People often say to me, “Why am I feeling down? Why do I feel sorry for myself?” 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” deal more effectively with adversity and sorrow. Having a positive outlook on misfortune can make all the difference. Here are 5 examples of healthy, resilient attitudes:
- The adversity is not who I am. “It happened, and it’s regrettable. I can’t pretend it didn’t happen. But it’s not the most important part of who I am.”
- Past difficulties have nothing to do with the present. “I alone am responsible for determining what makes me happy. What happened in the past doesn’t change the rules. I need to live my life the same way I did before.”
- Past trauma demonstrates that I have strengths. “The proof that I survived is that I’m here. I need to identify what my strengths are, and call on them now. I will make a psychological comeback.”
- Sympathy from others is not important. “Others don’t need to know about my problems. I won’t 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.”
- Helping others at your own psychological expense is not the solution. “It might feel good to help others who had the same problem, but helping others instead of helping myself is unhealthy. It can turn into an ongoing excuse for not getting my own life in order.”
In his 20-year study of adults who were children of alcoholics, Washington, D.C. psychiatrist Steven Wolin found that the majority did not repeat their parents’ drinking patterns. The same was true of people who survived families troubled by mental illness, chronic marital disputes, poverty and the like.
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! Many young people who grow up with dysfunction see it for what it is, and resolve not to repeat it. I see this all the time in my office. Most children are quite perceptive and learn from the mistakes of their elders, especially when they see an alternative.
The resilience research of University of California sociologist Emmy Werner, Ph.D., demonstrated that well over a third of kids studied were never 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, most were determined not to repeat their parents’ mistakes.
The simple fact is that people have choices and can exercise them. They can see self-defeating behavior for what it is, and recognize that people do not have to act this way.
Look to your strengths, not your mistakes. Find opportunities in the struggles you face. Don’t deny unpleasant things, but don’t let them rule you either. It’s never too late: People make comebacks in all stages of life. You can frown and decide, “I’ve peaked. I’m too old!” Or, you can adopt a self-affirming attitude like, “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?”
A resilient attitude can be learned. If you don’t have one, you can acquire it. It may take some work, but a refreshing point of view is infinitely better than complaining and feeling sorry for yourself.
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