{ Rethinking Resilience, Part II } Yes, You Are What You Think

You Are What You Think


In my last post, I wrote about positivity in the face of tragedy. And I wondered whether resilience amounts to a numbers game where positive thoughts outweigh negative ones. After all, cultivating gratitude helps offset negativity bias — our natural tendency to highlight and remember negative experiences more than positive ones. In some way that raises the possibility that giving time and mental space to happy, joyful thoughts reduces the impact of challenges and setbacks.

In my rather unscientific way, I do believe in this possibility. If I burn my daughter’s birthday cake but immediately make an effort to reflect on her health and happiness, I know I can ward off my sudden urge to stomp around the kitchen. But too often my brain seems to short circuit, and I find myself indulging in behavior more appropriate to a six-year-old.

So this past week I turned back to a book I read five years ago: The Resilience Factor by researchers Andrew Shatté and Karen Reivich. I remembered that it offered helpful strategies for increasing resilience — and that it was a very, very dense read. My memory was right on both counts.

In an ongoing series at rethinked…*, I’ll be sharing my process of unpacking those strategies and putting them to use.

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Increasing resilience is a matter of constructively handling setbacks, challenges, and new experiences. Shatté and Revich put forward 7 steps for increasing resilience.

Three “Know-Thyself Skills” provide insight on how you see yourself and the world, and why you react as you do. They help you understand how your mind works and build self-awareness. They give you a map of your beliefs, feelings, and behaviors, and how they are interconnected.

1. When you are faced with an adversity, deconstruct the resulting thought process into Adversity vs. Belief vs. Consequence. Those beliefs often involve inaccurate and overblown interpretations of the adversity. (“Learn Your ABCs”)

2. Recognize common cognitive errors that lead to those interpretations (“Avoid Thinking Traps”)

3. Identify the core values that underlie those beliefs (“Detecting Icebergs”)

Four “Evaluation and Change Skills” identify the most realistic causes and outcomes of a challenge. They help you accurately assess a challenge so that you can make constructive choices about how to respond to it. They help you keep non-resilient thoughts at bay in real time.

4. Test the accuracy of your interpretation of the adversity so that you can address it more effectively  (“Challenging Beliefs”)

5. Avoid what-if “catastrophizing” by identifying realistic outcomes (“Putting it in Perspective”)

6. Sidestep stress and anxiety with breathing, positive imagery, and relaxation (“Calming and Focusing”)

7. Examine the situation realistically in the moment by engaging strategies 4, 5, and 6 before counterproductive thoughts take hold (“Real-Time Resilience”)

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I found Step Number One — “Learn your ABCs” — immediately useful. It provides a concrete framework for deconstructing the irrational thought process that challenges often cause. It helps unpacks the mental domino effect into a three-piece sequence: Adversity-Belief-Consequence

A: Identify the triggering Adversity 

Adversities can be major or minor: facing a test; doing poorly on a test; too many demands on your time; being late to an appointment; dealing with other people’s anger; burning a birthday cake. They can involve new experiences.

B: Identify the Beliefs you have about the adversity  

The authors call these “ticker-tape beliefs” — the running interior monologue that erupts when you’re faced with a challenge.

Let’s say I burn my daughter’s birthday cake. I’m instantly flooded with a tangled mess of beliefs: It’s completely unsalvageable. She’s going to be crushed. I’ve ruined everything. I always do this. How could I be so stupid? I’m a crappy mom. Why is it my job to bake this dumb cake anyway? 

And so on.

[Side note: Putting those beliefs in writing is instructive: In the momentthose inchoate thoughts feel inevitable and fitting to the utter disaster at hand. Now their exaggeration is objectively much clearer.]

The authors point out that are two types of “ticker-tape” beliefs, ones that look back and others that look forward.

i. Causal beliefs (or “why?” beliefs) look back. They give false explanations for the adversity. They operate along three dimensions:

  • Viewing the adversity as your fault or not — ie, me or not-me
    How could I be so stupid? 
  • Viewing the adversity as constant and permanent, or not — ie, always or not-always
    I always do this.
  • Viewing the adversity as all-encompassing or not — ie, everything or not-everything
    I’m a crappy mom. 

ii. Implication beliefs (or “what next?” beliefs) look forward. They often incorrectly anticipate the result of the adversity.

  • She’s going to be crushed. I’ve ruined everything. 

The key point is that it’s this tangled mess of beliefs  — all of them incorrect — that leads to C-Consequences — not the adversity itself, which is a slightly burned cake.

C: Identify the Consequences of A and B, above — ie, your feelings and behaviors

Something I find particularly interesting is the apparently universal correspondence between common negative emotions (Consequences) and specific “ticker-tape” Beliefs:

That’s not fair! —> Anger comes when we feel we’ve been treated unfairly or been thwarted in the pursuit of a goal. This is a “why?” belief that focuses on external causes, ie, by blaming others. (Why is it my job to bake this dumb cake anyway?)

Something’s been taken from me —> Depression and sadness occur when we believe we’ve lost something real — like a relationship, job, or loved one — or intangible — like self-worth.”  This is another “why?” belief, but it tends to focus on internal causes of problems.

I made a mistake —> Guilt occurs when we believe we have failed to self-regulate (by procrastinating, bingeing, failing to exercise, overspending) or when we believe we have broken commitments to others (by neglecting family and friends, and by cheating — ie, I’m a crappy mom.). Like depression and sadness, guilt stems from a why belief and focuses on internal causes. 

I can’t believe they saw me screw up like that —> Embarrassment occurs when we believe we have lost standing with people whose opinions matter.

This is going to turn out terribly —> Anxiety and fear occur when we anticipate that a situation is going to pose challenges or cause discomfort

Though a bit cumbersome, applying this analysis reveals how I went from a slightly burnt cake to a potent and paralyzing mix of anger and guilt.

The ABCs framework gave me a powerful tool for distinguishing between the adversity and the tangled mess of reactive beliefs that the adversity evokes. Once I make that distinction, I more readily see that my feelings of anger and guilt have little to do with a slightly burnt cake and everything to do with two strong, emotion-laden beliefs — it’s not fair! and I made a mistake — which I overlaid on the cake. As the authors put it:

With resilience, your feelings and behaviors in the face of an adversity will be productive, appropriate responses to the facts of the adversity. Without resilience, they may be knee-jerk reactions to your ticker-tape beliefs.

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Coda: A slightly-shaved-down birthday cake was given a generous overlay of frosting — and was met with wide, happy smiles.

Stay tuned for more steps for increasing your resilience.

In the meantime, let’s try to hold on to the moments in life when things turn out far better than we fear.

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