Some jobs can be really frustrating. I had such a retail job, selling industrial cutting tools. It consisted of stressful, long hours learning how these tools cut metal and then convincing manufacturers to buy them. The whole situation made me feel dissatisfied; I wanted to escape it. I didn’t feel very resilient working in that job.
Stand With Stress
Resilience is an important mental training quality. It’s defined as the ability to withstand stress and rebound stronger than before. The ability to rebound made me think of throwing a ball at a wall, having it rebound, and catching it again. To withstand stress, too, seemed important. We “stand with” stress without seeking escape. We can dissect this metaphor into parts that represent various components for building resilience.
The components of resilience in the ball metaphor are:
- We’re the ball.
- The wall is the stressor we interact with.
- Air pressure is what’s inside us. If the ball is deflated, then it deforms a lot, rebounds a little, and falls to the ground. Failure to rebound makes it impossible to catch again by the person who threw it. If the ball is over-inflated, then it deforms a little and rebounds wildly. The successful rebound makes it difficult to catch. If the ball has the right amount of air pressure, then it deforms just enough to rebound and be caught again.
- The ball’s flexibility also determines how much it’ll deform upon impact. If the ball material is too thick it won’t deform enough to create a rebound effect. If it’s too thin it might burst when it hits the wall. If it’s flexible and has the right thickness, then it’ll deform the right amount so it can rebound and be caught.
- The person throwing the ball is part of this metaphor also. That person is our support team and helps create the degree of impact force—level of stress—we experience. Additionally, this person catches us after the stressful event. If we’re thrown into the stressor without enough force, then we won’t rebound enough to be caught again. If we’re thrown too hard, then we could burst and not rebound at all. Either way, the ball—us—can’t be caught by the person who’s in the supporting role.
Building Our Own Resilience
We can examine how to build our own resilient qualities from this ball metaphor.
First, let’s say that the air inside us is our identity. If we tie our identity to outcome, then we’ll feel deflated when we fail. The stress deforms us to the point where we can’t rebound, so we fall to the ground. Conversely, we’ll feel inflated whenever we succeed. The stress doesn’t deform us very much and we rebound before there’s been enough impact to change us. If we separate our identity from outcome, then we’ll interact with the stress more objectively. We won’t be deflated or inflated by outcomes because how we feel about ourselves isn’t dependent on success. This neutral state helps us remain present and aware so we can learn.
Second, the flexibility of the ball material represents the protective boundaries we create around ourselves. The ego creates defenses to protect its identity. The boundary is its identity, so it focuses on making that boundary stronger. The ego doesn’t want to fail, so it defends itself against failures by making excuses. These excuses are added to the boundary, which strengthen the defenses. The ego wants to succeed, to have tangible evidence to validate itself. It adds this evidence of success to the defensive boundary, which strengthens it. Both failure and success disengage us from interacting with the stressor and prevent learning. If we separate identity from outcome, then the ego can’t use failures and successes to strengthen its defenses. Rather, we stay objective about the outcomes and focus on what we can learn from them. Objectivity keeps us flexible to work with the stressors.
Third, we’re not in this alone; everything is in relationship with something else. We have a relationship with our partner, our boss or employee, or the environment. We even have a relationship with ourselves. That relationship may be one where we like ourselves or we hate ourselves. It’s helpful to view our struggles from the context of relationships, because they tend to be stressful. If we hide from them—don’t allow ourselves to be thrown into them—then we don’t deform and learn. If we’re thrown into stressors with too much force—either by ourselves or others—then we’ll seek to escape them and may even be crushed by them. Being thrown with the right amount of force allows us to withstand stress. The right amount of force and the right amount of stress balance each other to create appropriate risks that we can rebound from. Such situations help us stand with them long enough to deform current misperceptions, modify them to learn, and rebound a different, stronger person.
Choices That Support Resilience
All these qualities for developing resilience are important. What’s most important, though, is how we make choices about stress itself. Most of us tend to make choices to avoid stress or find a way to get rid of it. This mindset distracts our attention, which diminishes our attentiveness and presence. Choices that support resilience also welcome stress, even honoring it for the learning lessons it provides. From that choice, we can withstand stressors and can pay attention to them. The key word here is “pay”. We do the work that stress requires by “paying” with our attention. Doing this allows us to work with our attention and rebound from stressful experiences stronger than before.
We’ve all had jobs that we didn’t like, that were frustrating. By withstanding these uncomfortable situations, we can allow ourselves to be fully present and engaged with them. We may learn that we actually like the job, now that we’re fully engaged in it. Or, we may learn that we want to do something different. Full engagement helps us have a more complete and clearer assessment of the job, which helps us make better decisions about how we want to live our lives. Building our resilience allows us to grow, learn from stressors, and rebound as stronger people than before.
Practice Tip: Exercises to Build Resilience
You can improve your resilience in small steps by focusing on these qualities. Over time you’ll be able to withstand stressors better and rebound stronger than you were before.
- What’s inside you: Separate your identity from outcomes. See successes and failures simply as information about your efforts. Then, use that information to learn so you can improve your next effort.
- Flexible defenses: Don’t let your ego put up defenses to protect itself. Remember, everything is in relationship to something else, which begins with your relationship with yourself. Maintain awareness by allowing yourself to be vulnerable, rather than defensive. Doing this keeps you open and connected so you can learn.
- Choose to value work: Choose to honor stress; it provides valuable learning opportunities. Then, demonstrate that you value stress by “paying” with your attention. Stay focused in the present moment.
- Create a team that supports you: You need a support team to provide a foundation for your learning and growth. Make sure your friends support your learning and not your ego. Coach them to help you take appropriate risks.
- Throw yourself into appropriate risks: Too little or too much stress doesn’t provide learning; you’ll be bored or panicked. Engage stress in small steps, which will create big results over time. And, you’ll enjoy the whole process more.