Deborah Gruen became an international swimming champion at the age of 16, and set two world records at the age of 18. She was valedictorian of her high school class, and was admitted into Yale University in 2006.
She spent 2008 — 2009 in Beijing University, where she studied Chinese. Gruen graduated from Yale University, and was then accepted to Georgetown University’s school of law.
Gruen sounds like someone who has it all, doesn’t she?
Well, not exactly. Gruen was born with spina bifida, a condition where the spine doesn’t develop properly before birth. She had her first spinal operation the day she was born, and by the time she was five, she’d been through five operations. She still needs two canes to get around.
How does someone like Gruen, born with such disadvantages, become a record-breaking para-olympian, and accomplished student in a top university?
For that matter, how do people who have gone through severe adversity, like victims of abuse, prisoners of war and special operations soldiers, not only weather life’s challenges, but become stronger than before?
The Science of Resilience
That’s what Dr. Steven M. Southwick, from the Yale University School of Medicine, and Dr. Dennis S. Charney, from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York, reveal in their book, Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges.
In Resilience, the two professors of psychiatry sweep through decades of research to discover how people forge mental strength, and how anyone else can do the same.
What Drs. Southwark and Charney find out is that instead of resilience being a single attribute that you either have or don’t have, resilience is actually a result of a set of skills, which anyone can learn and practice.
While they identify 10 resilience factors, they emphasise one key skill as being the most important one. In fact, this cause is so vital they call it the ‘fuel’ of resiliency: Optimism.
Optimism serves as a fuel that ignites resilience and provides energy to power the other resilience factors. It facilitates an active and creative approach to coping with challenging situations. Southwick, Charney, Resilience
Why Optimism Isn’t What You Think
What is optimism? Drs. Southwark and Charney define it as a “ … future-oriented attitude, involving hope and confidence that things will turn out well.”
Optimists believe that the future will be bright, that good things will happen to them, and that with enough hard work they will succeed. Pessimists, in contrast, see the future as dim. They believe that bad things will happen to them and doubt that they have the skills and stamina to achieve their goals. In other words, optimists and pessimists have very different expectations. Southwick, Charney, Resilience
Drs. Southwark and Charney believe that optimism is key to Deborah Gruen’s ability to stay resilient. As Gruen’s mother said, “Deborah doesn’t let other people get her down.”
Now, contrary to what most people think, optimism isn’t about turning a blind eye to life’s problems and only seeing the good side of things.
In fact, Drs. Southwark and Charney write that this kind of blind optimism can lead to even worse problems. If, for example, a person is told she has a critical illness, believes that all will be fine anyway and doesn’t take enough action to treat it, she can be in deep trouble.
Instead, the two professors encourage practicing ‘realistic optimism,’ a way of thinking that doesn’t ignore the problems of life, but doesn’t remain focused on the negative.
Realistic optimists recognize the obstacles in their way, do their best to find the opportunity in hardship, and take action to solve problems. When they realise that certain problems can’t be changed, they are able to let go and move on. And they are more likely to pull some positive meaning out of all the difficulties they face in life.
How to Overcome Pessimism
Can someone who’s a habitual pessimist become a realistic optimist, and increase his inner strength?
Drs. Southwark and Charney insist that it’s possible, and it comes down to changing your thinking style when facing tough times. Pessimists and optimists tend to explain problems to themselves in directly opposite ways.
Pessimists tend to:
- Believe that negative consequences last forever (permanent)
- Will intrude into many areas of their lives (universal)
- Use words like “always” or “never”
- Have an external locus of control — believe that outside events influence them
While optimists tend to:
- View adverse events as temporary
- And limited in scope
- Use words like “sometimes” or “lately”
- Have an internal locus of control — believe they can influence events in their lives
So how can you change from being a pessimist to an optimist? One powerful method is to use positive self-talk, and refute negative self-talk.
When something bad happens: Remember that these difficulties won’t last forever. Take one day at a time. Where now there may only be pain, over time good things will return. Keep the adverse event or situation within its limits; don’t let it pervade other areas of your life. Think of strengths and resources you can use to help deal with the problem. Notice what is good, for example, acts of kindness by those who recognize your struggle. Southwick, Charney, Resilience
For example, when someone gets rejected for a date, a negative train of self-talk would be:
- I’ll never be able to get a date (permanent)
- I’m such a loser at everything (universal)
- Why do I always make a fool of myself
- Women will never like me
And a positive train of thought might go:
- Ah well, maybe the next one will say “yes”
- Maybe I can’t get a date, but at least I’ve got my friends
- Sometimes people just aren’t into you
- I’m sure I can learn how to be better at this dating thing
Why You Need Disciple and Effort to Build Inner Strength
It’s possible to turn inner weakness into inner strength, but it’s going to take time and work.
Talking positively to yourself and challenging negative self-talk sounds like the simplest of methods, and it is — but don’t mistake its simplicity for impotency. Sometimes the simplest of ways are the most powerful, and also the most difficult to practice.
How often in a day are we aware of our own self-talk? How often do we allow ourselves to go down a dark train of negativity, because it feels easier to do so — when in fact, it’s just a more familiar habit? If you’re a habitual pessimist, it’ll take awareness and effort to refute your negative self-talk, and replace it with positive self-talk.
Change requires mental and/or physical activity. One cannot become physically stronger simply by wishing for larger muscles. Similarly, one cannot develop or enhance mental skills by allowing the mind to wander randomly from one thought to the next. Instead, change requires focus as well as systematic and disciplined activity. The principles are simple, but the execution demanding. Southwick, Charney, Resilience
Discipline and effort is something Deborah Gruen is familiar with. From the time she was in high school, Gruen has regularly woken up at 5AM for swim training. And it’s not because discipline is easy for her, as she says in Resilience, “There are some days that I just want to stay in bed.”
But she realises that disciple, effort and practice are necessary to get results: “At the end of the season, if you’re not where you hoped, you know why. It’s because I didn’t get in the water on time and I didn’t get to practice on time. You can’t get around it. If you added a minute to your time, there is a very good explanation for it. But people are like, ‘Oh, it’s because of the coach.’ I don’t think so.”
Why Optimism Works
Why is optimism the fuel for resilience? For the simple reason that optimism biases you towards action — optimism is more likely to make you try to overcome difficulty and make life better. Through action, you’re more likely to create change.
In short, research has shown that optimism and positive expectations tend to promote active striving, while pessimism and negative expectations are associated with feelings of weakness and helplessness that may lead to unhelpful behaviors like, self-pity, resentment, denial and avoidance of problems. Southwick, Charney, Resilience
Optimism and resiliency can be forged in the crucible of challenge, or it can be built beforehand, when times are good.
Building a strong heart is similar to building a strong body; you can get stronger in the midst of physical labor, but it’s better to have built that strength before you needed it.
I’ve focused on optimism in this post, but Drs. Southwark and Charney identify nine more resiliency factors in Resilience:
- Fostering optimism
- Facing fear
- Solidifying moral compass
- Practicing religion and spirituality
- Attracting and giving social support
- Imitating resilient role models
- Physical training
- Mental and emotional training
- Enhancing cognitive and emotional flexibility
- Finding meaning, purpose, and growth
I found Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges a deeply researched book on the science of inner strength. It can get dry in places, but is a treasure trove of proven ways to build resilience and overcome difficult times.
In response to stress, all of the individuals we interviewed confronted their fears, maintained an optimistic but realistic outlook, sought and accepted social support, and imitated sturdy role models. Most also relied upon their own inner moral compass, turned to religious or spiritual practices, and found a way to accept that which they could not change. Many attended to their health and well-being, and trained intensively to stay physically fit, mentally sharp, and emotionally strong. And most were active problem solvers who looked for meaning and opportunity in the midst of adversity and sometimes even found humor in the darkness. Finally, all of the resilient people we interviewed accepted, to an impressive degree, responsibility for their own emotional well-being, and many used their traumatic experiences as a platform for personal growth. Southwick, Charney, Resilience
Featured image from Pixabay. Licensed under CC0 1.0.