2020 has forced us to deal with unwanted change in many parts of our lives. In addition to the practicalities of working (or not), raising kids and maintaining our relationships under COVID conditions, many of our clients are feeling the deeper systemic challenges too. People seem to be sensing the broader context of climate disruption, racism, social inequality or post-truth power-plays in a much more visceral way. It’s like our sensitivity to change has an added rawness – we’re feeling that bit more vulnerable to the seismic shifts underfoot.
How we navigate this experience well is a question most people seem to be asking in some form. It’s an important one because behind our immediate maneuverings through our less familiar daily lives, lie some deep uncertainties about what it means to be alive in these times. To participate in and bear witness to planetary ecocide and a society that privileges some and treats others as expendable creates discord in the soul. Its getting harder to ignore. I’m sure you know these deeper feelings. They have bled through our habitual distractions and analytical defences to become a present sensory experience. They have moved from the text-book and opinion-piece to become very real. In-turn, the desire to binge-watch, sleep-in and metaphorically draw the curtains has become a bit more real too.
Whether your challenges involve navigating the molasses of depression, maintaining your patience with a now too-familiar housemate or figuring out just what a meaningful response to climate change is, these issues are a call for change. And wherever these calls are unheard, ignored or unanswered they remain as a test of our emotional resilience.
In our frameworks, emotional resilience is our capacity to remain sensitive to whatever is going on and be bold and wise in our response – even when our inner resolve is challenged.
Emotional resilience is shown when your actions follow your higher principles despite the inner warning bells. It’s those moments when you open the gate in your inner picket-fence and step through; taking a risk for the sake of a bigger story. It’s hearing the call to a hero’s journey – grand or small. Crossing these thresholds of our inner comfort zones may well spark some archetypal journey – think Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games or Star Wars’ Luke Skywalker – off on a life changing adventure. Perhaps more importantly however, often these thresholds come in fleeting moments – ‘blink and you miss them’ offerings. These moments and how we respond to them form part of the invisible boundaries in our everyday lives. They come to define our sense of emotional resilience because we often get too afraid to test those limits. I suggest that if you think about it, we are often given choices to stretch these limits every day. Here’s some examples – posed as questions:
- Can you name the poor behaviour of a close friend or manager – and do so with compassion, without a twinge of righteousness?
- Can you deeply acknowledge the truth in someone’s story that fundamentally challenges one of your own?
- Can you truly accept being wrong about something that matters to you – without catastrophizing, blaming others or triggering a cascade of ruminations about “all your other failings”?
- Can you recognize when you are out of your depth and ask for help – without shame?
- Can you remain curious about how you’re thinking and acting – when you’re emotionally charged?
- You get the picture, fill in the blank….
If you translate these questions into real scenarios in your life and feel some inner reaction, some reflexive tightening, chances are they point to some emotional threshold. If you had a reaction and also answered ‘yes’ (even a little ‘yes’) it’s likely because you have crossed the type of threshold we’re talking about. Doing so requires emotional resilience because it involves navigating (often self-defined) limits of ‘safety’. We’ve risked some hit on our own integrity – whether physical, mental or spiritual – for the sake of integrating something larger.
Answering ‘no’ to these questions also tells us something about where our picket-fence lies. It likely reflects a set of carefully tended stories – ones with mottos like: “it’s not worth it!”, “stay safe!” or “don’t look there!”. Some of these stories are there for a wise reason. Like threshold guardians they stand as reminders of past burns; deep scars made some time ago when we took the plunge but weren’t yet ready to walk the coals or jump in deep with the big kids. Quite often too, those threshold guardians are unwanted gifts – imprinted by some parent figure expressing their own fear or trauma on us. The thing is, ‘last time’ and ‘this time’ are different circumstances. The nature of the threshold is different, not least because we are.
Fortunately, we can cultivate emotional resilience by paying attention to these inner thresholds and our responses to them. In our training, we focus on building capacity in seven areas. These elements include skills like self-care and self-awareness but also our ability to hold a bigger picture and be sensitive to rank and power. I like to think of these seven building blocks as assisting us in three stages of a journey – to recognise our thresholds, to cross and navigate beyond thresholds and to integrate the lessons from our experience. I’ll touch on each of these in the hope of offering some insight and guidance on how to build emotional resilience.
Recognising the thresholds within
Building your emotional resilience demands getting better at recognising the thresholds to our own comfort zones. We need to be able to see these thresholds with enough awareness to have the choice of how to respond. This requires enough sensitivity to our self, our context and the shifting liminal space that links them.
Threshold moments come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes you’re faced with a challenge but don’t have the courage, skills or sensitivity to see it as a threshold moment. It might be a bomb of a comment dropped by a colleague or manager when your response is: “Too hard, too much at risk, keep your head-low, move on”. Maybe you’ve conditioned yourself to not see these moments until it’s too late (or that’s what you tell yourself). Your boss has been acting that way for years, so no one sees it as a problem worth naming. Either way, if you don’t see the situation as a moment to ‘step-up’ you’ll stay behind the picket fence. And while you’re there, you’ll probably put a fair bit of effort into maintaining some story justifying why that’s ok (and maybe not feeling so good about it either). In doing so you’ve made the call to protect the integrity of a small aspect of yourself and undermined the whole.
Sometimes you don’t have the sensitivity to recognise the threshold. We don’t know what we don’t know – right? Maybe there’s a whole set of dynamics at play you haven’t cultivated awareness to, so there’s no chance to step up in the moment. In our work with groups, factors like rank, power, privilege, class and cultural difference can often feature as these blind-spots. But before giving yourself a free pass, there’s almost always an opportunity in these situations. You might be genuinely blind to what is going on but most times you can recognise this blindness and still do something.
There are generally always signs, internal and external that a threshold exists. Whether you’ve missed the moment or not, they can still be crossed. You might feel uncomfortable as your boss starts to talk, knowing there’s some verbal blunder in the pipeline. That’s a sign you are being called to step up. Alternatively, you might note a shift in the energy of a group after the fact. You might not know what’s happened but that doesn’t mean the opportunity is lost. You can always ask if you’ve missed something. Asking that question may itself be a threshold. And above all, it’s a moment to cultivate sensitivity to a blind-spot you didn’t know you had.
Where possible, feeling the proximity of some inner threshold is a good time to slow things down. Don’t let the sensory load overwhelm you. Often it’s a good time to validate your own emotions and uncertainty. You might even do it out-loud.
If something happens around us which disrupts our inner resolve, we can sometimes shrink back from taking action. Giving yourself the time to recognise what is happening creates more space to see how you can intervene. This might sound obvious but when you’re filled with strong emotions – especially fear – your sense of agency can get distorted. In many ways our emotional resilience shapes how we understand cause and effect. Something in our context might ‘happen to us’ but how we absorb and interpret this context and then react to that interpretation is all our own doing. Depending on the framing, most of the agency is yours. You can get caught up in seeing a threshold as an external problem caused by context when really thresholds are all internal barriers. If we can recognise what is outside our control, it can be easier to focus on what we can change. We’re constantly constrained by the force of gravity but we don’t let this get in our way; we don’t even think about it.
Do we always need to cross?
Just because you recognise a threshold doesn’t always mean you need to cross it. To continue the hero’s journey metaphor, don’t enter the dragon’s lair if your only aid is a tooth-pick. As the saying goes – discretion is the better part of valour. If I’m feeling particularly vulnerable, there’s some challenges I won’t take on. There’s been times when I’ve been exhausted, depressed and overworked so I’ve turned down some big conflict mediation gigs. I’ve also held my tongue at times when I didn’t trust myself to be compassionate with someone. At some point though, with these situations, I’ve tried to ask myself whether I was justified or painted myself a false story. Sometimes (after the fact), I’ve had to come clean on my self-delusions.
There’s sometimes another truth here too. Perhaps the heat triggered by a not-so-compassionate response is the necessary catalyst for a critical conversation. Maybe there’s no time for perfection. That’s just another threshold. I reckon you always know if you’ve told yourself some story to avoid reality. You don’t always need to step up but don’t kid yourself about why you’re taking a sickie.
Without the ability to see these moments for what they are – moments that call on you to push your boundaries – you’re going to find fewer opportunities to grow your emotional resilience. Like all those facilitators who train with us and say: “I never have conflict in my groups” – we need to recognise the absence of these thresholds is a carefully cultivated reality. Over time you’ll be more brittle because of it. Better to say “I’m terrified of conflict so I always find myself steering groups away from it”. That’s a little bit of threshold awareness right there.
So you’ve recognised the threshold and decided to cross. You’re going to name that poor behaviour or call-out the simmering tension as the conflict it really is. How do we do this?
No surprise, the starting point is our self. We need to check that we’re functioning from a place of self-control and compassion (or at least curiosity). We’re not naming the poor behaviour because we want to advertise our moral rectitude or about to unleash years of resentment as punishment. We’re doing it because the behaviour makes us or others feel uncomfortable. We’re doing it to maintain the safety of ourselves and others. We’re naming the conflict because it’s likely a threshold the group needs to pass through if it is to grow.
Finding this difference in our approach can be tough. It can help to ask ourselves what our intention is. What is my purpose here? If it’s not clear to you, it sure won’t be clear to anyone else. But that doesn’t mean we need to have all the answers either. Maybe the purpose is simply to understand what is going on. You might be wrong about that threshold so you’re just checking if it’s there:
- “I’m sorry I didn’t quite catch what you said?”
- “I could be wrong but it feels to me like there’s quite a bit of energy and heat underneath this issue, are you feeling it too?
So you’ve don’t it! You’ve crossed that threshold – you’re out of your comfort zone, hanging with the big kids in the deep end. This can involve a significant emotional roller-coaster for you and others, so again sensory overload is pretty normal. Slowing down is important. Self-validation is good here: “Wow! I am feeling out on a limb and a bit lost here!”
Recognising and naming this is not self-defeating or amplifying if it connects you to your anchor-point: you. That feeling of being lost is totally ok – you did step across after all. It’s also just a sensation and those sensations don’t need to change us or our context: just because we’re terrified of being lost in the forest doesn’t change that forest one iota.
So a focus on what is actually happening is key. If you give your attention to your fears too much, your awareness becomes distorted by our own projections. Are those people in conflict really about to kill each other? No. They just don’t understand or want to accept that the other has a legitimate truth. Self-trust is an important part of being aware of what is happening. If we listen to what our senses are telling us, often they give us a useful guide. Sometimes in the old stories – when the heroine gets lost she hears a little voice from some creature or character. That voice often points to path (however convoluted) through the other side. It’s hard to hear these voices if we’re listening to our fears.
If this all sounds too fantastic, a too casual recipe for overcoming those terrifying moments, sure. Sometimes it can take some pretty tricky self-negotiation to overcome these thresholds. At one point I worked on building sites in the UK with a British guy who had been arachnophobic. He described how he got over this fear pretty soon after landing his first backpacking job in Australia working as an arborist. Trimming palm trees in Queensland was a process filled with hundreds of hairy-legged threshold moments. At some point there would have been a pretty clear choice to either integrate his fears and moving on or quit the job.
I don’t know how he made this choice but it’s easy to think of a story where he coached himself through with steely resolve – drawing on a depth of character he didn’t know he had. But that type of Hollywood hero’s journey is cliché and way too simple. If we think of crossing thresholds in this way, we’re setting ourselves up for failure and disappointment. Quite often we need whatever tools of leverage we can find to help us – even if it means we force or ‘trick’ ourselves out of our comfort zone. I think of those moments as a kid when I closed my eyes when jumping off the jetty. If it gets us to jump I don’t think its cheating. So, in my imagination, instead of quitting the job, the guy may have realised there was more than one threshold at play. One involved spiders (lots of them), the other involved the shame of admitting to himself (and maybe others) why he quit. Perhaps the added fear of having no money was there too. So he used his fear of one outcome to help overcome the other. However he did it, in the end he took the fright and grew into his potential a bit more. He told me his story as we were knocking down a building with lots of black widows in it (another climate change side-effect). And he was totally fine.
Whether we navigate the journey well or not so well, building our emotional resilience depends on integrating what we have experienced in a helpful way. What did we do/not do? How did the other person/people respond?
This might simply be a recognition that we have a level of capacity we didn’t realise or acknowledge. This might seem strange but if we’ve built up an identity that doesn’t accommodate the part of us that can navigate beyond some feared threshold, sometimes letting go of that story is what holds us back from learning the lesson. Putting a good result down to luck or ignoring what we contributed to a situation that ‘wasn’t as bad as I first thought’ – won’t help anyone.
Integrating lessons also takes dedicated time. It might be a short experience but the process of re-organising our internal stories and identity can take some work. Do we really want to come to grips with the implications that our white-picket fence is self-constructed? So you’re terrified of conflict but when you went there, you seemed to navigate it pretty well. Does that mean you no longer have a reason to ignore the next conflict that comes up? Unfortunately, yes. The limits on where we can go are far beyond our wildest dreams and the vastness of our possibilities can be terrifying.
As Marianne Williamson highlights in her famous poem:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
And what if you don’t navigate the journey well, what can you learn from that? Again, listening and testing those inner stories is really important. Did you really fuck up that bad!? Was there really no judgement on your part? If you’re worried about your capacity to tell objective reality from your self-flagellation or denial, it can help to start by admitting that first. That’s a pretty powerful realisation. As a Port Adelaide footy tragic I can’t help hear the words of their coach Ken Hinkley referring to the opinions of Monday experts saying words to the effect that ‘things are never as good as the media make out and never as bad’. It takes time to recognise when you’re listening to the extremes and try and filter them out. Meanwhile, go find someone who’ll lend an honest and objective ear to debrief that with. If that sounds like a step too far, I think you’ve found your next threshold to cross.
So what are the take-aways from all this?
- Emotional resilience is a measure of our capacity to be bold…
- In the groupwork model, there are seven building blocks to emotional resilience
- A practical way to build emotional resilience is to developing sensitivity to our emotional thresholds and seek to understand our responses to them and where they might come from.
- Practicing self-compassion and compassion for others is important to navigating over these thresholds – naming what we see, validating and curiosity are valuable aids
- Once we have crossed over, a bumpy ride doesn’t need to define us or indicate in any way how well we are handling being lost in the deep woods – fear has its place.
- Reflecting on the experience and recognising the journey you and others have taken are essential parts of the learning process to build our emotional resilience
- Getting caught up in our own stories about how we navigated the roller-coaster can undermine the process of building emotional resilience
- Is there something else that resonates with you?
Read more about the Groupwork Centre’s approach to emotional intelligence and emotional resilience