‘Why am I feeling down? I know there are people with problems a lot worse than mine, so why do I always feel sorry for myself?’
I hear this all the time. It’s a perfectly reasonable observation, but it doesn’t get to the heart of why some people cope better than others. The key to coping is to develop an attitude of resilience. Over the years, I have found that those who have perfected the art of ‘bouncing back’ cope better with adversity and sorrow.
Just about everyone has some kind of struggle. There are big struggles, like natural disaster, illness or death of a loved one. But there are other difficulties in life as well, like the stress of moving, changes in your financial situation, adjusting to retirement, or simply getting older. Many of us have disappointments, hurts and regrets, but adversity, from a psychological point of view, is relative. Having the right attitude about misfortune can make all the difference. Here are a few examples of a healthy, resilient attitude:
1. The adversity is not who I am.
‘It happened, and it’s regrettable. I can’t pretend it didn’t happen. I won’t pretend it didn’t leave its emotional scars, but it’s not the most important part of who I am.’
2. Past difficulties have nothing to do with happiness in the present.
‘I alone am responsible for determining what will make me happy. What happened in the past doesn’t change the rules. I need to live my life the same way, as if the difficult things never happened.’
3. Past trauma demonstrates that I have strengths.
‘The proof that I survived is that I’m here. Hurting, but not destroyed. Down, but not out. I need to identify what these strengths are, and call on them now. I will make a psychological comeback. I did it before, and I can do it again.’
4. Sympathy from others is not important.
Sometimes it can even be damaging. ‘Others don’t need to know about my past problems. I don’t need to lie about them or hide them, but, at the same time, they simply don’t merit the importance that other issues do in the here-and-now.’
5. Helping others at your own psychological expense is not the solution.
‘It might feel good to help others who had the same problem, or to sympathize with them and encourage them to talk. But helping others instead of helping myself is unhealthy. It can even become a distraction; an ongoing excuse for not getting my own life in order.’
Washington, D.C. psychiatrist Steven Wolin, MD, in his 20-year study of adults who were children of alcoholics, found that the majority of them did not repeat their parents’ drinking patterns. The same is true of people who survived families troubled by mental illness, chronic marital disputes, racial discrimination and poverty.
This is a powerful finding. In today’s society, crafty defense lawyers and a fawning media have trained us to believe that those who grew up with dysfunctional behavior are doomed to repeat it. This does not stand up to the facts! It’s quite possible that young people who grow up with dysfunction see the dysfunction for what it is, and resolve not to repeat it. (I observe this all the time.) Most children are actually quite perceptive and will learn from the mistakes of their elders, especially when they can see an alternative.
The resilience research of University of California sociologist Emmy Werner, Ph.D., demonstrated that over a third of kids studied never seemed to be affected by the grinding poverty, alcoholism or abuse in their homes. Of the remaining two-thirds, some were troubled as teens, typically turning to petty crime. But by the time they reached their 30s and 40s, they had pulled themselves together, determined to not repeat their parents’ mistakes.
The truth is: People have choices and can exercise them. They can see self-defeating behavior for what it is, recognize that people do not have to act this way, and resolve to make different choices for themselves. Even if everyone in a child’s family is dysfunctional, the child can look to others in the community who are not this way—a significant adult, a friend’s family, or even television and fictional heroes—and conclude, ‘I have other choices. It doesn’t have to be like that for me.’
Look at your strengths, not your mistakes. Find opportunities in the struggles you face now. You don’t have to deny unpleasant things, but you don’t have to let them rule you either. People make comebacks at all stages of life. It’s never too late. You can frown and decide, ‘I’ve peaked; I’m too old’ or you can adopt the self-affirming attitude, ‘It’s a new phase. What can I do now that I didn’t do before? What strengths did I show in the past that I can use now?’
Resilient attitudes can be learned. If you don’t have them, you can acquire them. Sure, it may take some work, but a refreshing outlook is infinitely better than complaining and feeling sorry for yourself.