As part of Mental Health Awareness Week, Dr Clara Cheung explores resilience – a quality we all need during stressful times – and how to build it.
When life is challenging, resilience becomes even more important to our wellbeing, as it can help us stay safe, productive and effective.
Psychologists define resilience as the process of adapting well in the face of adversity or significant sources of stress. In a nutshell, resilience helps us to bounce back from difficult experiences and can also empower us to grow, and even improve our lives.
But being resilient doesn’t mean you won’t experience difficulty or distress. Instead, resilient people choose to respond to challenges positively and to find meaning and purpose in their lives. Family and friends are their most critical resources.
The past 40 years of scientific research have shown that resilience is not a trait, but a skill that can be learned and developed. Like building a muscle, increasing your resilience takes time and intentionality.
Focusing on three core components, as proposed by Martin Seligman of the Positive Psychology Center (known as the father of positive psychology), can empower you to withstand and learn from traumatic experiences. These components are set out below.
1. Building mental toughness
Mental toughness is the ability to stick to something even when the going gets tough. People with high levels of mental toughness can push beyond obstacles and forge a path towards success, while those with lower levels of mental toughness may abandon their dreams. To enhance your mental toughness, you need to develop a positive mindset, connect with your purpose and minimise catastrophic thinking.
Developing a positive mindset: this will make you more able to generate different pathways to achieve a goal during setbacks. It starts with understanding Albert Ellis’s ABCD model: C (emotional consequences) does not directly lead from A (adversity), but from B (one’s beliefs about adversity). You work through a series of As (e.g. falling behind the project schedule) and learn to separate Bs – heat-of-the-moment thoughts about the situation (‘I’m a loser’) – from Cs, the emotions generated by these thoughts.
Then you learn D – how to effectively dispel unrealistic beliefs about adversity. For example, developing a habit of interpreting setbacks as temporary, local and changeable.
Connecting with your purpose: It is important to have a strong ‘why’ for things you are working on. Think about the last time you were working on a goal and things weren’t going well. Maybe you immediately wanted to give up. Perhaps you thought you didn’t have enough willpower or discipline to achieve it.
The truth is, you just didn’t have a strong enough ‘why’. Management guru Simon Sinek has been spreading the message ‘Start with Why’ around the globe. In short, he says that your ‘why’ is the purpose, cause or belief that inspires you. More importantly, without connecting to your ‘why’, you can’t intrinsically motivate yourself to achieve your most challenging goals.
Minimising catastrophic thinking: To do this, consider ‘worst case’, ‘best case’ and ‘most likely’ outcomes. Imagine you receive a negative performance evaluation from a client. You think: ‘I won’t be recommended for promotion, and I don’t have the capability to stay in the project profession.’ Indeed, that could be the worst case. Now let’s think about the best case: ‘The negative report was a mistake.’ And the most likely case? ‘I’m frustrated and my line manager will be disappointed. Yet I’ll work out a performance improvement plan and follow it to improve the situation.’
By thinking about and working through different cases, you are more able to evaluate the situation accurately and take necessary actions to turn it around.
2. Building on your strengths
Your unique strengths are your special tools that allow you to build a happy and fulfilling life. Understanding what tools you possess can give you the confidence to face any challenge that comes your way. Although we can’t predict the future, we can have confidence in our ability to deal with whatever happens.
Seligman and Christopher Peterson’s Values in Action Character Strengths Survey (a free online survey that produces a ranked list of your top 24 character strengths) is a good starting point to understand yourself. Everyone possesses all 24 character strengths that make up what’s best about our personality in differing degrees. Therefore each person has a truly unique character profile. Research shows that people who use their strengths a lot are 18 times more likely to be flourishing and less likely to suffer depression during difficult times than those who do not.
3. Building strong relationships
A strong network of supportive friends, family and colleagues whom you can talk to and confide in can help you through tough times. Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it – and offer a helping hand when you see others struggling. In particular, focusing on positive communication is essential to building strong relationships. Psychology professor Shelly Gable has shown that when an individual responds actively and constructively (as opposed to passively and destructively) to someone who is sharing a positive experience, love and friendship improve.
As positive interactions accumulate, they can have effects that go far beyond the initial conversation, because feeling positive can boost happiness and confidence and reduce stress.
Another tip for positive communication is to give effective praise. The Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck found that when people mention specifics (as opposed to saying something general like ‘Good job!’) it promotes a growth mindset – a belief that most abilities can be developed through hard work – to their counterparts. This belief creates a love of learning and improves one’s resilience level.
And finally…. don’t give up
It takes time and energy to build resilience, but it is a worthwhile investment to improve the quality of your life. Focus on building the above three core components and try not to be disheartened. If you still struggle to cope in certain situations: perseverance is key!
This article is an extract from the summer 2020 issue of Project journal.
You may also be interested in
- The mental health toolkit for project managers
- Sellafield’s mental health first approach to construction projects
- How project managers can look after their health in trying times
Image: Ian Dyball/shutterstock.com