Building Emotional Resilience
Updated: May 31, 2020
Building and Nurturing Emotional Resilience is One of the Keystone Habits that Enable Us to Bounce Back Better, Stronger and Wiser after Disruptive Experiences.
In America, we live in a society where we are conditioned at a young age to shift the negative to the positive because the adults around us were uncomfortable with what they perceived as “negative thoughts and emotions.” Many of the most influential adults in our childhood didn’t have the emotional agility necessary to hold space for us to come to the understanding that its okay to feel and process difficult emotions.
Too many of us grew up berating ourselves when we weren’t upbeat or happy all the time. Some of us felt guilty because "we had too much to be grateful for." This left us to have figure out what we needed to do with our difficult thoughts and emotions because we didn't want to seem ungrateful. Over time, we developed the habit of dismissing the grief we felt from our heartaches, disappointments and losses. We did everything we knew how to do to numb ourselves from our difficult thoughts and emotions because we thought that if we acknowledged the truth of what we were thinking and feeling somehow that would be admitting that we were ungrateful, powerlessness, and unable to figure out a way forward that was in our best interest.
Nothing could be further from the truth. It is our capacity to allow and accept the truth of our difficult thoughts and emotions, and the circumstances that triggers them that enable us to show ourselves the compassionate kindness we need to process difficult emotions and circumstances in a productive and healthy manner. It’s when we dismiss the truth of our difficult thoughts and emotions and attempt to dismiss, numb and deny them that they begin to wreak havoc in our lives, starting from the inside out.
Out of Sight Is Not Out of Mind
In their book, The Voice, Dr. Brian Alman and Dr. Stephen Montgomery writes, “Awareness of your challenge is so important because most of us spend most of our lives in a state of unawareness. Early in life we learn to repress our emotions, to stuff down our desires, our anger, and our fear -whatever causes us too much trouble, or puts too much stress on our family. And this seems to work. This seems to solve the problem. Pretty soon, with all this repressing we become unconscious of these troubling thoughts and feelings; we start forgetting about them, and we don't even think they exist anymore.” The authors point out, “But they don't disappear. Out of sight is not out of mind. In fact, these repressed thoughts and feelings go deep down and grow strong in hiding and they begin to exert a kind of silent, subversive control over you, taking their revenge by causing all sorts of physical and emotional problems.”
Feelings are in the body. Reactions are in the head. Nisargadatta writes, “Pain is physical, suffering is mental. Suffering is due entirely to clinging or resisting. It is a sign of our unwillingness to move, to flow with life. Although all life has pain, a wise life is free from suffering. A wise person is friendly with the inevitable and does not suffer. Pain they know but it does not break them. If they can, they do what is possible to restore balance. If not, they let things take their course.”
Living In A State of Quiet Desperation
In my book Get Unstuck Now I share details about the suffering I experienced after the unexpected loss of my teenage son, Blease, and how much of it was because of my inaccurate emotional interpretations (story) about grief and loss, and my lack of knowledge about how to process difficult thoughts and emotions in a healthy manner.
For several years after the loss of my son, I was living in a state of quiet desperation.
Over time, my attempt to repress the emotions I felt due to the loss of my son began to erupt under the guise of health issues. Despite my outward success, I started to experience panic attacks on a regular basis and my blood pressure remained at a dangerous level. My primary doctor required me to visit her monthly for six consecutive months so she could monitor the affects of the blood pressure and anxiety medication she had prescribed. Dr. Brian Allman and Dr. Stephen Montgomery write in The Voice, “It’s not the difficulties themselves but a repression of our feelings that elevates our stress to dangerous levels.”
The only time I discussed the truth of what I was feeling about my son's death was at my primary doctor's office. At the time, I didn't feel emotionally safe talking about my feelings with anyone else. But, she only had so much time between patients to talk to me about my feelings of grief and what I was doing to cope with my son's death. During one of my office visits, in a compassionate, but, forthright manner, she warned me, “Jackie, if you don't learn how to cope with the loss of your son in a healthy manner and manage the stress you're experiencing from the demands of your job, these health issues that you're experiencing can lead to cardiac arrest.” The mere thought of my inability to cope with my son's death and manage my work-related stress could cause me to have a heart attack created a shift in my awareness that compelled me to seek out a better approach towards tackling both issues. I had reached that point when “I had come to the end of myself” and needed to reach out for help.
Both my mom and son had died from cardiac arrest. I needed to do what I had to do to better manage my health issues. Although I may have felt on many days that I didn’t have the strength to go on, and worried that the death of my son was going to be the death of me, that day in my doctor’s office caused me to get clear about two things - I didn’t want to die and I needed to figure out how to process my fear of facing the truth of my grief-ridden heart. It was evident that my efforts to numb, dismiss and deny the truth of what I was feeling was not working.
My doctor recommended that I look into joining a group therapy program. I reached out to a therapist for a consult and joined her therapy group. I was a member of it for six months. I decided to leave it because I wasn’t ready to do the emotional work necessary to process the grief and stress I was feeling. In hindsight, I realized that at the time, I didn’t have the emotional courage it takes to be real with myself and others about the truth of what I was thinking and feeling about the loss of my son, how the experience was changing how I was looking at life and what it all meant for me as I struggled to navigate a new normal.
I was afraid of the excruciating grief I felt in my soul. At the time, I believed facing the truth of what I was feeling would result in losing control of myself. I held the view of myself being a strong, black woman. The manner in which I defined what that looks like became a source of my unnecessary suffering. Here’s what I mean, I bought into the narrative that being a strong, black woman meant believing that time heals all wounds. Which meant denying, suppressing, and dismissing the truth of what I felt to maintain the facade of being in control. I used my work and many other distractions to avoid facing the truth of my grief. These tactics worked for a while, but, over time, they began to diminish my sense of personal power. I couldn't understand why everything I'd done in the past to cope with the death of loved ones wasn't helping me move beyond the anguish I was experiencing from my son’s death.
I finally accepted the reality that the tactics which had helped me to cope with the deaths of my parents and two brothers during my teens were ineffective towards helping me cope with the loss of my son. The inner turmoil experienced after losing my son was 10x greater than what I’d previously experienced with the loss of my parents and brothers. I was using familiar tactics to deal with my grief, however, they no longer produced the results I was able to attain in my past.
Life was asking me to turn towards my grief and face my greatest fear when I’d spent the previous twenty years believing that my heart wasn’t strong enough to bear the pain of losing a child. This was the story I’d been telling myself since my mother died nine months after the murder of my brother Arthur. How was I supposed to believe that I was strong enough to do something I didn’t think my mom had been strong enough to do?
The Power of Surrendering
I was mentally and emotionally exhausted. I no longer wanted to keep up the appearance of being a “strong black woman” when I felt far from it. Logically, I knew something must change. I knew that I was responsible for my life. I had overcome numerous odds to shift the trajectory of my life. It made no sense to me that I had the ability to rise above previous circumstances I'd faced, only to live the rest of my life stuck in a state of quiet desperation because of the loss of my son. Surely, if I'd been able to figure out how to move forward in those situations, I had to have it within me to do the same in this situation. I was determined to move beyond my valley of suffering and reclaim my sense of personal power. I decided to let go of my anger towards God. It had served no good purpose. I humbled myself and prayed to God to show me how to help myself.
Shortly after this prayer, on the afternoon of October 12, 1998, Jo Ann Compton and Dr. Phil were guests on Oprah. During the show, Jo Ann expressed her raw truth about the anger she felt about the killers of her daughter Laurie Ann. She told Dr. Phil and Oprah that her daughter's death destroyed her and she was unable to forgive the people who killed her. Jo Ann’s courage to share the truth about the anguish she was feeling from losing her daughter helped me to bear witness of another mother’s willingness to be vulnerable and demonstrate the emotional courage necessary to get on a path to healing her soul’s wound. This show shifted my perspective about the loss of my son and my approach to processing my grief.
Despite the fact that I had no idea about how I was going to transform the fear-based story I’d attached to losing a child to move beyond my suffering, I knew seeing Jo Ann on Oprah was a divine intervention. In his book The Surrender Experiment meditation teacher Michael Singer writes, The practice of surrender is actually done in two steps: first, you let go of the personal reactions of like and dislike that form inside your mind and heart; and second, with the resultant sense of clarity, you simply look to see what is being asked of you by the situation unfolding in front of you.”
The Power of Acceptance
Too often, we confuse accepting the truth of ‘what is’ to mean that we like what is. We think that if we admit we’re feeling sad, unhappy, hopeless or fear we’ll get stuck in these emotions forever, but that isn’t an absolute truth. It’s a relative truth that depends on how each of us choose to relate to our difficult emotions.
I believe the acceptance of the truth of our difficult emotions and difficult circumstances is at the core of developing emotional resilience. It is through acceptance we are able to put down our emotional armor and surrender to what is. It is through acceptance that we are able to make an intentional choice about how we relate to what we feel instead of allowing ourselves to be at the mercy of our difficult emotions and difficult circumstances. Acceptance is how we get back into the driver’s seat of our life. And, to my surprise, it led me to the path that inspired the development and practice of a daily ritual that over time empowered me to process the truth of my grief in a healthy manner, and navigate a new normal after the loss of my son.
When you embrace acceptance of the truth of your reality, no matter how distressing it is, you begin to tap into the god-force energy already dwelling in the seat of your soul. You begin to realize that you DO have the power to change while accepting what you can’t change. My daily ritual provided the breathing space to process my difficult emotions which resulted in transforming the story I’d told myself for decades about the loss of a child and transcending my greatest fear. My commitment to my daily ritual helped me to get the clarity I needed to figure out what I could do next and how my experience of losing a child could serve a greater purpose. As heartbroken as I was over the loss of my son, it was a reality that I could not change. By surrendering to this truth, I embarked on a journey of healing that helped me to learn how to process difficult emotions in an empowering manner.
This experience continues to serve me as I serve my clients and students of my work. In my book Get Unstuck Now, I help readers get clear about how to transform their limiting stories and get moving towards the creation of new possibilities in their life. In my latest book Find Your Brave I help readers shift their internal dialogue about their fears and self-doubts so that they can begin to redirect their emotional, spiritual, and psychological energy towards embracing the truth of their enoughness to show up, shine and succeed in their relationships, career, community and business.
It is through acceptance that we are challenged to ask ourselves the following questions:
1. “What is this situation asking me to learn?”
2. “What is this situation asking me to believe?”
3. “How is this situation asking me to grow?”
4. “How will this situation increase my capacity to contribute to others?”
5. “Who will I become as a result of this situation?”
Emotional Resilient Attitudes and Traits
According to the Grace Point Wellness website, emotionally resilient people have a specific set of attitudes concerning themselves and their role within the world that motivates and enables them to cope more efficiently and effectively then their non-resilient peers. Specifically, emotionally resilient people tend to:
1. Have realistic and attainable expectations and goals.
2. Show good judgment and problem-solving skills.
3. Be responsible and thoughtful rather than impulsive.
4. Be effective communicators with good people skills.
5. Learn from past experiences so as to not repeat mistakes.
6 Be empathetic toward other people (caring how others around them are feeling).
7. Have a social conscience (caring about the welfare of others).
8. Feel good about themselves as a person.
9. Feel like they are in control of their lives.
10. Be optimistic rather than pessimistic.
These special beliefs and characteristics of resilient people help them to keep proper perspective, and to persist with coping efforts long after less resilient people become demoralized and give up. In order to become a more resilient person, it is necessary to work on cultivating these beliefs and attitudes for your own life.
My decision almost two years ago to shift from being a side hustler to become a full-time start-up business owner has allowed me to step into a larger landscape of the unknown. As I navigate my new normal as a small business owner, there is no doubt in my mind and heart that the challenges and opportunities I have experienced has helped to strengthen my emotional resilience, and helped me adopt an approach towards my business journey from a state of being as a student. This helps me to look at my experiences with a growth mindset versus a "know it all' mindset. This helps me to enjoy the journey as I evolve into the business owner I've believed I can be.
This approach enables me to identify what is working and what isn't working for me to have the greatest impact in the lives of those I serve. Although, I'm in the midst of pivoting my personal growth and leadership development business, this shift is aligned with who I am, what I stand for and the significant impact I want my leadership and business to contribute in our world.
We are all susceptible to experiencing heartache, disappointment and adversity in life. We are not so special to believe otherwise. We are capable of developing the emotional resilience that helps to fortify us when we are in the midst of a transition. When I think about this skill and the impact it has had on my life, and my daughter’s life, I am grateful for having learned how important it is to my well-being at a young age.
You have dreams and goals that you want to manifest. You will need to be determined and be able to maintain a resolve to achieve them in the face of the inevitable challenges you will face. Your ability to maintain a passionate determination towards the accomplishment of your dreams and goals is key to the level of success that you will experience in life. We overestimate what we can do in one year, and underestimate what we can accomplish in three to ten years with vision, a propensity for taking action and grit. Emotional resilience helps us not only survive, it helps us to thrive.