The skills of resilience
In a series of articles I wrote on resilience two years ago, I listed nine habits I observed in the resilient people I have met.
- Resilient people tell it the way it is
- Resilient people have solid boundaries
- Resilient people exercise mind control
- Resilient people know what to do with their emotions
- Resilient people are hard realists
- Resilient people practice self-renewal
- Resilient people spend time with resilient people
- Resilient people take ownership
- Resilient people are (mostly) spiritual people
Doing all these things enable people to weather adversity, and to shine as they overcome it. Resilience being the art of doing just that.
In this article I describe the most important skill of all: non-attachment to thought. It is related to No. 3 in the list above and, also in a surprising way, to No. 9.
The inability to practice thought defusion is a principal reason why the other habits fail to take root. When you are overwhelmed with worry, you forget about your options and possibilities.
The basis for non-resilience
The opposite of resilience is fragility. Non-resilient people are not able to hold up under trouble; instead they get panicky, overwhelmed, or stressed. Or else they avoid dealing with their trouble (which makes things worse in the long run).
In my thirty-two years as a psychotherapist I find that the most common reason for non-resilience is that people listen to the wrong thoughts, and then fuse with them. Anxious people fuse with anxious thoughts, depressed people fuse with depressing thoughts, and stressed people fuse with thoughts that make their problem worse than it has to be.
The capacity for thought is intrinsic to being human. In fact all our experience is created in thought, and by thought. Your experience of this article (including your feelings about it) is entirely conditioned by the thoughts you bring to it, and the thoughts you listen to on reading it.
In the same way, your painful memories are made painful by the thoughts you have about your past. Your future expectations (good or bad) are made-up thoughts. Your self-judgments are created in thought. So, too, are the judgments you make about other people. Your personal experiences are saturated by your thoughts. So much so that most of your experiences are really a waking dream created through your ego.
Looking more deeply still, the very idea of the self (i.e your ego) is created in thought. By the ideas you carry around about yourself in your head, by the thoughts you use to define yourself, and the thought-driven cravings you cling on to: status, success, love, control, or self-righteousness. When the ego defines itself in terms of limitation: failure, weakness, rejection, etc., then non-resilience is the inevitable result.
Examples of non-resilience in everyday life
Do you recognise yourself in any of these experiences?
It’s your first day at your new job, and you worry that you might lose it before you’ve even started, because your last position ended in redundancy. You spend a sleepless night fretting about whether you’ll be good enough, or whether you’ll fit in with the organisation. On the way to work in the morning you wonder whether you should just turn around and go home. Your thoughts about failure seem overwhelming.
Your old car finally packs up and you have no money for a replacement. You panic at the thought that you won’t be able to get to work, or take your children to school. While you are struggling with this problem, your elderly mother offers to lend you the money. You have a horror of becoming a ‘burden’ on others and worry that you will put your mother into an early grave. You feel angry when you think about how unfair life is, and are filled with self-pity.
Your four-year relationship with a clingy partner has reached a dead-end. You have no feelings for your partner other than boredom, and irritation over his possessiveness. Nevertheless, you have a comfortable life-style, a pleasant home, and security. The healthy core in you knows that you are wasting your life, and you string up the courage to tell your partner you want to end the relationship. He replies that if you do that, he will kill himself. Frightened by this threat, and frightened, also, by the thought of giving up your secure life, you decide to stay. Feeling trapped, you slowly become depressed over your predicament.
You discover a lump on your body which looks malignant. You remember that your father died of cancer in his fifties, and worry that your fate will be his. Terrified by the thought of impending death, and what you might hear from the examining physician, you put off making an appointment. Meanwhile, the sore grows and grows until it becomes unsightly. Each day you look at it your terror increases, but still you do nothing.
In each example we can see how thought creates a trap in which the ego is imprisoned. Without exaggeration, we can also see how jobs, financial troubles, broken relationships and suspected cancers are not problems in themselves (although they may give rise to concerns). Instead, problems are created through the thoughts we have about these events.
Thoughts that weaken us
Compare the listed events alongside the catastrophic thoughts in each of the examples below:
- New job – I am going to fail
- I need to borrow money – I am a burden
- I don’t want to be in this relationship any more – I lack the courage to leave
- Lumps on my body – I can’t face the possibility that it might be cancer
Can you see how arbitrary these judgments are? And how little they have to do with the event itself? And how it is the thought, not the event, that leads to suffering?
Notice, also how catastrophic thoughts like these block us from exercising all the other skills that foster resilience:
- We are frightened to face, or speak the truth
- We lose our personal boundaries, and let other people enforce their wishes on us
- We are overwhelmed with panicky thoughts
- We suppress our emotions and fail to be guided by them
- We avoid asking for help
- We lose touch with the reality of what is actually happening
- We are are at the mercy of events (actually our thoughts about these events), and feel powerless
That is why thought management is the most important skill, for none of the other habits of resilience can come into play until we learn to bypass the thoughts that disempower us, and move towards the thoughts that open up possibilities.
Defusing from thoughts that harm
Defusion is the art of unhooking from the thoughts that weaken us. Where fusion is what happens when we identify with the thought, mistaking it for fact rather than hearsay, defusion enables us to let it pass on by.
The first step is to change your relationship with your mind, and stop treating it as as an oracle. To do that you have to expand your consciousness to a place beyond thought. Looking at your thoughts as if you were the vast sky that contains them, letting those that serve you occupy your attention for while, while letting those that don’t evaporate away. You can practice other defusion techniques that enable you to achieve this.
It is best to start by writing down the unhelpful judgments that bother you the most. And labelling them by category. For example:
- Catastrophic worries. It’s going to be a disaster.
- Self-judgments. I am useless.
- Mind-reading. They think I’m ridiculous.
- False alarms. I’ll never be able to cope.
- Crystal-ball gazing. I’ll never get over it.
- False attributions. It’s all my fault.
- Musterbation. I have to get this right first time.
- Global judgments. My life is a disaster zone.
Once you have identified your target thoughts, you can also write down your replacement thought. For example:
- One step at a time…
- I know some things that are useful.
- Some of these thoughts are ridiculous.
- Let’s see now…
- That crystal ball needs to go out in the garbage.
- Everyone there made mistakes.
- I don’t have to do anything.
- My thoughts are disaster zones.
When you catch one of those thoughts floating through consciousness look at it, rather than through it. Watching as it passes on by, to be evaporated by the sun somewhere in the sky behind you. Then, in mindfulness, focus on your possibilities in the moment, and wait for your self-righting mind to present you with another thought (or else select a helpful thought from the list you made earlier).
The secret of resilience
Resilient people own their minds rather than being servants to them. Unhooking from the thoughts that weaken them, and focusing instead on the thoughts that open up possibilities in present moment awareness. That could be a calming technique, a phone call, a list of things to do, a visit to make, a practice rehearsal, or maybe just a walk in the park. They also have access to an inner source of wisdom, which is always ready at hand to supply them with the right thoughts. But that is a spiritual matter for my next article.