Growing your resilience
Early morning meetings along with early morning flights are some of my least favourite things. I am not a morning person. Recently, as I was leaving home to attend a breakfast meeting, my lovely husband handed me a coffee to help me on my way. He’d made it in one of my keep-cups which I placed into my car’s cup holder before backing out of the garage.
We live in the hills overlooking Wellington harbour and so navigating a windy road is the way all our journeys begin and end. I was almost at the bottom of our hill when out of the corner of my eye, I saw my coffee catapult itself out of its holder, be airborne for a moment and then land upside on the passenger seat.
It took my morning brain a few moments to make sense of what I’d seen and then another moment to pick the cup up, and of course, the lid had become dislodged and my lovely coffee was all over the passenger seat.
At this moment I had three choices.
Be really grumpy that my car and keep-cup had somehow conspired against me (why would a car manufacturer make a cup holder with levers that did the opposite of holding a cup in place?), give way to disappointment that my much-anticipated coffee was now soaking into the passenger seat and think dark thoughts about the mess I would have to clean up when I got home.
Focus on the positive. I was definitely now wide awake - catapulting coffee mugs will do that to your brain and how lucky am I to have such a thoughtful husband who made me a coffee in the first place?
Think about what might have been worse. If the coffee cup had catapulted right instead of left, I might have been burned. I would have had to return home to change my outfit, and I would definitely have been late for my meeting.
So which of these three responses is the most helpful?
When stuff happens, and it happens to all of us, the thing we have the most control over is our response. Reacting negatively, thinking dark thoughts, blaming others, or using substances such as alcohol to self-sooth, may in the short term make us feel better but long term will send us down a dark hole, giving us double the problems to solve i.e. how to get out of the hole and then how to remediate the situation that sent us into the dark hole in the first place.
Focussing on the positive, which is the strategy many of us go to instinctively, is a better solution than reacting negatively and will keep you out of the dark hole. My experience though is that positive thoughts do little to improve my attitude to what has happened. Although on the positive side it does allow me to hum “always look on the bright side of life’.
But did you know that the third response which is to think about how much worse a situation could be, is the most helpful? This is because focusing on what could be worse allows gratitude to surface in your life. There are many studies showing how being grateful will grow your resilience and lead to increases in happiness and health.
I was reminded of a book I read a couple of years ago called Option B. Written by psychologist Adam Grant and Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg, Option B is about what to do when Option A is no longer available. For Sheryl, Option B happened when her husband unexpectedly died of a cardiac arrhythmia while running on a treadmill at a holiday resort. Suddenly Sheryl was faced with a very different future to what she imagined.
Following her husband’s death, Sheryl’s instinctive response was to try to think positive thoughts. Adam challenged her to do the opposite, to think of how much worse a situation could be; to imagine what might have happened had her husband been driving her children when he’d had the cardiac arrhythmia. Sheryl’s response was:
“Wow, The thought that I could have lost all three of them never occurred to me. I instantly felt grateful that my children were alive and healthy - and that gratitude overtook the grief”.
What situations are you facing in your life or in your work? Do you ever stop to think about how much worse it could be? If you have a member of your team not pulling their weight imagine how much worse it would be if all your team members were like that? If you are dealing with a difficult student or a demanding parent imagine how much worse it would be if all your students or parents were like that? If you have a difficult boss imagine how much worse work would be if you didn’t have great colleagues supporting you?
Imagining how much worse a situation could be is a sure-fire way of surfacing gratitude.
Recently I celebrated my birthday. I remember in the weeks leading up to my 40th birthday, (yes this was some time ago!) how dark my thoughts were about getting ‘old’. Two weeks before this milestone birthday my 32-year-old brother lost his fight with cancer. Talk about an instant reframe. Instead of being grumpy at turning 40 I was suddenly incredibly grateful to be 40 because at that point I’d had eight more years of life than my brother ever got. And that gratitude has never left me. Every year now on my birthday, I am so extremely grateful that I get to celebrate another year of being alive.
Til next time
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