How to develop resilience as an adult
September 18, 2017 9:43 PM   Subscribe

Or, help me kick my own ass. Please.

Recently I came across this New Yorker article on resilience. This worked loose a number of thoughts that I had tucked away in the back of my mind, chief among them that I am not a resilient person, and I would like to be. This article discusses how it’s possible to:
- become more resilient
- change the way that we frame emotions
- develop an internal locus of control

Up until now, I haven’t given much thought to the idea that any of this might be possible, but recently some shit went down in my personal life, and I’ve finally recognized that I need to make these changes. Being tougher, not letting myself be overcome by selfish or self-pitying emotions, and taking responsibility for my actions are all things that I know would have a huge impact on my well-being and success, and would enable me to treat people better.

This has also been on my mind in the context of my generation (millennial, go figure). I’ve been writing a blog post for work that breaks down some stereotypes about Gen Y and discusses how to manage us young punks. But while I think the stereotypes need to be broken down for my generation as a whole, I feel like I fit squarely into them. I am selfish, entitled, and lazy. Having helicopter parents and being praised all the time as a kid has made me dependent and devoid of motivation. Most of my life so far has been a spent trying not to admit responsibility for my actions. I’m sick of myself. I’ve gone back and forth for a long time about whether I’m depressed or just a puss. Maybe some of it is depression, but I think for the most part I’ve been holding onto this idea that life just happens to me, and I wish it were better, but gosh, what am I to do about it?

A few weeks ago, I had a falling out with a dating partner related to some of these issues, and that has been a major catalyst for recognizing that it’s time to deal with my shit. (Have since made up with her, thankfully.) This also ties into issues of empathy and respecting boundaries. To summarize a pattern of behavior that has existed between us...

- She sets out strict boundaries (related to time, space or emotional labor)
- I break the boundaries
- She calls me out
- I refuse to acknowledge my mistakes
- She becomes angry and resentful
- I feel sorry for myself because she's upset with me

The way I see it, I need to cultivate my own strength in order to respect her boundaries better, empathize with her needs, own up to my mistakes, and not fall into a self-pity/shame spiral when I do mess up. So I'm also looking for advice on how to empathize better and be more resilient in the context of a relationship. I think I've been very selfish in the way I treat others, and I want to do better.

I’m planning to do some therapy to get help with this, because it seems about time for it. I’d also like any recommendations for things to read, or look for in a therapist, or what YOU did/went through that made you the go-getting, non-self-pitying, no-shit-taking badass you are today. Do I need to enroll in the army and get my ass kicked? Or just read that book by the Navy SEAL guy? Climb a huge mountain? Sell all my stuff and join a monastery for a while? Mostly joking, but whatever your advice is, please tell me. I need an intervention.

Thanks in advance.
posted by switcheroo to Human Relations (23 answers total) 69 users marked this as a favorite
Wow, you are embarking on a major review and improvement project on yourself and it is inspiring to see you facing this directly.

You've already noted one key thing I would have suggested: honest, open and transparent (H.O.T.) communication with the key people that can help you identify and work on these issues (your dating partner, a therapist, family and close friends with whom you can be vulnerable).

The other suggestion I'd make is to journal, if you don't already do so. By journaling, you can make explicit some of the thinking you're doing, process those thoughts in a more methodical manner, and notice patterns in your attitudes and situations that may trigger boundary transgressions, etc. It will also provide a record of your progress, so you can look back and be proud of how much you've grown.

In a sense, we are our greatest masterwork. Best of luck to you in the endeavor!
posted by darkstar at 11:07 PM on September 18, 2017 [4 favorites]

been grappling with similar stuff (though mine falls into the category of social anxiety, and ramped up avoidance-type-bleh), and to guide the way i've sort of set up a couple ground rules for myself.

1. acknowledging my shortcomings kindly, and with a bit of humor (ooh, spooky gym!)
2. just climb that shit* (c'mon! you didn't get dressed up all fancy to skip this one)
and, don't do the ones you love dirt (this includes myself)

in my case, i've found, that the less i let myself do a lot of soul-searching in the moment and try my utmost to just DO the right thing, i skip the entire drama of feeling like an anxious pile of goo later for extended periods of time. this is not to say, that its not hard as fuck, and a lot of time i feel like clawing my face off, but thats just some fucking neuron track in my brain getting irritated that it needs to switch gears or something. science to backs this up, right??

so yeah, i'm stoked you're set out to knuckle down and deal. and also hella interested to see what others got to say about this one too. go kick your own ass.

*robert graves talks about his fear of heights in the book goodbye to all that and yet he said that it never stopped him from climbing the walls of castles and stuff as a kid. he worked hard on defining and dispersing his terrors – the simple fear of heights was just the first one to be overcome.
posted by speakeasy at 11:41 PM on September 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

Everyone I know that has the qualities you seek has a practice, usually at some point they did or still do Kundalini Yoga.
posted by jbenben at 12:48 AM on September 19, 2017

Therapy could be so helpful for you I think. It could help you see links between your upbringing and your behaviour now, which might help you break bad patterns.

I had an ex whose arguing style was very different to mine. He resisted talking about things up to the point that they were boiling over, and then exploded, which I found very traumatic. We figured out that this was connected to seeing his parents divorce - he associated arguing (or rather, conflict) with breaking up whereas I associated it with fixing problems.

That example you relay with your partner is interesting, and I think it could relate to this: "Having helicopter parents and being praised all the time as a kid "

If you're always praised by the parents you love, you might worry that if the praise stops, so will the love. (Rather than, kids who make mistakes and their parents acnowledge this and help them to do better). Is it possible that receiving criticism, however constructive, triggers a reaction from you to try and conceal the perceived chink in your armour, because you're worried that if someone sees you as flawed, they won't want to be with you anymore?

Picking apart reactions like this might help you to get to the root of them, and change how you respond in real time. It is a very difficult thing to say to yourself, I need to ignore my feelings on this and acnowledge her position. It may get easier if you can precede it with it is possible that I am in the wrong here, and that is ok.
posted by greenish at 2:51 AM on September 19, 2017 [3 favorites]

See if emotional flooding might be a thing for you. This article on flooding in relationships might be helpful.
posted by bunderful at 6:10 AM on September 19, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: This is a "worked for me" piece of advice, but going to an actual powerlifting or olympic weightlifting gym and training every day with resilient people made me more resilient. I learned actual strategies for resilience in that particular sport that telegraphed into the rest of my life.

Ditto for backcountry camping actually. Surround yourself by resilient people (they can be people of different generations - for example, my grandfather fought in WWII and through prostate cancer and was a huge draw of resilience in my own life), challenge yourself to do things you can't do right now in areas that are low-impact on the rest of your life.
posted by notorious medium at 6:24 AM on September 19, 2017 [13 favorites]

Be active in changing what you don't like in your life. If you can't change it, either accept that you can't or try another approach.

It takes time and practice, but the simple question, "what can I do right now about this problem or situation that is bothering me," instead of falling back on self-pity, can and does work wonders.
posted by Crystal Fox at 6:48 AM on September 19, 2017 [2 favorites]

"100 days of baggage reclaim" is an incredibly helpful journaling guide related to all of this and focused on a lot of those issues. Worth every penny, especially if you've never journaled. It gives you a short prompt for the day and helps you set up a structured way to think about your thoughts and weeks. You can do all those things like lifting and mountain climbing but just give journaling a try for 100 days and it'all sink in.
posted by cakebatter at 7:15 AM on September 19, 2017 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Kudos to you for being able to recognize this pattern and tackling it head on.

Within the sequence you describe, you can avoid the last 2 steps if you start being able to say sorry more easily and genuinely mean it. If you can learn to apologize, you'll be able to both show the other person you respect and acknowledge their needs, and also it lets you acknowledge to yourself that yes, you screwed up, but it's not the end if the world, and you're willing to do better. It's about showing respect for her as well as yourself. I guess it's also about becoming confortable with confrontation and disagreement and not taking it personally.

Something that helped me with that type of thing was taking a group therapy course on assertiveness, and reading about Empathic Communication.
posted by winterportage at 7:27 AM on September 19, 2017 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I often recommend th writing of Steven Stosny for personal growth questions and I think his work would be helpful to you too. He writes a column for Psychology Today (here is an entry that relates to your concerns) which is a good place to start. His most recent book is right up your alley.
posted by Sublimity at 8:03 AM on September 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

What really helped me with this was losing my religion and thinking more about death. Kind of dark, I guess, but easier than climbing a mountain or joining a monastery.

Reading enough news stories about (or knowing personally) people who have incredibly unfair things happen to them and face it with an amount of grace that shamed me also helped. Most of the people in my milieu actually did live somewhat charmed lives, so reading a lot of human interest stories was the way to expose myself to that. You know, like the type of story you read in the Daily Mail or other "soft human interest" news.

That makes me simultaneously realize 1.) Life is not fair and 2.) I'm way behind the curve of reacting gracefully to that fact and am not actually a hero. Other people have actually been heroes and put me to shame.
posted by stockpuppet at 9:13 AM on September 19, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I think you're look at building resiliency, but also working on personal responsibility.

I read something when I was younger that really helped me - I can't remember where, but it talked about how the right thing to do is often not the easiest thing, or the most convenient thing, or the most instantly satisfying thing. We often know the right thing, but think, "I don't wanna, because it's uncomfortable!" (or boring, or whatever.)

And at that moment, we can make the choice - responsible or irresponsible. Giving or selfish. Your dating partner sets a boundary and it's not convenient to you, or you feel lazy, so you ignore it, when you know the right thing is to respect her boundary.

So I try to work with this principle, of sorting out what is the right things to do here, and what kind of resistance am I feeling towards doing it? Am I avoiding the right thing because it's not the easiest thing?
posted by Squeak Attack at 9:20 AM on September 19, 2017 [6 favorites]

It sounds like you might get a lot out of checking out some of the Stoic philosophers* (Zeno, Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, etc.) They were pretty much all about developing that internal locus of control, and this might be a good place to start for getting yourself into a mindset of personal responsibility and self-mastery.

I agree that journaling is a great way to sort of work through your own thought patterns and responses, especially in combination with therapy, helpful reading, and meditation. Figuring out which circumstances cause you to default to the thought and behavior patterns you want to break is extremely beneficial, because if you know your trigger points and problem areas, you can find ways to proactively deal with them when they arise.

Something that may also help is making a list of people you know or who inspire you and figuring out which qualities you most admire about them and why. Are you constantly impressed that your one friend always makes time to jog every other day, rain or shine? Does your girlfriend's communication style make you you to want to be more of a straight talker? What specific aspects of resiliency do you want to cultivate, and what could you do today to try to move yourself closer to that ideal? What do you do instead that you'd like to change? (While also recognizing that this will always be a work in progress and perfectionism and the anxiety that comes with it is a whole other obstacle?)

Once you have a good idea in your mind of what you want to be and how you might work towards that goal, at the risk of sounding contradictory, try not to overthink it and focus instead on doing a thing rather than agonizing over it. I'll leave you with this:

“Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.” -Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Good luck! This is incredibly hard to do, but you sound determined and self-aware enough to really make this work.

*Please don't be put off by the internet douche-bros who've tried to co-opt Stoic philosophy to justify their narcissism and lack of empathy. Stick with the source material and you'll be fine. :)
posted by helloimjennsco at 10:07 AM on September 19, 2017 [3 favorites]

I have found daily mindfulness meditation to be powerfully transformative in many ways, including building my ability to introspect with clear and yet also gentle eyes on the bullshit I carry around, and find places to disrupt those patterns by unraveling the way of thinking that drives them. Meditation has also helped me build stamina around uncomfortable feelings, both physical and mental/emotional (which feel more and more like the same thing, actually), which means more steadiness, less flightiness or lashing out.
posted by spindrifter at 3:50 PM on September 19, 2017

Best answer: Resilience: Do things that challenge you, preferably through classes that are done in 4-8 weeks.

A few things I did from age 20 to last week to build resilience:

Night classes to speak a different language.
Got certified as a whitewater raft guide and in swift water rescue.
Joined Toastmasters to become better at public speaking.
Volunteered to tell a story at a Moth type event
Took swimming/golf/other lessons even though I already did those sports.
Took a class every fall and winter from my local night classes place, just to take a class even if I thought it wasn't my thing. I can now arrange flowers while making a bad drawing and doing tai chi and instructing someone how to do CPR

Resilience comes from confidence.

Push yourself in many areas and you can become a confident, resilient and good partner person.
posted by ITravelMontana at 8:29 PM on September 19, 2017 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I’d also like any recommendations for things to read, or look for in a therapist, or what YOU did/went through that made you the go-getting, non-self-pitying, no-shit-taking badass you are today.

I feel a little shy about putting this out here but since you've received some great answers on some of the other items you're looking to change, but only a few on resilience, here's my 2 cents. And I wouldn't normally feel "qualified" to answer that part of your question, but the doc I see for my ADHD and I have spent more than a few hours discussing resilience - thanks in part to that New Yorker article. He thinks I'm extremely resilient, so much so that he said when he read that article he immediately thought of me, so there's my credentials. And here's the thing - though before we discussed it I wouldn't have put it in those terms, I also just *feel* resilient. So maybe that's part of it.

I wouldn't call myself resilient in every part of my life, and there's a few areas where I'm not resilient, or it's getting worn down - dealing with the patriarchy anymore I just feel rage instead of resilience. But here's a few things I've gone through:
--growing up not just "smart" but a smart girl in incredibly sexist, rural area where the highest ambition I was supposed to have was being a teacher or a restaurant manager before I settled down and married a coal miner and popped out 3-4 babies, then overcoming that to go to college, and not just college but grad school;
--growing up and working on a small ranch and what that meant socio-economically, physically, and experience-wise;
--working my way through college with a full-time job and scrounging every scholarship I could get;
--working in the petroleum industry, which is a) very male dominated and b) pretty tough. I worked on offshore deepsea oil rigs for years;
--doing all of that with undiagnosed ADHD
--experiencing what others would call traumatic incidents which involved personal injury and/or the injury/death of others on the job.

And more than anything, when I was ~20 a truck hit me while I was on my bike - 100% the driver's fault - and the doctors told me - someone who ran x-country, hiked, and backpacked voraciously - that I would be lucky if I ever walked "without a limp or device" ever again. It took 4 years of incredibly hard work, and I'll never run a less than 9 minute mile, but I learned how to walk again and then went on to hike, run, backpack, etc. For most people that could be pretty traumatic, but aside from a bad dream or two about physical therapy it . . . just didn't bother me. I mean, yeah, I was pissed I got hit and sad it interrupted my college career, but I wasn't traumatized by it at all. It was just a thing that happened that I had to deal with, and so I did.

So just to give you an example of how my attitude worked in all that and how an internal locus of control works, when I thought about the accident my thoughts didn't go to the driver or how it had fucked things up, but more towards how I saved my own life by wearing a helmet. Good on you, self, was how I approached it. You wore a helmet and saved your own life. And when the docs sat me down to tell me how fucked up my leg and hip was, my thought wasn't anything like why me? but more hahaha FUCK YOU DOC, you have NO idea how hard I can work - you're in for a big surprise. I wasn't unrealistic - I set goals like, by the end of this year I will walk with a cane, which is also important. But I believed in myself, I believed in my strengths, and I was determined that *I* would affect the outcome and work goddamn hard doing it. In other words, mentally I took control of the situation even if the driver hitting me was totally his own fault and kind of a random event to happen.

Obviously I didn't just arrive at that place, and whether or not I learned resilience or it's innate is a, well, a much longer answer. But I'll tell you something that gave me the confidence to do all these things, and it comes with my own personal description: I would describe myself as a rolling ball of failure, and I do, all the time. I fail. Constantly. I fuck up. I make mistakes. I try shit and mess it up and fail every goddamn day. And having gone through so much failure, it makes the accomplishments that much sweeter, and the failures just that much more worthy of learning something from. Seriously, I was the kid who looked forward to tests because you would learn about what you didn't know. But it also gives you a better idea of risk. When I'm trying something new or uncertain, and ask myself what's the worst that could happen, I have a much better idea of what the most probable worst is, and 90% of the time I know I can deal with. So what if I fall flat on my face? Big deal, I've done it before.

On one of the workplace incidents I was involved in that involved the death of someone on the job, I observed something that will always stick with me: everyone who got super depressed, or had PTSD, or felt it to be a traumatic experience, were all people I would guess had never really failed in their entire lives. Oh sure, small things, but everything "big" had pretty much worked out for them, and that incident was the first real thing to happen to them that it didn't. I can't tell what you it means exactly, but my gut is that those of us there who have experienced some real failure were the ones who weren't nearly or at all traumatized. Maybe failure helps build resilience? I don't know, but it makes sense.

Someone mentioned doing something like power lifting or backpacking, and I would agree 100%. Those are the kinds of things where not failure is inevitable, but also confronting your weaknesses and limitations. There's something about physical accomplishment and pushing your limits that just feels good, and it's "safe" in its own way - you're not risking losing a job, for example. I know a lot of people that I, personally, would classify as resilient, and every single one of them does something physical and boundary pushing, even if it's just training for half-marathons.

Geez, this is TLDR - thank you for reading! I leave you with 2 things: one of my personal heroes, someone I looked to for what I now know as a model of resilience. I grew up in wildfire country and knew lots of wildland firefighters and so this person was, if not entirely relatable, at least reachable, if that makes sense - having a role model that isn't, you know, Super Famous Badass Person, makes it easier to envision yourself in their shoes. Anyway, there was a horrible wildfire in Colorado that killed 14 firefighters. The very last person to get away from the fire - literally running for his life - is a guy by the name of Eric Hipke. He had some injuries, but he returned to work as quickly as possible, and teaches what he learned and what he did during that fire and how he saved himself to other firefighters. The book Fire on the Mountain is about what happened if you're interested. For the quicker version of him just talking about how he controlled his own survival, watch this video starting here. Listen to how he talks about his own actions - it's fascinating : as he starts talking and gets involved in the story, you can listen to him take control of the narrative, and thus the situation, both at the time of the fire and in the video. I'd argue that you're watching someone demonstrate that "internal locus of control" and thus his resilience. (Keep watching until he talks about coming over the ridge for the full impact - he's also the narrator, as part of educating people about his experience to prevent it from happening again.) I read that book right after it came out, and it really made an impact on me.

The second thing is something I try to do, and what I best heard -maybe even here! - summed up as this: respond, *not* react. I've liked that so much I've adopted it as a mantra. Here's an example of when I was actively trying to do that in dealing with sexism at work, and here's an example where I responded to a practical joke instead of reacting to it. (I've got better examples in real life, but those are linkable.)

Anyway, because I have talked quite a bit about it with my doc, feel free to MeMail me! And good on you for wanting to make these changes, and for also seeing a therapist - they can help you a lot with the long term work and all the areas you're talking about!
posted by barchan at 8:59 PM on September 19, 2017 [16 favorites]

Best answer: Or just read that book by the Navy SEAL guy?

As soon as I saw 'resilience' in your question, I was going to recommend The Way of The SEAL by Mark Divine. His book is helpful, and has concrete, tangible exercises you can do to help develop grit and resilience. While he's got examples from his own career in the military, there's a lot of philosophy and meditation in there as well.
posted by culfinglin at 3:52 PM on September 20, 2017 [2 favorites]

Maybe try Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being.

You don't have to read it cover to cover. Just leafing through might be enough for you.

From my pre-frontal cortex to yours: good luck!.
posted by OlivesAndTurkishCoffee at 6:49 PM on September 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

I really enjoyed this article (via Flipboard) from the Harvard Business Review. The Better You Know Yourself, the More Resilient You’ll Be.

There are four strategies recommended:

1. Take honest stock of your skills.
2. Curb misplaced irritability.
3. Push back on unrealistic expectations instead of passing them on.
4. Recognize when you’ve fallen into ambivalence and go back to first principles.

The article expands on each of these recommendations and presents them as opportunities to get to know yourself. I found that empowering and it lifted my (rather defeated) spirits.
posted by nathaole at 10:20 AM on September 21, 2017 [2 favorites]

Type II Fun!

The linked article allows for Type 1.5 fun, which I don't recognize, but Type II fun is basically the type of thing that may suck when you're doing it, but rewards you in the end, either through allowing you to do other cool things (sleep under the stars away from civilization, ski downhill) or to brag at the bar and feel good about yourself (climb a mountain in shitty weather). A lot of the resilient people I know have been forced to tough it out through rough conditions in one way or another and make the best of a situation, whether it's on a rock wall or a mountain or in the ocean or wherever.
posted by craven_morhead at 12:16 PM on September 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

Failing at something - anything! - really helps, as does showing up for a class or training as a complete beginner and having to humble yourself as you suck at first and need help.

I'd recommend reading Carol Dweck's Mindset; some of the claims are a bit eye-roll-y, but the core principles of the book are really useful.
posted by Gin and Broadband at 1:51 PM on September 21, 2017

It's helpful to be around people who readily admit their mistakes and correct them with minimal drama. This can help shift your internal dialogue from "I must prove I am in the right!!" to "It's okay to make mistakes, readily admitting my mistakes and addressing them shows I care about what I do and those around me." Same for people who easily admit their flaws in a way that is not fishing for compliments/reassurance.

Transactional Analysis theory suggests that human interactions are conducted in the roles of parent, child, and adult. There's an example I can't find which is sort of like this:

Q: Did you remember to pay the water bill?
The responder has not paid the bill. The Child response is to blame or become defensive.
The Adult response is to say "Oh yes, I need to do that. Thank you for reminding me, I'll do it now."

I can't speak to Transactional Analysis as a whole, but that idea has been helpful to me, and I've often paused to ask myself "What is the Adult response to this?" before opening my mouth.
posted by bunderful at 4:31 PM on September 21, 2017 [2 favorites]

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