Proven Resilience Toolkit That Will Make You Crush Tough Times

Redundancy. Termination. Financial Hardship. Miscarriage. Divorce. Failed Exam. Work Pressure. Stress.

Adversity or failure presents in various forms. How to deal with these hurdles when they bump into you unexpectedly as you turn a street corner? Just as you were settling into a hum in life. Just when you thought things were finally going smoothly.

Some time ago, I was chatting with a friend who was terminated just after probation and it was messy. There were a lot of issues to work through to understand why he didn’t pass probation. What went wrong? He was highly qualified for the role and this was smack bang in the middle of his career, so he wasn’t just a graduate who didn’t have a lot of experience. How would he explain this to his next employer? What if it happens again?

Not too long after that, I faced redundancy. My role, which I daresay I loved and which was going swimmingly, was suddenly going to be discontinued just as I was about to advertise for a maternity leave cover. No prior warning. Just like that. How do you handle such news on a sunny day? Well, I’ll tell you how I handled mine – I got in my car and bawled my eyes out as I drove home. I stayed in bed for days crying my heart out. Was it me? Had I been deceiving myself that I was doing a good job when I wasn’t? But then I had good performance reviews. As far as I knew, this was the first time a redundancy was happening in the organisation, so why my job? Eventually, I gathered my thoughts and sent an email to the top Director. I just wanted to know what was going on and why I hadn’t been told and what this meant for me. He told me not to worry, that it was funding related and that he would find something else for me, although he didn’t know what. So what it meant for me was that my role as a team leader and manager of an independent Centre was now discontinued but they would find somewhere for me to fill in as part of the central team. Well, that guaranteed employment, but would be suicidal for my career. I knew it was time to wipe my tears and move on.

Recently, I was contacted by Joe from recruitment website The Ladders to provide some helpful advice to fresh graduates starting out in their professions. Thinking back on how I coped with the loss of my old position, one thing I would like to have known as I was starting out in my career would have been how to handle tough times in my professional life in a way that would make me grow rather than crumble to pieces. We all know that job loss is part and parcel of the average career and generally we will face adversity in our personal lives which, if not handled correctly could spill onto all other aspects of our lives including our performance at work. Therefore gaining the skills that set us up to blossom from those experiences actually increase our capacity to take on bigger and more challenging roles.

Following the loss of my position was the long and rocky road of seeking another job. I plunged myself as soon as I could into this process and when the rejection letters started to clog up my mailbox, I curled into a ball and sunk deep in the wounds inflicted by my failure. When building resilience to the impact of adversity and failure, an important step is to recognise and understand the psychological wounds that you experience in response to the trauma. Like many people in my shoes, losing my job and being unable to immediately secure subsequent employment shattered my beliefs about myself, others and my future. Psychologist Guy Winch listed these responses to failure and each of them resonated with me (source):

  1. Goals seem tougher: After receiving a couple of negative feedback to my job applications, my goal of securing a top job suddenly seemed very difficult. I didn’t expect it would be this hard to get a job and I found myself thinking that I would never ever find a job. In a scientific study, people were asked to kick a football ten times over a goalpost, afterwards they were asked to assess the height and distance of the goal post. Those who were unable to kick the football over the post assessed the goalpost to be significantly higher and further away than those who had succeeded. When we fail, we unconsciously change our perceptions such that our goals seem further out of reach than they really are.
  2. Our abilities seem incompetent: As a result of losing my job and being unable to land an interview from the initial applications I made, I began to perceive my goal of finding a role that was higher than my current job unattainable and I felt I was less capable of reaching that goal. Although these were not accurate assessments, they were distortions that had already occurred subconsciously and were damaging.
  3. Motivation is damaged: The feelings that my goal was tougher to achieve and that I was incapable of achieving it completely demoralised me and damaged my motivation. There was no willpower and enthusiasm to aim high when I didn’t think I would achieve it anyway. I began to go through the motions and take the easy way out by sending out applications that I didn’t have to put too much work into. I skimmed over those that required a selection criteria – what was the point of investing all that effort when all I would get is a NO?
  4. Less likely to take risks: Since I had no motivation to aim high and I didn’t really think I could achieve it anyway, I did not let myself take any risks such as applying for roles that were two or three steps higher than the one I had lost. These are risks I should normally take because these roles are the next natural career progressions for me, but because I had been knocked back a few times, I suddenly felt I wasn’t really qualified. This also applies to business people who have failed at a venture as it becomes more difficult to take risks because they are afraid of failing again.
  5. Less likely to think outside the box: As a result of being less likely to take risks following a failure, our ability to think outside the box is hampered. Bruised and battered, I was not in the mental space where I could come up with new ideas and approaches.
  6. Feeling helpless: Adversity results in feelings of helplessness. For me, job loss and being knocked back by employers made me feel utterly helpless. I had work experience, but I couldn’t make people employ me if they felt I wasn’t right for the job. I was good at my job, but I couldn’t make my job not get discontinued. I felt helpless but the danger in feeling this way was that it spilled onto scenarios where I could make a difference in my life. If I was thinking out of the box and not feeling helpless, I could try other cities, other industries where I had transferable work experience, I could be proactive and approach organisations rather than wait for an opportunity to be advertised, I could …!
  7. Making generalisations that are untrue and damaging: In frustration during tough times we can make some sweeping generalisations that are not only untrue but can damage our ability to understand why we failed and try again or do things differently. “I am not smart enough to pass that exam”; “Everyone is racist, they will never hire me”; “I am too old to get a new job”; “I got fired because I am not a good researcher”; “It’s too late for me to study”; “Relationships are not for me. Everyone cheats.”

After we have experienced a setback, it is essential that we get up, shake off the dust from our clothes and get moving. It is normal to respond in many (or all) of the different ways listed above, but in order to grow from our experience and go on to achieve our dreams we have to heal the right way and build resilience to adversity.

Resilience toolkit that will inoculate you against tough times

Building resilience to adversity also protects us against stress and pressure that will be experienced by every corporate and business professional because we build on our mental, physical and emotional capacities to handle rough times effectively, and these strengths help us maintain the required po
sitivity and life skills that ensure we don’t crumble under high pressure periods. 

  1. Build mental toughness: Depending on what our adversity looks like, we may face one or more of what psychologists call the costs of failure (source). For example, while entrepreneurs who have failed in a business venture run into psychological, social and financial costs, parents experiencing failed pregnancies might only be dealing with psychological impacts. Whichever impacts we face more, our mental state determines how we recover and become resistant to future events. To become tough mentally we need to do the following (source 1; source 2; source 3):
    • Learn how to quickly dispel incorrect beliefs about adversity effectively – This involves settling down and clearing the mental clutter we have accumulated about what we are experiencing. We need to make it clear to ourselves that the emotions we are feeling do not stem directly from the setback/adversity/failure but from our beliefs about setback/adversity/failure. For example, I was getting knocked back by potential employers. In response, I was upset and felt that I had put in my best and it wasn’t good enough. After many more rejections, I truly felt that I would never be good enough for the roles I was aiming for. In reality I was knocked back at first because I was not the right fit for the job. When I stopped believing in myself and started applying for lower roles, I was now getting rejected because I was overqualified. When I didn’t care any longer and wasn’t making any effort in tailoring my resume for the role, I would have been getting ‘NO’ because my application was not up to the standard required for such top roles. Therefore, my emotional response {I’m not good enough} was not related to the real reasons behind my rejection letters but to my beliefs about what I was going through.
    • Arrest thinking traps before they take hold – Here we focus on overgeneralising and judging other people’s or our abilities based on a single event. Recognising that in response to adversity {more so when it has persisted over an extended period of time} we have developed slightly distorted perceptions of our capacities, we need to consciously reverse our outlook and adopt a persistently optimistic and positive mindset. Instead of “I can’t” or “I will never” let’s think “it might take time, but I can do this.” This change in outlook will spur us into those activities that will then empower us to actually achieve the goal.
    • Develop strategies for minimising catastrophic thinking – We do this by considering three scenarios when we experience adversity, (1) worst-case, (2) best-case, and (3) most likely outcomes. For example, if I receive email notification that my boss has set up a meeting to address my poor preparation for a meeting from the previous day, the worst-case scenario I would think of is that I am no good at my job and I will get the sack; the best-case is that he will tell me not to beat myself up because he was aware that I faced events beyond my control and so it wasn’t really my fault; and the most likely outcome is that I accept responsibility and we agree to meet a few days before major meetings to make sure we are both happy with the meeting papers. Thinking through these scenarios helps reinforce the most likely scenarios in our minds and help us push towards them.
  2. Build on your signature competencies/strengths – Do you actually know your strengths? What are you really good at? Taking stock of your strengths revives your self-worth and reconnects you to your potential. A really good free website with survey type questions that will help you collate your signature strengths is www.authentichappiness.org. You can also ask people you trust who are close to you to tell you what they see as your strengths. Another important aspect of building on signature competencies is being aware of the shadow sides of our strengths and deciding on strategies to minimise them. For example, if your key strength is being really creative, you might find that the shadow side of your strength is self-doubt, intense self-criticism, etc.  Building positive beliefs about your abilities help you build resilience for the future. After being reacquainted with your key strengths, charge up your motivation by setting goals for yourself and thinking about how you will feel when you succeed. Reengage your creative side with a brainstorming session to come up with new approaches to achieve your new goals. Practicing this activity on a regular basis will help you develop your problem-solving skills, which makes it easier to cope with challenges and tough times in future.
  3. Build strong relationships – Having supportive people around us that care acts as a shock absorber when we face adversity. They could be family or friends, but while having someone to confide it doesn’t take the troubles away, it does help us share our pain and feelings as well as gain valuable feedback or tips which can help us solve our problems. It is important that we protect this network of support by positively fostering our relationships. Learning how to be there for our friends and family when they needs us and practising active constructive methods of communication are necessary. Active constructive communication makes everyone feel like the other party is emotionally invested in the relationship and makes them more likely to be equally committed to the relationship. I love this example of either responding in an active constructive way or the other less effective ways. If my friend announces, “Guess what?! I’m pregnant” I could respond in the following ways:
    • Active constructive: “That’s fantastic news! Congratulations. {hugs} When are you due? How many weeks are you now? Are you feeling OK?”
    • Passive constructive: “That’s great.”
    • Passive destructive: “My daughter just sent me this funny text message, here have a read…”
    • Active destructive: “The world is now such a dangerous place to be raising kids in. I wish I never had any. Also, a couple of my friends recently had miscarriages. It’s such an awful thing to go through, but maybe it’s not too bad considering the state of the world.”
  4. Nurture and grow yourself – We can do this by finding a sense of purpose in our life. For many people their faith helps them connect with their purpose. Some people also use an injustice or adversity as a vehicle to becoming an activist for that issue so that the experience is not wasted but saves someone else. We can also nurture ourselves by making time for activities we enjoy, eating well and being mindful of making healthy choices especially because times of adversity can make us want to neglect ourselves. Growing ourselves involves learning how to become more flexible and embrace change as this makes us less likely to be crushed by an abrupt change to our circumstances.

How about you? How do you respond to stress, adversity or failure? How will you be using any of these strategies to withstand the pressure experienced during such events? I’m keen to hear your thoughts or stories in the comments.

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