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Emotional Resilience

Everything you need to know to ditch the disappointment and bounce back quicker and stronger.

By Margery D. Rosen

All About Emotional Resilience

I still remember the socked-in-the-stomach feeling of learning that I had been rejected by my first-choice college. Everyone in my group of friends had been accepted to their dream school except me.

The shock was huge. At 17 I was convinced my life was, if not over, certainly on a downward slide.

I didn't know then that enrolling in my second-choice school would be the best thing I could have done. It was there that I developed a passion for journalism, which became my career. I made friends who are still dear to me, and I met my husband in my junior year.

Now, when my son and daughter face setbacks, I think about that disappointment and hope I've taught them what it helped teach me: You can bounce back when life throws you a curve.

We all experience failures or losses, but we don't all deal with them the same way. Some of us get stuck in hurt and resentment. We may blame others when things go wrong. Other times we blame ourselves and give up and shut down.

Emotionally resilient people, however, respond differently. "They may get angry or distressed, too, but they don't dwell on these feelings," says Al Siebert, Ph.D., director of the Resiliency Center in Portland, Oregon. People who possess this hard-to-quantify combination of courage, confidence, humor, and hope are more able to recover from disappointments. And while, like everyone else, resilient individuals don't get everything they want in life, they get more.

"Resilience is the basic ingredient of happiness and success," says Karen Reivich, Ph.D., a research associate in the University of Pennsylvania's Department of Psychology. "It affects your work performance and relationships. When you're resilient, you can make tough decisions with grace and humor. You stop being a victim and start being a survivor."

Whatever your resilience level, it's a good bet you can improve it. "Everyone has a set range of ability, not just a set point," says Jonathan Haidt, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "Whether you live your life in the lower or upper end of your range is up to you." v

Even though you can't always control what happens to you, you can learn to respond to disappointments and setbacks in more constructive ways. "Resilience is something that anyone can develop at any age," says Reivich, coauthor of The Resilience Factor (Broadway Books). These strategies can help.

Happiness Hurdles A friend betrays a confidence.

Smart moves: Broken trusts often force people to face unpleasant truths they were trying to ignore. Should you have seen this betrayal coming? Were there clues you chose to overlook? Perhaps you knew this person had betrayed other friends but you didn't want to believe she'd do it to you. If so, tell yourself you've learned a lesson about whom to trust in the future. You must also decide if you care enough about this friend to confront her, and you may be worrying about how she'll respond. If all she offers are denials and excuses, you might choose to end the friendship. But you'll know you gave her a chance to explain herself and made clear what you expect from a friend.

You were passed over for a promotion.

Smart moves: You're entitled to feel lousy—for a while. But keep these feelings in check at the office, where displays of anger or self-pity don't serve you well. Share them with a trusted relative or friend. Write them in a journal or talk them into a tape recorder. "Don't censor yourself," suggests Haidt, author of The Happiness Hypothesis (Basic Books). "Just write what happened, how you feel about it, and why you feel that way." This will help hurt and anger dissipate. "Then you'll be ready to find the lesson in the disappointment," says Siebert, author of The Resiliency Advantage (Berrett-Koehler).

You might want to talk to someone in your human resources department to find out if there's something you're doing or not doing that prevented the promotion. You could say, "I'm disappointed. I thought I was qualified. What do I need to do to show that I am?" Doing this will make you feel better because you'll know you took steps to improve your chances of being promoted next time. "Resilience is something you do, not something you have," says Siebert.

You want a closer relationship with your sister now that you're both moms, but she doesn't seem interested.

Smart moves: Tell yourself that you could be misinterpreting your sister's response. It may not be closeness she's rejecting but simply the ways you're trying to achieve it. You may want your families to have dinner together every Sunday, for example, while she prefers to reserve Sundays to relax. Swallow your hurt and ask her to suggest activities she'd enjoy. Perhaps a family bike ride on Saturday sounds like more fun to her. Or maybe she'd prefer to see you alone for lunch and a movie. You can pursue other interests on your own. "Your family can't fill every need," says Reivich. "That's what book groups and hiking clubs are for." Networking with people who share your interests will lift your spirits and make your sister's coolness hurt a little less.

You got lost on the way to a cousin's wedding and missed the ceremony.

Smart moves: When you feel disappointed, acknowledge it, but don't wallow. And don't let it detract from someone else's happiness on a special day. "Resilient people hope they'll accomplish their goals, but they know that sometimes they won't," says Siebert. That's when they turn to Plan B. If you arrive at the church as the ceremony is ending, you can still enjoy the setting and join guests in congratulating the newlyweds. You can ask relatives to tell you what you've missed and to share any photos they've taken—and you can still attend the reception. "What you do in response to disappointments has a direct impact on your well-being," says Haidt.

Your son didn't get accepted to the college of his choice.

Smart moves: He may act as if he doesn't care, but don't believe it. He needs your compassion and support as he deals with this disappointment and considers his options. Some parents take a child's college rejection harder than the child does. If this is true of you, Reivich suggests coming up with a phrase you can repeat to yourself when you start obsessing. You might remind yourself that many kids don't get into their first-choice school but are perfectly happy where they end up. You may have to say this to yourself often before you start believing it, says Reivich. But once you do, you'll be calmer and more able to focus on helping your child.

Four Ways to Bounce Back

  1. Watch your thoughts. When something bad happens, do you blame yourself and imagine disaster? Try to catch these thoughts, says Reivich, so you can rework them into self-talk that buoys you up instead of weighing you down. For instance, if you're taking a course and receive a "D" on your first paper, you can call yourself stupid and decide you're going to flunk, or you can see the grade as a clear indicator that you need to study more and perhaps let your husband handle dinner the next time you have a paper due.
  2. Give yourself credit. People often find it easier to take responsibility for their failures than for their successes, says Reivich. When things go well, many people attribute it to luck or someone's kindness. Resilient people do the reverse. They attribute failure to factors beyond their control and give themselves credit when things go well.
  3. Get happy. The more positive experiences people have on a regular basis—laughter, hugs, time with loved ones—the better they fare when trouble strikes, according to studies coauthored by Barbara Fredrickson, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. To build your happiness reserves, think of five things you can do each day that give you pleasure and do them. Go for a walk at lunchtime. Romp with your dog. Take the scenic route home. Filling your days with small pleasures provides a big boost to your well-being.
  4. See the silver lining. When difficulties come your way, remind yourself that dealing with setbacks builds your resilience. "Rising to a challenge reveals your abilities," says Haidt. "It can help you discover strengths you never knew you had. As a result, your sense of who you are shifts. You begin to have more confidence in your ability to overcome obstacles because you've done it once and you know that, if necessary, you can do it again."

Rejection Rx by Hannah Storm

After college I wanted to be a sportscaster. I'd had many internships, but I couldn't get hired because of my gender. How did I handle the constant rejection? I stayed focused on my goals. My dad always said, "Don't look at the odds against you. Just one person needs to believe in you." This helped lead me to a groundbreaking career as a sportscaster. It was a struggle but worth it—especially knowing I was fighting for all women who chose the same career path.

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