarify if emotional strengths are skills that can be learnt or built like muscles; or if they are simply something one is either born with or without. Others wanted a prescription for growing emotional muscles and becoming resilient. I will try to address both concerns in today’s article.

Are people born with resilience or can it be acquired through training and practice?

A: While it is true that everyone is not born with the same temperament, and some people are naturally more patient than others; some are more optimistic and not easily frustrated by negative events compared to others. This is an incontrovertible fact.

However, the converse is also true – that people can learn to be more patient in the face of adversity and can learn not to be frustrated with setbacks, and that with perseverance and hard work, success is all but assured. A reader’s comment captured the scenario brilliantly as follows:

“Resilience is an innate gift for a few, but a satisfying reward for as many as work to achieve it.”

The process of learning how to master our emotions and convert negative emotional reactions (or negative patterns of thinking) into positive and constructive channels is essentially what some forms of “talk therapy” (psychotherapy) aim to achieve. And they have shown very positive results, once individuals can realize how they tend to fall into a negative pattern of reactive of thinking about events, which is ultimately hurting them and causing them distress. More often than not, they are usually very pleasantly surprised to see how changing their approach and reactions can translate into much better outcomes for themselves.

Can you give a prescription or step by step guidance on how to master and develop resilience?

A: Unfortunately, there is no magic pill that I can prescribe to make you wake up tomorrow, as a changed, very resilient and optimistic version of yourself. Having said that, the reality is that it is a slow, but steadily positive pathway that yields benefits slowly over time. You need to be consistent with it, and even where things don’t go as well as planned and you find yourself reverting to your old ways, it is still alright. Just recognize it and then resolve to do better moving forward.

The five principles outlined below are helpful towards acquiring resilience and building our emotional muscles:

Invest in social capital: Cultivate and nurture your relationships with your family (spouse, children, siblings, parents), friends and colleagues – expand and invest your time and energies on those around you and they will equally reciprocate the positive vibes and energy back towards you. And we all certainly will have our low moments in life when we will need an emotional crutch to lean on.

Live an active life: Exercise and being active promotes physical and mental wellbeing, and encourages positive feelings about self; as well as outlook to life

Learn from setbacks: When things don’t go your way, pause and consider what you possibly did wrong. Be honest and learn from the experience. This way, you become wiser, rather than bitter. If you accurately identified your mistakes, you will be more confident moving forward, and eager to avoid repeating such mistakes.

Give generously and help others: A famous psychologist, Martin Seligman, once conducted experiments where he asked students to perform two tasks (Do something pleasurable for yourself; and then do something nice to help others). He then asked them to report on how each scenario made them feel. He concluded that helping others resulted in a longer lasting feeling of satisfaction and emotional wellbeing.These results have been replicated severally and found to be true most of the time.

Take notice of the here and now: Sometimes we are so busy and fixated on our five-year target, and are often too busy formulating plans in our heads to even notice or appreciate simple pleasures of life – such as breathing fresh air, or the ability to use the rest room without pain or difficulty. Or to notice the interesting diversity of people who surround us: whether it is in a commercial vehicle for the next two hours of a journey, or the 30 seconds you spend in the lift with a stranger, or your colleagues at work. It improves our emotional wellbeing when we can focus on enjoying the here and now, while planning for the future.


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