How to read your own emotions and develop resilience
11 Apr 19
Resilience is on trend. But what is it? And how do we get it? Amanda Bradley takes the measure of this fascinating emotional terrain
Resilience is commonly referred to as the ability to bounce back from difficulties and remain positive, thereby allowing us to resolve problems and move forwards.
But it sometimes morphs into being able to take on increasing workloads without breaking a sweat: keep calm and carry on.
I set my definition of resilience early in my career.
I looked around the late 1990s workplace and saw people being effortlessly brilliant, emotionless and self-reliant. I figured the way forward was to be a kind of corporate machine. Wake, work, eat, sleep, repeat. Great idea!
What could go wrong with an emotionless machine?
Think HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey, Ava in Ex-Machina and Terminator 2’s T-1000.
When I was in a straightforward role, machine mode worked fine. When things got higher pressured, that definition tripped me up. Wake, work, eat, sleep, repeat became wake, work, eat, worry, try to sleep.
Whether with your boss or with yourself, be clear about what you can deliver and when
I became tired, emotional and eventually poorly. Then I’d have to stop, rest and reset before starting the whole cycle again. Hopefully, this isn’t familiar to you, but if it is, read on.
I became known as excellent, but fragile. The fragile label hurt because I tried so hard to push down how I felt.
Thinking back to my article for The Treasurer on confidence and Kahler and Capers’ five drivers, I used my Be Strong driver to keep going.
Then I’d snap after being too strong for too long – not because I wasn’t strong enough. I’d be told “toughen up”, “grow a thicker skin” and “don’t take it personally”, which all translated as “feel even less”.
I eventually realised that I was making myself fragile by ignoring myself. But I also discovered resilience isn’t a birthright. I could learn it.
There are countless blogs on ‘how to do’ resilience. We must eat our greens, exercise daily and prioritise sleep. All good stuff. But it felt like a bad joke – “be happier by doing even more”.
For some people that worked, but for me, resilience started with listening to what I needed.
You’re the only expert on you
The only person who knows how you feel is you – but we need to be listening. Otherwise our feelings will start to shout until they’re heard.
It’s like letting the gas out of a shaken cola bottle. Leave it to fizz and it will explode, making a terrible mess. If you twist the cap gently and slowly, the gas dissipates, and the cola remains contained.
The emotion is recognised, which allows it to discharge appropriately.
You are left with an actionable insight that can be communicated calmly, increasing your chance of getting what you need. If the bottle explodes, everybody’s too busy to listen – running around looking for a cloth and blaming you for shaking the bottle.
Consider these examples. You could suddenly find yourself biting a colleague’s head off with no warning, or you could notice your growing frustration and use it to realise you need to establish a boundary.
Instead of skipping lunch and retreating into ourselves, we can notice we are beginning to feel anxious that there’s too much to do, reprioritise and agree with our colleagues what won’t be done until later.
We can discover at the end of the year that we’ve coasted through, or we can realise we are getting bored and proactively look for our next challenge. When we use how we feel as facts and data to show us what we need, we stay in control.
But how do you listen to yourself? Try this simple exercise:
Give yourself 20 minutes in a quiet room with a pen and paper. Write down whatever comes to you: thoughts, observations – you might like to try starting with “when I…” or “sometimes I wish…” and see what comes next. Stick with it and your feelings will eventually emerge.
Avoid using the time to write yourself a new to-do list, though! Daily reflective space helps us understand our feelings and use them to show us what we need.
The more you do it, the easier it becomes to spot how you feel in the moment, increasing your mastery over your reactions.
Relentlessly seek choices
Feeling we are victims of circumstance stinks. Relentlessly seeking choice shows us where we can exercise control for ourselves.
Imagine you aren’t a treasurer – instead, you’ve been in the same role for five years, you are bored stiff, the commute is hell, but it pays the bills and the benefits are good. What are your choices?
You could resign immediately. Perhaps move closer to work. Go to night school. Retrain as a plumber.
You could tell your boss you’d like to reshape your role. You could decide that paying the bills and having the benefits makes everything worthwhile. Or ring a recruiter and move jobs.
It doesn’t matter what you choose, you just need to choose. Choice stops us being a victim of circumstance. It’s like a ‘do nothing’ hedging strategy – it’s still a choice if you’ve considered the other options and decided to do nothing.
Otherwise, you’ve just surrendered your control.
Contract for success
Whether with your boss or with yourself, be clear about what you can deliver and when.
One of my senior leaders was famous for calling around 4pm on Fridays to ask for a written update on something. I’d spend until 7pm in the office writing and sending the report and then Saturday checking my phone for comments, which invariably didn’t come.
It sounds simple, but the day I got my weekends back was the day I asked how urgent his request was. That simple question let me prioritise and agree with myself when I would do the work.
Contracting with ourselves on how much we can reasonably do in a day and then rewarding ourselves when we achieve it also lets us begin to feel proud of ourselves and be comfortable that we have done enough.
We get to leave work fully and go and enjoy the rest of our lives. By being more boundaried, we become more resilient and, ultimately, more useful.
Imagining is worse than knowing
Our imaginations can be our own worst enemies. Stress can make us highly self-critical, even paranoid. “If I leave before 7pm, everyone will think I’m a slacker.”
The antidote is simple. Seek and offer regular feedback. I’m not advocating looking to others for validation – there’s a fine line between transparency and giving someone else responsibility for making you feel good about yourself.
Transparent feedback connects us to each other and builds the trust that you and your colleagues can count on each other. For more on feedback, check out my article on the subject from The Treasurer's Deals Edition 2019.
Resilience lets us be kinder to ourselves
Resilience isn’t being a machine that just keeps going.
It’s being responsive to our environment.
By knowing what we need, what we can control, what is expected of us and what we are willing to do, and by leaving no space for our imaginations to run wild, we can disconnect from the machine and find that resilience is actually a great way to be kinder to ourselves.
About the author
Amanda Bradley is an executive coach at Liberty EQ