Fake it till you Make it

Many of you have heard of the adage: ‘fake it till you make it’. For my late and very great grandmother this meant that you put on a smile and think happy thoughts even when you are down. She was convinced this worked, and as with so many things in life it turns out my grandmother – a woman who personified personal resiliency – was right!

In the book ‘Blink’, Malcolm Gladwell references several clinical studies that were conducted to map the relationship between emotions and facial expressions. The researchers knew that certain emotions such as anger or sadness generate common facial expressions such as thin lips or frowns. But what they discovered was that the reverse was also true. In other words, our facial expressions have a profound impact on our emotional state. So, for instance, if we were an actor who spent the day frowning or miming sadness, it would produce profoundly negative feelings or what the researchers described as “marked changes in the autonomic nervous system” (Gladwell, Blink, 2005, p. 206).

By contrast, the physical reproduction of a smile generates positive emotions in test subjects. We all know that physical exercise generates endorphins which elevate our emotional state. Though the science behind it is not as well understood, a smile has a similar effect in the human nervous system. Once again, science has managed to catch up to folk wisdom many years after the fact.. :)

Many of us have experienced a related truism: when we smile and approach the world with positive emotions, we tend to attract positive people and events. Which leads us to another common saying first penned by Stanley West: “smile and the world smiles with you…”.

So what do we take from all this? In practical terms my advice is simple: take advantage of every happy moment, especially when you are in the midst of despair. Sometimes when we are struggling our mind becomes our own worst enemy. Let me illustrate with a simple example. Melissa is facing depression and spends most of her time feeling downright horrible. She is watching a movie and before she realizes it she is lost in the moment. One of her favourite comedic actors does something funny and she starts to laugh. But before she can truly enjoy the moment a little voice inside her reminds her: ‘Hey wait! You’re supposed to be upset!’ The happy moment is squashed before it begins and Melissa’s cycle of depression deepens. This might seem simplistic but this is how it works for many people.

Once again, it is essential for those who wish to develop personal resiliency to be aware of this pattern and make a mental decision to break it. If we take the example of Melissa watching the movie, I would have advised her to pause, question that little voice inside her, reject it, and allow herself to laugh and enjoy the moment. Picture that little voice as the tiny devil on your shoulder as in the old Flintstone’s cartoons (oh my have I ever dated myself!). Don’t trust that guy! Instead, think of life as made up of millions of little moments for happiness. You can choose to embrace them, as my wonderful grandmother did, or not. One path leads to fulfillment and happiness; the other does not. For those individuals seeking personal resiliency and fulfillment, there is only one choice to make. Smile, my friends, whenever you can. :)

Lessons from the Storm

I’m in the storm; I seek shelter.

When I have the courage to turn and look back

I feel wind that brings change,

And rain that cleans.

Thunder bursting with might

Reminds me I sometimes hear, not listen,

And of the dark, also is light.


Hardiness and Personal Power

The concept of ‘hardiness’ has become closely associated with personal resiliency training. Hardiness is best understood as a series of behaviours that individuals demonstrate during incidents of crisis or extreme stress. For the most part, the hardiness concept revolves around issues of self-efficacy, or an individual’s perception that he/she has control over his/her life and environment. Those with high levels of self-efficacy tend to approach and perceive difficult situations as realistic challenges, and they bend their energy towards finding creative solutions to these problems. Those with lower levels of self-efficacy tend to perceive a crisis as something that happens to them and something over which they have little control.

To illustrate the difference between the two approaches, I will share with you the stories of two individuals who experienced breakups (I have changed the names to protect their privacy) and confided in me during their grieving periods. In the first case, Jennifer and her partner broke up due to ongoing disagreements about personal finances and career decisions. Although heartbroken, Jennifer remained positive and was unwilling to drown in the sorrow she most certainly felt. I remember watching her one day playing with her dog, laughing and enjoying the moment. Jennifer grieved at times, but refused to allow that grief to invade the rest of her life. She remained open to the possibility of reconciliation with her boyfriend, and yet was willing to accept whatever happened. She focused on her career, exercised daily, and continued to pursue those activities which gave meaning to her life.

The second case involves a woman (Elaine) who woke up one morning to the news that her husband was leaving her after two years of marriage. Elaine was understandably shocked and overwhelmed by this news. Over the following months Elaine fell into a deep depression and although she eventually overcame the worst of it she admitted to me over two years later that she was still not “over the breakup”. There are no standard timelines for grieving; everyone has their own way of healing and no one should be pushed to heal faster than they are capable. However, Elaine’s perceptions about her situation did not help to ease her burden. In fact, they made things considerably worse.

Let me explain what I mean. In talking to Elaine over the course of many months, I made several observations that I believe contributed to her emotional distress. First, she perceived the breakup as something that happened to her. She had previously acknowledged that there were ongoing problems and conflict in her marriage. In fact, on several occasions over the previous year she had considered ending the relationship herself. And yet, when her husband left her she took no responsibility for the deteriorating condition of her marriage.  On several occasions she referred to ‘never catching a break in life’ or a feeling that ‘the world was against her’.

Second, she consistently demonstrated what we refer to as ‘castastrophe thinking’. Elaine believed that her situation would never improve, and rather than thinking about what good things she had in her life she perceived only trauma and failure.

Third, when I questioned her about the possibility of reconciliation with her ex-husband or the potential for a better relationship in the future she consistently expressed the belief that the outcome of any relationship would be the same. In Elaine’s mind, that outcome was failure.

The primary difference between the way that Jennifer and Elaine dealt with their grief was in their perceptions of control or self-efficacy. Elaine took no responsibility for the dissolution of her marriage and perceived the relationship failure as both beyond her control and unchangeable in the future. By contrast, Jennifer remained open to reconciliation, was willing to accept what she could not change, and engaged in activities that made her feel productive and happy.

This ability to accept what can’t be changed is an important (and often misunderstood) concept in discussions of hardiness and resiliency. Often those who learn about personal resiliency come to believe that they have to accept ‘their fate’ and move on. This is a dangerous interpretation because it can lead someone to abrogate responsibility for their situation, and underestimate their capacity to shape their life.  There is a better way to approach these kinds of situations.  First, recognize that you have some level of control of your life, and apply all of your creative problem-solving skills to affect change in a positive way; and second, be willing to accept what you cannot change only after other avenues have been explored.

Let’s look at an example to illustrate the point. Roger loses his job as a manager for a clothing store. He and his wife are obviously concerned about finances and worry about losing their home. Should Roger accept this outcome as inevitable and put their house up for sale? No he should not; at least not immediately.

Instead, Roger and his wife change their spending habits and create a manageable budget that will carry them through the next six months. They lay out the steps involved to sell their house so they are prepared to do so if it becomes necessary. Roger identifies job goals and dedicates himself to job searching with support from a community employment agency and a recruiter who helped him find his previous position.  Roger is realistic about his marketability, acknowledging that he found his last job through a friend and had no previous experience or education in the retail sector. In order to address this issue, Roger finds a one year community college course that he believes will make him more marketable in the field as well as open the door to other related opportunities. He also explores self-employment options and although he concludes it is not financially viable at this time, he resolves to pursue this option in the future. Throughout this process Roger is realistic about tough decisions he may be forced to make – and he is prepared to make them. However, he pursues as many avenues of possibility available to him to ensure the best result for his family.

In other words, accept what you cannot change, but make darn sure you have explored other possibilities before reaching that conclusion.

Until my next post, remember to stay positive, stay creative, and trust that good things can (and usually do) happen as a result.

The Dream of a Traffic Jam

Major components of this blog will be posted on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. However, in the meantime I will offer quotes, insight, and other information to help support and enrich the overall theme.  Tonight I want to share with you a brief story that I have used in the past to put my own suffering into perspective. It is a story I have shared with many others who have at one time or another spoken to me about challenges in their lives. The story comes from a prominent leader in positive psychology by the name of Paul Pearsall. Paul was a survivor of Stage IV cancer at the time he recounted this story in his book ‘The Beethoven Factor’. He remembers sitting in a hospital room very sick and very scared. From the window he heard the familiar sounds of the evening traffic jam. In that moment, there was nothing he wanted more than to be a normal person coming home from work stuck in traffic. How many times had he cursed that same traffic in the past; now it was like a an oasis in the desert for him. He never forgot that moment and used it after his recovery to handle more calmly the smaller frustrations and obstacles in his life.

I have often replayed this story in my mind to help put things in perspective; and yes, even to deal with traffic jams!

I hope you find it useful as well.

The Agile Mind

This blog is dedicated to helping you develop your skills of personal resiliency so that you can meet life’s challenges with creativity, resourcefulness, and hope. Developing an agile mind capable of seeing alternatives, opportunity and possibility even during periods of crisis can have an amazing impact on your personal and professional lives. Welcome to the journey!

Introduction to Personal Resiliency & the Agile Mind

Personal resiliency is the ability to not only ‘weather the storm’ but emerge from the storm wiser, stronger and better than before. It is at its most foundational level the ability to re-frame your perspective in any given situation; to find the positive in a challenging situation and to utilize your personal resources to overcome and/or accept the things you cannot change. Here are a couple of common examples:

  1. Sarah is ill and facing financial hardships. She accepts her situation and understands she has difficult financial decisions to make.   Sarah is deeply thankful her illness is not something worse and is determined to recover.  She knows that the situation is temporary and her perspective encompasses not only the limited options she now faces, but also the plethora of possibility that will be available to her in time. It has even given her a chance to reevaluate her career and what she wants to do. When she is physically and financially able to she is going to pursue a degree in education.  In the meantime, she is going to try the alternative treatment that her naturopath has recommended.
  2. Jared is swamped at work struggling to complete a variety of projects in what seems like an impossible time frame. He has been tired, irritable and is fighting with his wife – a wife he has barely seen in three weeks because of the hours he is keeping. Jared feels he’s on a high-speed roller-coaster but is not certain the ride will ever end! Jared takes a moment to breathe and recall his recent training in personal resiliency. He visualizes exiting the roller-coaster and getting into a car with multiple roads in front of him. He knows he can do the work because he has done it before. He concludes that he just needs a little help to get his projects in on time. Jared sets down a manageable timeline of priority tasks and enlists the help of Peter (who owes him one for saving his bacon on the last project).  Jared also promises to reward himself by treating his wife to dinner and a movie. In reviewing one of his projects with a clearer mind he realizes that one of its components is not necessary. By eliminating this task Jared will save a great deal of time and improve the quality and coherence of the final product. Jared is back in the driver’s seat!

The ability to re-frame your perspective is intimately linked with an awareness (and belief in!) the possibilities and alternatives all around you. This requires an agile, creative mind. Don’t worry! We all have this ability inside us and it actually has very little to do with IQ. It is simply an ability to stop, step outside the boxes you’ve built for yourself, and imagine a different perspective, opportunity, or meaning. It takes practice, and like most talents, the more you practice the easier it gets.

Everyone (and I do mean everyone!) can benefit from greater mental agility including job seekers, people suffering from illness or extreme stress, writers, leaders, entrepreneurs, and circus clowns :)  In this blog I will do my best to show you how to improve your personal resiliency and embrace the agile mind.