In the face of setbacks, some people seem to fall apart, while others find ways to move forward and continue to get things done. Are there things you can do to be resilient?
Bad things happen both personally and professionally. Relationships end. Significant others get sick or die. Promotions are given to someone else. Clients leave. Companies go through rounds of layoffs.
In the face of these setbacks, some people seem to fall apart, while others find ways to move forward and continue to get things done. Are there things you can do to be resilient?
The answer to this question is yes—to a point.
First, bear in mind that resilience does not mean ignoring the negative feelings that come along with a tough time. Significant personal or professional losses will lead to feelings of sadness and disappointment. It is natural to grieve about these losses and it is important to give yourself some time and space to do so. You are not obliged to go through all five stages of grief, but you shouldn’t feel guilty if you do experience sadness or anger before you come to accept what has happened.
Second, people seem to have a happiness set point. Generally speaking in the weeks and months after a significant positive or negative life event, you tend to return to roughly the level of happiness you had before that event. That doesn’t mean that events can’t have a long-term influence on how happy you are, just that the best predictor of how happy you will be several months after a big positive or negative event is how happy you were before it.
Third, there are times when negative feelings are the best way forward from a negative event. In particular, stress and anxiety are the natural reaction to a threat in the environment. If there really is a calamity out there that you are trying to ward off, anxiety might be the right response.
One thing that happens when you are anxious is that you tend to ruminate over the cause of the anxiety. Rumination is a repeated cycle of thoughts. If there is a potential threat, then thinking it through carefully may allow you to develop a plan to move forward that will help you to handle the situation. It may not be enjoyable to experience this level of stress, but it still may be useful.
That said, there are several things you can do to help cope with the bad times.
Understand What You Can Control and What You Can’t
The first is to be clear about what factors are under your control. Quite a bit of work shows that when times are bad, people are more resilient when they focus on things they can do to move forward rather than focusing on the ways that circumstances have conspired to put them in a bind. Focus on actions you can take that will make your situation better. As you engage in those actions, you will find that you feel better about your work and will also be more productive.
Surround Yourself With People Even If You Don’t Feel Like It
Next, engage with other people. When you are sad or stressed, you often don’t want to be around others. But there are several advantages to social engagement. When you talk about what is making you sad or anxious, you often find that other people have had similar experiences that they can share. Sadness can make you feel as though your own situation is unique, so knowing you are not the only one going through something can be valuable. In addition, social connection is motivating and can help you to focus on tasks that need to be done.
Look For An Easy Win
When you experience a loss in one aspect of your life, it can make you focus on the negatives across all of the facets of your existence. That is not a good time to embark on a long project that may not succeed. Instead, find something in your work life that you can complete quickly and successfully. That way, you can remind yourself that a significant setback is not a sign that you are cursed.
Give Everyone the Benefit of the Doubt
Finally, go out of your way to give a positive interpretation of the actions of others. When you are angry about something at work, you tend to find reasons why other people are an obstacle to your success. This is particularly true when you are passed over for something you wanted. Recognize that most people you work with are potential allies. Just because someone was not able to give you something you wanted does not mean that everyone is out to get you.
When you think negative thoughts about other people, you can create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Your negative thoughts will influence the interpretation you give to their actions that can cause you to interact with them anger or mistrust. They will notice your attitude and treat you accordingly. Similarly, when you interpret the actions of other people positively, you are more likely to create good interactions with others.
These strategies will help you to minimize the influence of bad events on your life. They will also help you feel better, because each success you have will boost your attitude toward the future.
Art Markman, PhD is a professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas at Austin and Founding Director of the Program in the Human Dimensions of Organizations. Art is the author of Smart Thinking and Habits of Leadership, Smart Change, Brain Briefs, and, most recently, Bring Your Brain to Work.