The Practice of Resilience

Everyone reaches a point when moving forward seems impossible. You feel you’ve given your best in your marriage, with your family and in your friendships. You’re are working harder and harder but none of your hard work seems to be paying off. You seem to fail repeatedly. What happens after you’ve tried and failed again and again?

Often, we feel hopeless.

In the 1960’s, researchers studied the learning process by conducting experiments measuring in response to rewards or punishments. This form of learning was called classical conditioning. Originally It was researched by physiologist Ivan Pavlov in his pioneering study who taught dogs to salivate at the ringing of a bell. The work of the 1960’s expanded upon the classical conditioning learning approach by investigating the role of motivation.

Dr. Martin Seligman, known as the father of Positive Psychology, and his colleagues conducted a similar experiment with dogs testing motivation. The dogs would hear a bell followed a light shock administered to the dog. In time, the dogs learned to respond to the shock when the bell sounded. Seligman and his fellow researches did not expect what happened next.

All the dogs were then placed in large crates with a low fence in between. One side of the fence had an electrified floor. Researches gave a light shock when the dogs were on the electrified side but to their surprise, the dogs did not jump to the non-shocking side of the fence. Instead, they laid down. The dogs learned from the first part of the experiment that they were powerless to avoid the shocks. A new set of dogs that had not experienced the shock jumped right over the fence.

This condition was described as “learned helplessness.” This is a state where someone does not attempt to escape a negative situation because the past traumas or persistent failure has taught them powerlessness.

In any situation where they have repeatedly tried and failed, people can develop learned helplessness.

But it can be unlearned.

Dr. Seligman wrote an article on how to become resilient. He offered these suggestions:

1. Increase mental toughness

Notice and dispute unrealistic beliefs. Often, our thoughts about the consequences or outcome have a greater impact than the consequences or outcomes themselves.

Dr. Seligman incorporates the ABCD model to explain:

C=emotional (C)onsequences (“I’m unloveable”) stem not directly from A = (A)dversity (Ex: crisis in relationship) but from B=one’s (B)eliefs about adversity (Ex:“’This is the end of the world for me”). The trick here is to (D)ispute unrealistic beliefs about adversity. (Ex: Is it really the end of the world?).

This ABCD approach was modeled from Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy Albert Ellis’ and is a way to create new possibilities by viewing setbacks in new ways.

2. Play to your strengths

Dr. Seligman oversaw the development of a test highlighting the core characteristics and best qualities of a person. Identify your strengths. Consider your top strengths and how each as allowed you to accomplish your previous goals. Take time to evaluate which strengths do not come as naturally to you and put effort into developing them. Write a narrative about how your strengths have served you in challenging situations.

3. Give yourself a real compliment.

Dr. Seligman said to be specific in your compliments. This idea comes from Carol Dweck, author of MindSet and next generation researcher of learned helplessness. Dweck believes most basic abilities can be developed through dedication, hard work and accurate praise. When you work hard, instead of telling yourself, “Good job. I’m awesome!” Be specific. Say, “Today I did a really good job at maintaining eye contact.” Or “I have been trying really hard the last few weeks to be attentive in my marriage by doing the dishes the way my wife likes.” “I have been training every day for a week even when I didn’t want to. I’m proud of myself for that.” When you’ve been working hard, reward yourself by stating it so it encourages you to continue in the future.

Resilience isn’t easy, but like any skill is learned. Take time to look at a situation differently, work your strengths as you move through it and acknowledge your hard work. Fuller Life helps people strengthen and motivate themselves towards long-term resilience.

Contributed by Angela Blocker , M.A, LMFT Associate

Clinical Supervision by Amy Fuller, PhD, LMFT, LPC

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