by Kristin Harper, author of “The Heart of a Leader: Fifty-Two Emotional Intelligence Insights to Advance Your Career“
This year has brought more than its fair share of trauma — a global pandemic, quarantine, unexpected isolation, sudden deaths, massive job losses, a videotaped murder at the hands of a police officer, a global protest against systemic racism, and more. Many of us might fear we’ll never bounce back from the resulting challenges and hard times.
But contrary to popular belief, after a period of emotional turmoil, most survivors of trauma eventually bounce back, recover and return to their lives. And in some cases, they do much more. They bounce forward and experience post-traumatic growth. I’ve written about these and other crucial tools for helping leaders build resilience, deal with disappointment, and improve relationships in my new book, “The Heart of a Leader: Fifty-Two Emotional Intelligence Insights to Advance Your Career“.
Indeed, many ordinary people have accomplished extraordinary things after experiencing trauma. Authors David Feldman and Lee Daniel Kravtez have shared several true stories in their book, “Supersurvivors: The Surprising Link Between Suffering and Success“, Feldman and Kravetz share several true stories on how ordinary people accomplished extraordinary things after experiencing trauma. From a leukemia sufferer who won an Olympic gold medal to a blind man who rowed across the Atlantic Ocean to a woman who survived genocide and went on to become one of President Obama’s appointees, “supersurvivors” radically deviated from their life path, transforming the worst thing to happen into their best success.
According to Feldman and Kravets, the supersurivivors’ journeys encompassed a series of steps from deep reflection, facing stark realities and worst-case scenarios and grieving to disengaging from previous goals and creating new goals founded in a belief in yourself. Goal disengagement doesn’t mean lowering one’s standards. It simply means beginning the goal pursuit process from where we are rather than deluding ourselves or denying the reality of our situation. It means spending time on goals that are possible given our capabilities, limitations, and resources. It also means training ones’ self to stop thinking positively and start thinking realistically – avoiding the comforting yet delusional fiction that “everything will be fine” and instead bravely ask, “What now?” Denying or distorting a bad situation may be comforting in the short term, but it’s potentially harmful in the long run.
Adopting realistic thinking, accepting the consequences of trauma, giving up on an unattainable goal and creating new goals that motivate and inspire you to action is the only way to move forward. Increased resilience can help you navigate the twists and turns of life. This is a better recipe for fulfillment than striving for impossible dreams.
Diane Contu, author of “Resilience at Work: How to Succeed No Matter What Life Throws at You“, adds that it’s also key to find meaning in hardship and have an uncanny ability to improvise, making do with whatever’s at hand instead of crying out in despair.
But it takes time and intention to build this emotional resilience. Following are ten strategies I have used and recommend building the resilience to move from trauma to triumph, and bouncing forward.
1. Practice mindfulness.
Become keenly aware of the circumstances, how you feel, what you think, and what your options are. When you pause to observe the experience from a neutral standpoint, and then to try to solve the problem, you pivot attention from the neural network in your brain to the more observational parts of the brain. Renowned psychologist Linda Graham describes this as “the ability to pause, step back, reflect, shift perspectives, create options, and choose wisely. Becoming detached from the raw emotions empowers you to approach the future with high intent and low attachment.
2. Breathe slowly and deeply.
Being stressed keeps your immune system from working at full capacity. This can make you more susceptible to numerous health conditions. Over time, chronic stress, even from seemingly minor inconveniences can cause you to develop anxiety or depression. Diaphragmatic breathing is beneficial in high-stress situations and as a daily practice to stay grounded and in greater control of your response to life’s inevitable curveballs.
3. Build a robust emotional vocabulary.
Everyone experiences emotions. The purpose of expressing emotions is to help you reach a resolution to what’s bothering you. This can’t be done if your feelings are bottled up or unexpressed. There are dozens of words for different emotions. Being able to articulate and understand the subtle distinctions between various emotions, for example being irritable, upset, or anxious, is called emotional granularity. Research shows that translating feelings into even just one or two words literally calms the part of our brain that controls emotions, which greatly reduces our emotions’ influence over us. My favorite resource for learning the variety and nuances of emotions is the Feelings Wheel, which can be found with a simple internet search.
As you process the situation, it’s healthy to reflect but not to ruminate. Churning over the “if-onlys” about the past or being anxious over the “what-ifs” of the future is futile. As you reflect, take responsibility for any words, actions, and behaviors that may have affected the situation. Articulate what you have learned to become stronger and wiser in the future. Identify concerns quickly and courageously, and don’t let them fester. Explore the possibilities and consider the potential upsides of this unforeseen trauma or situation.
5. Reframe your mindset.
Research has found that super-resilient people are six times more likely to do one thing: force themselves to have an internal locus of control. In other words, the more you believe that you have control over the outcomes of your life (and that you can cope with less than optimal outcomes), the more resilient you are.
6. Search for meaning.
Resist the impulse to view yourself as a victim and to lament, “Why me?” Instead, reframe your trauma and suffering to create greater meaning for yourself and others. Finding meaning is the way resilient people build bridges from present-day hardships to a fuller life and better-constructed future. Those bridges make the present manageable and remove the sense that the present circumstance is overwhelming.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu famously said, “Without forgiveness, there is no hope.” Forgiveness means breaking the psychological ties that bind you to the past and giving up the quest to change what has already happened. Sometimes giving up on impossible goals can free people to experience true hope, the grounded hope of changing the future.
8. Engage your support network.
Research shows that extroverted individuals tend to be more resilient because they’re more likely to reach out to others when they need support. As an employee, coaching doesn’t always come from your manager or someone above your level. Some of the best coaching comes from peers, especially if you’ve built relationships that are more collaborative than competitive. Spouses, family members, and significant others also serve as an excellent source of support.
9. Take control of your outcomes.
It is difficult to control your emotions; however, emotions can be managed through techniques such as pausing, counting to ten, taking a deep breath, being slow to speak, believing that you can control your destiny, and taking calculated risks. After all, if you’ve already faced the stark realities and considered the worst-case scenario, what do you have to lose?
10. Express gratitude.
Learning to appreciate what we have and who we are, instead of complaining and stressing about what we don’t have or who we think we should be, is a powerful technique to redirect stressful, negative emotions. Be grateful for what happened and what didn’t happen. Be grateful for what you’ve accomplished, who you are, and who you’re not. Gratitude builds fortitude to help you bounce back… better.
Kristin Harper is CEO of Driven to Succeed, LLC, a leadership development company that provides brand strategy consulting, market research, and keynote speaking on leadership and emotional intelligence. She is also author of “The Heart of a Leader: Fifty-Two Emotional Intelligence Insights to Advance Your Career“.