Yes/no or maybe. Which is it, or is it? Thinking in terms of either/or can be very useful. Binary thinking is a great way to compress information, it allows us to respond quickly to a dangerous situation. Compressing information helps us survive. It helps us to make quick decisions. Putting our thoughts into categories helps us begin to process our thoughts, it’s an important starting point. The operative words being starting point.
When we leave our thoughts in categories we are doing ourself and others a disservice, we are failing to see the entirety of the interaction. Cognitive distortions are good examples of binary thinking, should/should not, fair/unfair. Cognitive distortions are a great example of compressing information albeit a dysfunctional form of thinking. When we think in terms of good/bad, pretty/ugly, right/wrong, my way or the highway, etc, etc we are missing the nuance of life. This type of thinking does not allow us to think flexibly and makes our lives more difficult.
Flexible thinking is important because it allows you to calibrate your response to the situation at hand by seeing all the colors of the story. This in turn allows you to choose your response as opposed to reacting. So instead of basing your response on feelings or thoughts that might not be rooted in the moment flexible thinking allows you to see all your options and choose the most appropriate response. Flexible thinking makes life better because by allowing you to respond appropriately to the situation at hand you are also enhancing your relationships. You are enhancing your relationships because you are responding from a place of current experience.
How do you become a flexible thinker? I believe the best way is begin is to be curious. Why is this the way it is, why did that person say that, what does that mean? Being curious motivates you to understand the other person’s perspective. And seeing something from someone else’s perspective is the essence of flexible thinking and empathy. Make a list of as many other alternatives as you can think of. Another way to become a flexible thinker is to practice mindfulness. Taking a moment to react will give you the opportunity to respond effectively. There is something to be said for counting to ten.
In all of my years working with parents I’ve never met a parent who doesn’t want their child to be happy and have good self-esteem. What I find curious about this is how parents go about making it happen. I believe most people have many misconceptions about what happiness is and isn’t and how to achieve it. Needless to say self-esteem is an even bigger mystery.
Self-esteem is defined as the regard a person has for themselves. It’s an overall feeling of one’s self-worth. Self-efficacy is defined as a person’s belief in their ability to accomplish a task, in their ability to get things done. Needless to say we don’t expect people to believe they are self-efficacious across all domains. However, the more domains in which a person feels self-efficacious, the more positive an outcome. The theory of self-efficacy was originally proposed by psychologist Albert Bandura in the 1970’s. Self-efficacy predicts self-esteem. I believe if you want your child to have good self-esteem one way to do this is by fostering self-efficacy.
How does self-efficacy relate to self-esteem? Well think about it, if you know or feel pretty confident that you can get things done, I would say it’s pretty safe to say you are going to have high regard for yourself. When you don’t question your ability, when you are open to trying even if you could fail, you most likely will experience high self-esteem.
How do you instill a sense of self-efficacy in your children? If self-efficacy is defined as a person’s belief in their ability to achieve a task then it would seem to make sense that the best way to instill a sense of self-efficacy would be to put a child in as many situations of mastery as possible. And… when a child fails, to send the message that failure is no excuse for giving up. When a child fails it’s an opportunity to say, “Great, what did you learn and what will you do differently next time?” Modeling self-efficacy is also a good way to instill self-efficacy. When a child observes their primary caregivers successfully completing tasks the child tends to learn to believe they too can master the challenges they face.
We all experience good events in our lives, however that does not necessarily mean we appreciate them, much less savor them. Truth be told we tend to be a deficit oriented society. We tend to focus more on the negative, the bad and what’s wrong than on the positive, the good and what is going well. I would venture to say that most likely more good things happen to most people in a day, however, the one bad thing is what usually sticks, it overshadows all the good. This doesn’t have to be the case.
We can choose to engage with the world differently. It’s not easy, it takes effort but it is possible to consciously choose to savor the good. According to Bryant and Veroff savoring is defined as any thoughts, or behaviors capable of generating, intensifying and prolonging enjoyment. Savoring is like swishing a positive experience around in your mind. Savoring is about turning something good into something even better.
According to Bryant and Veroff savoring can occur in three different time frames. We can savor the anticipation of something good to come. We can savor the present moment. Or we can savor the memories of good times past. As long as you savor, the time frame doesn’t really matter.
Now the question becomes how do we savor in the different time frames. If you are an anticipatory savorer you can plan in as much detail as possible the good things to come. If you are a present moment savorer you can learn to really immerse yourself in the moment by focusing on a particular sense as opposed to mental reflection. If you are a savorer of memories, take pictures of good times, keep reminders of good times and look at them as often as possible.
Again, as long as you are able to savor, the time frame does not matter.
Focusing on the good doesn’t come easy, we are a deficit oriented society. We are interested in bad news, we love to solve problems, we readily empathize with life’s difficulties. Anything negative calls our attention. The bad is like velcro – it just sticks to us, the good like teflon – it just rolls right off of us. There are many reasons for this phenomenon.
First there is something called the negativity bias. According to Paul Rozin and Edward Royzman we give greater weight to the negative than we do to the positive. We have better recall for the negative and the negative impacts us more than does the positive. Your boss tells you how well you did on the report you just presented, he was impressed with the content and found it very helpful. He asks, however, for the next time, that you summarize the findings better. What stays with you? The two compliments or the correction about the findings? For most people it is the correction. We give greater weight to the negative or what we perceive as negative than we do to the positive, the negative just calls to us and sticks.
Why is this the case? According to Evolutionary Psychology this is the case because focusing on the negative served a purpose. Primitive man would have not survived if he didn’t focus on the negative. The positive offers no survival information, the negative does. You ignore the positive, nothing happens. You ignore the negative, potentially you don’t live another day. Hence our focus on the negative.
Having said all of the above, we know that our attention is like a spotlight, we can choose to place it anywhere we want. It’s not easy, but it can be done. We can actively drag our attention to wherever we want to put it. We can do this in many ways. We can practice mindfulness. We can practice gratitude. We can change our questions. Or we can simply make a conscious effort to hunt the good stuff. Whichever method you choose attending to the good in our lives offers a slew of benefits.
By some accounts we spend half of our awake time talking to ourselves. This self-talk can be very helpful – when we practice a speech, work out a problem or memorize something, our self-talk is very valuable. Our self-talk becomes less valuable, even detrimental when it turns negative, when it becomes rumination – anxiety ridden images of the future or a compulsive rehashing of an incident, that doesn’t serve our best interest. When this type of self-talk takes over, when we become so wrapped up in our thoughts we lose perspective and begin to believe our thoughts are universal truths and we start to feel bad, it’s a sign we need to put some distance between our thoughts and our behavior.
Psychological distancing gives us the ability to see things from a different perspective. It gives us the ability to be in the moment, be flexible and see our thoughts for what they are – beliefs we make real. Psychological distancing is the ability to see our thoughts as constructs of reality as opposed to reality itself. It’s the ability to distinguish between feeling bad and being bad, for example. Let’s say you bombed a presentation and you feel bad about it. When you are able to distance yourself from your thoughts you are able to say to yourself, “I feel badly about doing so poorly on that presentation, next time I will prepare more” you give yourself some time to feel bad and you are able to move on. The ability to place distance between your thoughts and your actions, to be able to see your thoughts for what they are, makes it easier to deal with difficult situations.
How do you get psychological distance? There are several ways, but first you must hear what you are saying to yourself. Once you can hear your self-talk you can say your name. Shifting from the first person, I, to the third person, Jane, automatically puts distance between you and your thoughts. It might sound awkward but it is a very quick and simple way to put distance. Another way is to ask yourself, “What would I say to a friend about this situation?” If a friend did poorly giving a presentation would you tell them to feel badly or would you encourage them to put it into perspective? These are just a few of the many ways there are to gain psychological distance and to become more resilient.
A person with a growth mindset believes they can grow their skills, intelligence and abilities with effort. A person with a fixed mindset believes they are who they are, their skills, intelligence and abilities are fixed. When you have a growth mindset constructive feedback is seen as an opportunity to grow and get better results, it is welcomed. When you have a fixed mindset however, you believe that no effort achievement proves how smart you are, feedback would imply effort. When you have a fixed mindset challenges, mistakes and corresponding feedback is perceived as a threat to the ego instead of as an opportunity to grow and improve.
What is constructive feedback? It is information about how a person is doing and what they can do to achieve a better outcome. Constructive feedback is not criticism because it is never about the person, it is about what the person is doing and how they can do better.
How can you offer constructive feedback? Constructive feedback first focuses on what the person did well, then on what can be improved and how they can improve. Much like effective praise constructive feedback needs to be process oriented, specific, timely (when possible) and kind. Remember, the goal of feedback is to help the person learn and improve, not to hurt their feelings. Constructive feedback entails offering small, constructive, specific steps that will improve performance.
An example of constructive feedback is, “You are on the right track, this is a really good beginning, you aren’t quite there yet. You need more information about the main character. How about reading more about the subject.” Remember constructive feedback is supportive, process oriented and specific.
I think it is pretty fair to say that when people fail they feel bad. Put plain and simply failure doesn’t feel good. Starting today I would like to propose a reconceptualization of failure!
First, failure is inevitable if you are going to stretch yourself, try new things, learn more, it is to be expected you won’t do everything well the first time around, you might fail. When you started to walk you probably fell down a bunch of times, it didn’t stop you from learning to walk, you had a growth mindset, you kept going and learned to walk. Can you imagine if you hadn’t had a growth mindset, you’d still be crawling around. What I’m getting at is that failure is inherent in learning anything new.
Starting today I’m encouraging parents to applaud their child’s EFFORTFUL failure. Effortful is in capital letters because I’m not suggesting children just go around failing, what I am suggesting is if your child tried something new, difficult, or challenging and failed, he/she should be celebrated. Actually if your child tried anything really hard that was new or not and failed, I’m suggesting that you applaud them. And then of course ask, “What did you learn?,” “Going forward what will you do differently?” Remember failure is information. It’s information about what we can do differently and better next time, it’s the only way to learn.
If we feel bad when our children fail and then make our children feel bad when they fail, we are sending the message that either 1) they should never try anything new or out of their comfort zone, they should only stick to doing things in their comfort zone and easy or 2) they are expected to be perfect no matter what they do, they are put in a box labeled talented and shouldn’t do anything to dispel that.
A growth mindset means that you believe you can grow your intelligence, your abilities, or skills. It means you will make mistakes and know you will learn from those mistakes. So next time your child fails congratulate him/her and without judgment talk about the failure.
How do goal setting and growth mindset relate. When you have a growth mindset you believe that you can grow your intelligence, your abilities or skills. Fundamentally goal setting is a declaration of a belief in a growth mindset. Goal setting is defined as the process of identifying something you want to achieve and establishing measurable steps and timeframes. In essence goal setting is the concretization of the process of change. Therefore another way to foster a growth mindset is to learn to set effective goals. How do you set effective goals?
The most common way to effectively goal set is by establishing SMART goals. The acronym SMART stands for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time bound. When you set a goal using the SMART framework you are setting yourself up for success. By being as specific as possible you are not leaving anything to chance, as such you are increasing the likelihood of reaching your goals and in this way reenforcing your growth mindset.
Another approach to setting goals is called WOOP. WOOP stands for wish, outcome, obstacle and plan. WOOP is a practical way to take good intentions from wishes to goals. When you WOOP you figure out what you want, why you want it – the outcome, what will get in the way of getting what you want and then how you will get to what you want bearing in mind potential obstacles. Personally I like WOOP because it helps you foresee obstacles and plan for them.
Whatever approach you choose, effectively setting goals is the epitome of a growth mindset.
The pursuit of happiness is a fundamental human right, the Declaration of Independence says so. The operative word here being pursuit. The Declaration of Independence doesn’t say you are guaranteed to be happy just because…, it says you are guaranteed the right to pursue happiness.
So what is happiness anyway? Before I tell you how happiness is defined, let me first tell you what it isn’t. It’s not marrying prince or princess charming, it isn’t having all the money in the world. Happiness isn’t a destination. You don’t achieve happiness as a permanent state. Happiness isn’t being in a good mood all the time and smiling all the time. It isn’t avoiding upsetting or negative feelings (actually it’s quite the opposite).
So how is happiness defined? According to Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky happiness is defined as a combination of feeling positive emotions and experiencing a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile. I’d say the positive emotions part is pretty self explanatory. So what gives our lives meaning, makes them good and worthwhile? Well, many things give our life meaning and value – organized religion, social support is a big one, service – as in doing for others, goal achieving, among other things. Let me give you an example. For the most part parents believe that children give their lives meaning and value. Children aren’t always a source of positive emotions (to put it mildly) but most parents unequivocally claim that, in the big picture, their children give their lives meaning and value and thus are a great source of happiness.
The last part of Dr. Lyubomirsky’s definition is important because we all engage in activities that, at the moment might not bring us positive emotions, they might not make us happy or bring us joy, however when all is said and done, these activities bring us immense satisfaction and happiness. It is kind of counter intuitive to the idea of happiness and the whole notion of positive emotions as a source of happiness. However, if we are talking about real, lasting happiness this idea is very important. Think about it, when you work really hard on a project that turns out well, you might not feel happy while you are working hard, but when it’s over you feel immense happiness and that happiness lasts for awhile. Same goes for when you exercise, try something new or do anything that challenges you. If being happy is so important, then I believe it is just as important to be aware that the activities that give our lives meaning and value and happiness might not be the same (by a long shot) as the ones that give us immediate positive emotions.
Awareness of our self-talk is a key resilience skill. Being aware of what we are telling ourselves when we experience difficulty offers us the opportunity to take the unproductive, unrealistic, inaccurate thoughts that are causing us to feel and behave in self-defeating ways and challenge them. Like someone standing up to a bully, when we challenge our thoughts that are destructive, we can stop the damage they inflict on our well-being and happiness.
Unfortunately most of us are sorely unaware of what we are telling ourselves. If we aren’t aware of what we are saying to ourselves, it’s hard to change our thoughts. When this happens, when we can’t hear our self-talk, we can at least try to be aware of the cognitive distortions we are using. While cognitive distortions can be automatic, we can usually listen for certain words we are using – shoulds, terrible, always, never, etc, which signal a cognitive distortion. Once we notice these words we can begin to challenge the thoughts which encase these distortions.
There are many ways to challenge cognitive distortions, the goal of challenging our cognitive distortions is to find a more realistic, balanced way to explain to ourselves why something happened. It’s like being the judge of your own thoughts – are these thoughts facts or opinions. If our thoughts are just beliefs that we make real then they are opinions not facts, therefore we can replace one belief for another one. We can look for a more accurate, balanced belief to replace it with. When we challenge our cognitive distortions we are making our thinking more accurate. When we think more accurately we tend to feel less bad. Please note – we are not going for thinking positively, we are going for thinking more accurately and feeling less bad. This is a very important distinction, the objective is a more balanced and helpful way of thinking. It’s important to emphasize that we will not eliminate all difficult emotions when we challenge our cognitive distortions, that’s not what well-being is about.
Again, what we are going for when we challenge our thoughts is accurate, realistic thinking, the kind of thinking that is in your own best interest. We are NOT looking to eliminate negative feelings. Knowing how to cope with the whole spectrum of feelings is part of being resilient. We are looking to eliminate inaccurate, unrealistic negative feelings.
I believe one of the most important resilience skills is an awareness of our thoughts. Remember, in order to function in this world we need to make sense of it (and right now that’s no easy task). We make sense of it by explaining to ourselves why things happen. The more mentally flexible we are, the more accurate we can be in our explanations as to why a given situation took place. The more accurate we are in our explanations the more resilient we will be. Most of us have consistent ways of explaining why something happened, we have patterns of explanations. Within those patterns of explanations we all use what we call Cognitive Distortions or Irrational Beliefs.
Cognitive distortions are thoughts that cause people to see reality inaccurately. They are beliefs that are irrational and inaccurate and are usually associated with negative feelings. We all have cognitive distortions and we tend to use the same distortions repeatedly. The thing about these errors in thinking is they happen automatically, we don’t intentionally think inaccurately, but we do. And the thing about cognitive distortions is that we feel bad when we think distortedly. When we perceive an event distortedly or irrationally we are negatively impacting our well-being. Remember our thoughts drive our feelings and behavior. By thinking distortedly we are making ourselves feel worse than need be.
So for example, in the face of an upset, I can say to myself “Why am I always (over generalization) reacting this way?! I shouldn’t (should statements) feel this way, this is just terrible (catastrophizing.)” or I can say to myself, “Why am I reacting this way! I really wish I didn’t feel this way, but I do. I know it will pass soon.” The content of what I am saying to myself is very different in each case and will have a different effect on my subsequent feelings and behavior. Always, shouldn’t and terrible are cognitive distortions. If we can hear what we say to ourselves in our efforts to make sense of the world, especially the cognitive distortions we use, we can harness that ability in order to be more accurate and flexible in service of reframing our thoughts or challenging our beliefs
Remember, resilience is not only the ability to overcome adversity, it’s the ability to accept what is beyond our control and make the best happen. There really isn’t much we can do about what life sends our way, but there is a whole lot we can do about how we deal with it.
During difficult times I can’t stress enough the importance of social support. I know, when social support is most elusive, it can be what we most crave. Social support comes in many forms. Remember social support is not defined by the quantity of people in our lives nor the physical presence of the person. Social support is defined by the quality of our relationships. You don’t have to be face to face with a person to have a quality relationship. And research is really clear, social support is correlated to well-being. In case you doubt the importance of social support this is a video on a very well known longitudinal study called the Harvard Study, it explains the importance of social support.
In case you still continue to doubt the importance of social support, this is a wonderful podcast (done at the beginning of the pandemic) on the research on social support and how to beat the sense of loneliness during these times. Dr. Laurie Santos is a Yale professor. In 2018 she offered Yale’s most popular class entitled Psychology and the Good Life.
So, in an effort to make the best happen, to help yourself be more resilient, difficult times can be an opportunity to build community, reach out to people. Call people, skype, zoom, facetime, conference call whatever you choose but reach out. Keep in contact. Be creative about reaching out and being in contact. And be flexible about your expectations.
I believe one of the most important resilience skills is an awareness of our thoughts. Contrary to what most people think, in the face of difficulty, or any event for that matter, it is our thoughts not the event that cause us to feel and react. What we tell ourselves will either perpetuate adversity or stymie it. Our thoughts are our explanation as to why something happened. Our thoughts are our way of making sense of life, they are our way of understanding why X event took place. In order to effectively deal with life we must understand why things happen. For example, you have a fight with your best friend. How upset you get and what you subsequently do is based on what you tell yourself about that fight, how you make sense of it. Do you say to yourself, “Every close relationship has its ups and downs, I’ll just give it time. I think we were both in bad moods. I’ll call Jane tomorrow.” Or do you say, “Well there goes that relationship, she’ll never want to talk to me again and I don’t really want to talk to her. She is always getting mad. I’m never going to call her again.” If you explain the incident to yourself by saying every close relationship has its ups and downs as opposed to she is always getting mad and we’ll never talk to each other (both viable explanations) the subsequent behavior is very different. The results of these two different ways of thinking prompts two very different outcomes. Our explanations help us or hinder us. Our thoughts either allow us to deal effectively and go forward or not.
Our explanations of an event are based on a multitude of factors. However, simply put, our thoughts are just beliefs that we make real. If this weren’t the case then we would all hold the same beliefs and behave in the same way. If this weren’t the case we would all have the same explanation for the same event. But we don’t. Furthermore, more often than not, we usually aren’t aware of our explanations of events. For many, a large portion of their explanations reside in the realm of the unconscious. And therein lies the challenge to resilience. The more aware we are of what we say to ourselves in the face of adversity, the easier it is to be resilient. If we can hear our thoughts then we can make ourselves more resilient.
The beauty of this idea is, much like life, you can’t control the event however, you CAN control the thoughts that arise as a result of the event. So, if you are aware of what you are saying to yourself, let’s say for example during this difficult time, and what you are saying is not conducive to resilience then you can challenge your thoughts to help yourself become more resilient. This is not always an easy task, but it is one well worth the while.
In summary, when you find yourself feeling off, bothered, or just plain upset, search for your thoughts. Ask yourself, “What am I saying to myself?” Once you become aware of what you are saying to yourself, take those thoughts, one by one and challenge them. Ask yourself, “Are these thoughts accurate, would a jury of 12 of my peers say the same things, would my best friend say this?” Use any technique that works for you to break up the counterproductive thoughts. Remember our thoughts are just beliefs we make real. You can replace one thought for another one. Remember, you are not going to change radically, you are not going from upset to elated, you are going to go from upset to a little less upset.
Remember, resilience is the ability to overcome adversity. It’s also the ability to accept what is beyond our control and work around it. There really isn’t much we can do about what life has sent our way, but there is a WHOLE lot we can do about how we choose to deal with it.
Remember when we talk about resilience and what makes us resilient, the ability to be mentally agile makes us resilient. The ability to see multiple options in order to solve problems makes us very resilient. When you face a difficult situation, when you need to solve a problem, the ability to be flexible makes solving the problem less difficult. You can choose to hold tight to how you usually do things (even if it’s not possible at the moment) or you can be flexible and do what is in your best interest – solve the problem as best as you can, for the time being. These are not normal circumstances and there is not much you can do about that, but you surely can choose to do something that’s in your best interest and good for your well-being.
So I have two proposals during this difficult time. #1 do things differently. Be flexible when you can. Now is a time to think about what is in your best interest and that of your family and decide accordingly. If you can continue to do things the way you have been, great! However, when you can’t and you have the option I encourage you to actively choose to do things differently. Remember flexibility makes us more resilient. It’s good for the brain. And it usually makes us feel good to be flexible.
Proposal #2 when you can, make good happen. On those days that you feel up to it, I’m proposing that you make lemonade out of lemons. I’m not suggesting, by any means, to deny the feelings of confusion, sadness and anxiety we all are experiencing in the face of these uncertain times. What I am suggesting is that a byproduct of doing things differently can be making the good happen. When actively choosing to do things differently, think about how you can make the good happen and go for it. Think about what you want to achieve and ALL the ways you can go about achieving it. And pick the way that will make your life better (for the time being, at least). Remember achieving your goals feels good. Make good happen every chance you can.
So if you need to do exercise and don’t enjoy nature, take a walk outside. If you like routines but find it difficult to stick to one because of the circumstances try to be more spontaneous. If you don’t like or have family traditions or rituals, start making family rituals. Do things differently. I guess in a way I’m advocating for upside down day. And above all hunt the good. Honestly, along the road of doing things differently you will most likely make good happen, I encourage you to acknowledge that good and celebrate it.
One last thing, once this pandemic is over no one is saying that what you do differently today will be the new normal. All I’m saying is make good happen now, by doing things differently during this difficult time. This pandemic will be over sooner or later and we will all look back and say…?
Resilience is the ability to overcome adversity. Now more than ever we must marshal those skills we know will effectively help us deal with these stressfully challenging times. Many are homeschooling children, while working from home, while taking care of elders, while worrying and wondering about the future.
Resilience is not only the ability to overcome adversity, it’s the ability to accept what is beyond our control and work around it. There really isn’t much we can do about what life sends our way, but there is a whole lot we can do about how we deal with it. The fact is we are facing a pandemic. Another fact is we can choose how we face this pandemic. As Dr. Randy Pausch said in his Last Lecture, “We can not change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.”
The wonderful thing about resilience is that it is a teachable skill. No doubt some people are born more resilient than others. However, that is not to say that you can’t become more resilient. Actually, times like these are rife with opportunities to learn how to become more resilient and to teach your children how to become more resilient. For many children their parents are their most important role models. This is a perfect time to model for your children how to deal with the difficult situations they will inevitably encounter throughout their lives.