What makes a man resilient?
His ability to deal with adversity and endure harsh times.
His ability to sail with strength and determination through the storms and hardships of life: stress, failure, disease, divorce, job loss, poverty, terror, trauma, violence, and bereavement.
His ability to keep a cool mind and remain confident no matter what: when life smacks him to the ground, he gets back up, brushes off the dust, and proceeds with resolute action.
What is his secret?
As with everything in life, there is no “one” secret. There is, however, one key component of resilience that I will talk about here, and that is:
To assess how emotionally flexible you are, reflect on your emotion regulation skills:
- Do you have a rich arsenal of emotion regulation strategies? Reappraisal, distraction, suppression, acceptance, visualization, social sharing, exercise, meditation, sleep, savoring, and problem-solving are just a few of the strategies people use on a regular basis. The larger your toolbox, the more emotionally flexible you are. By contrast, if you can only savor positive and suppress negative emotions, then you are emotionally inflexible.
- Do you know what strategy to choose in every specific situation? For example, if you need to stay calm during a business meeting, you may want to use reappraisal to blunt your anger and not be confrontational; but then there could be this one particular moment where you would benefit from some aggression, where you could use, say, a visualization technique to stoke your flame of anger to act more assertive. Without awareness of your goals, current state, and social context, you will fail to implement the appropriate emotion regulation strategy that helps you get what you want.
- Do you monitor how well your current strategy works and do you adjust or replace it if it proves not or no longer effective? Imagine you feel anxious about giving a public speech: you have tried reappraisal to talk yourself into a confident mindset, but you realize that you are still nervous; you add a second strategy like breathing deeply or distracting yourself, but it doesn’t work; then you try to suppress your emotions, but you see in the body language of your listeners that this only makes matters worse; so you accept your anxiety, maybe pick up the courage to share it with the audience, and you feel things lighten up. Emotional flexibility requires you to be responsive to internal and external feedback—from your body and from social cues—about how effective your current emotion regulation strategy is in your current situation.
The more emotionally flexible you are, the better you can control your emotions and cope with difficult life situations. It is not about having the right strategies, but about having awareness and multiple strategies so that you can employ those that are the most suitable for your specific situation.
Sometimes enhanced expression is the solution, other times tenacious suppression may do the trick, yet other times neither strategy will prove successful. Not the strategy itself matters, but its flexible use in the ever-changing context of goals, emotions, and social relations (Bonanno & Burton, 2013).
Emotionally flexible people are good at both enhancing and suppressing their emotions at will. They are less anxious and depressed (Bonanno & Burton, 2013; partially also Southward & Cheavens, 2017), suffer less long-lasting distress from traumatic events such as 9/11 (Bonanno et al., 2004), and are more in control of cumulative life stress (Westphal et al., 2010). Resilience builds on a man’s ability to flexibly regulate his emotions to meet the dynamic demands of changing circumstances (Waugh et al., 2011).
Personally, I have always thought of resilient men as equanimous stoics who never get too emotional, who never show much excitement or agitation in any situation. The science, however, suggests that resilience is not so much a matter of intense vs. calm, but of rigid vs. flexible emotional responsiveness. Still, a cool mind will always be more flexible than a heated one, because a hysteric hothead cannot choose any emotion regulation strategy deliberately.
Bonanno GA, Papa A, Lalande K, Westphal M, Coifman K (2004). The importance of being flexible: the ability to both enhance and suppress emotional expression predicts long-term adjustment. Psychological Science 15(7), 482-487, doi: 10.1111/j.0956-7976.2004.00705.x.
Bonanno GA, Burton CL (2013). Regulatory Flexibility: An Individual Differences Perspective on Coping and Emotion Regulation. Perspectives on Psychological Science 8(6), 591-612, doi: 10.1177/1745691613504116.
Southward MW, Cheavens JS (2017). Assessing the relation between flexibility in emotional expression and symptoms of anxiety and depression: The roles of context sensitivity and feedback sensitivity. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 36(2), 142-157, doi: 10.1521/jscp.2017.36.2.142.
Waugh CE, Thompson RJ, Gotlib IH (2011). Flexible Emotional Responsiveness in Trait Resilience. Emotion 11(5), 1059-1067, doi: 10.1037/a0021786.
Westphal M, Seivert NH, Bonanno GA (2010). Expressive Flexibility. Emotion 10(1), 92-100, doi: 10.1037/a0018420.
- 8 Reasons Why People Regulate Their Emotions
- Is Suppressing Emotions Bad For You? (Jocko Willink Vs. Science)
- Expectations, Mental Toughness, and My 72-Hour Fasting Challenge