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Building Resiliency through Emotional Awareness

February 23, 2012


Resiliency. The ability to spring back from and successfully adapt to adversity. A return to balance. Emotional Buoyancy. Flexibility.

Are we what we feel?

While that may be a rhetorical question, there is truth behind it.  Because advancing emotional understanding is a central theme in my work, these pages have often explored many facets of expanding emotional awareness.

First and foremost, this understanding is predicated on the belief that emotions are intelligent sources of important information about our experience.  That’s a stretch for many people because emotions have had a bad rap in this culture. 

When we think about emotions we tend to concentrate on the most difficult emotions and judge on that basis. I’ve written about the potential value of emotions like anger, sadness, even grief and despair and how those emotions, when understood, can have a healing effect. When we’re caught in the grip of challenging emotions such as envy, jealousy and resentment, it’s hard to imagine what positive value they can hold for us.  It takes considerable competency (skill) to manage these types of emotions and come away deriving a benefit that enriches our lives. Developing emotional discernment by expanding emotional literacy is an important tool in making this possible.

Most of us are dragging around emotional baggage from unresolved past issues and early trauma. These hidden fuses trigger endless emotional upsets, often outside of our conscious awareness.  They may recede with time, but they won’t miraculously disappear unless we activate our cognition and find ways that allow for the expression of the buried emotions.

Many “solution oriented” people, especially dealing with workplace issues don’t like to acknowledge that past hurts play a role in current scenarios. As a senior organizational leader recently told me, “I want the emotional intelligence without the psychology.” This reflects the common view that understanding our psychology – especially at work – is indulgent and some form of “therapy,” which is still mostly taboo in the workplace.

All of this points to the continued reticence we all experience, especially in our institutional settings, about the role and place of emotions. The converse is true about resiliency.  It’s a popular topic. People want resiliency and say they don’t have enough of it. Workplace well-being programs emphasize resiliency as a goal – a desired state.  Perhaps it’s assumed that if stress is the culprit – resiliency is the elixir.

The Stress/Resilience Relationship

Stress is not a thing. Often people talk about stressors as if they were outside forces attacking them unwittingly. While there are many real pressures and obligations most people have today, the way we think about them has everything to do with the way we will manage them. Feelings of being overwhelmed are so common, that we don’t lift an eyebrow when people routinely report that they are “just keeping their head above water,” or “hanging in there.”

Talking about our stress and our stressors as a habit contributes to creating more of it. We understand from neuroscience that the amygdala operates outside of our conscious awareness. It triggers emotions like fear, anger and hurt faster than our conscious awareness can intervene.

The brilliant but primitive action of the amygdala protects us from harm by interpreting subconscious hints of “danger” and triggers a reaction in fractions of a second. When it perceives a threat, the amygdala sends out a signal to release cortisol – which is the body-mind’s response to stress. This powerful stimulant mobilizes our physiology and prepares us to fight or flee.

Without the conscious engagement of the pre-frontal cortex (our so-called “rational/reasoning” brain) to regulate these arousals, we can constantly re-trigger our amygdala. Even if not fully activated, it can set moods of hostility and self-protection in place.  Unless we engage our conscious thought process to manage our emotional triggers, we can activate old neural coping patterns of denial, subversion and withdrawal which can shut down and freeze the system in an attempt to be safe.

Many people are chronically stuck in this pre and post triggered state. Often called coping, these mechanisms never address real needs and result in habitual stress patterns. So many of us have lived life in an “emergency” state for so long that reestablishing equilibrium seems daunting.

However challenging, the choices are limited. In their book, “A Conscious Life,” psychologists Fran and Louis Cox, write, “If you live in ignorance of your interior world, you’ll never get past the automatic or compulsive responses you learned in childhood and adolescence.”

Compelling studies, like the one done at the Child-Emotion Lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, showed the power of “priming” to quell the fear/stress response in advance of the stressors being experienced.

Working with a sample of 7-12 year old girls, whose fear levels were activated by  researcher’s serious warnings about pending math tests, the study showed that the reassurance of mother’s voices (whether in person or by telephone) released oxytocin (the so-called love hormone) deterred the stressful response – and stayed activated well after the event.

While we don’t yet know if any other voice but “Mom’s” will be as effective,  we can imagine that the soothing words of our ideal,  internalized parent could impel us to find our own inner support system. The concept of “priming” suggests that our own continuous self-talk is a critical factor in the frequency of our “emotional-hijackings.”

If we ruminate about our problems and rehearse negative scenarios, we are “priming” one possible set of outcomes vs. others.  Consequently, becoming less reactive to real stress events (which is the foundation of resilience) can be a learned skill that eventually develops new neural habits.

Emotions as a Resource – The “Positivity” Factor

While much has been written and studied about emotions like fear and anger and their role in self-protection and species preservation, relatively little research has been done to understand the role of emotions like joy, gratitude and serenity. Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, Professor of Psychology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and author of “Positivity,” developed the Broaden-and-Build Theory of Positive Emotions to explain the mechanics of how positive emotions are important to survival.

Dr. Fredrickson believes that “positive” emotions expand cognition and behavioral tendencies. Certainly recent studies have demonstrated the salubrious effects of emotions like gratitude, compassion and empathy. Dr. Frederickson’s theory posits that although these positive emotional states are brief, their residual benefits of acquired traits, social bonds and abilities endure.

According to Dr. Fredrickson, “When we experience a positive emotion, our vision literally expands, allowing us to make creative connections, see our oneness with others and face our problems with clear eyes. Second, we make a habit of seeking out these pleasing states, we change and grow, becoming better versions of ourselves, developing the tools we need to make the most of life (the build effect).”  

Dr. Fredrickson’s Positivity Ratio offers the compelling theory that experiencing positive emotions in a 3-to-1 ratio with negative ones leads people to a tipping point beyond which they naturally become more resilient to adversity and achieve what they once could only imagine. According to the theory, the average person’s ratio is 2 -1, but below the 3 -1 ration the benefits don’t accrue.

Cultivating the “Positive” Emotions

I’d like to restate that I don’t believe that there are good and bad emotions. It  depends on what you believe about the purpose of emotions.  It is our thinking about emotions that determines their value.

In her book, “Healing through the Dark Emotions,” psychotherapist Miriam Greenspan writes, “The s0-called negative emotions have tremendous power. Emotional alchemy is not about taming or transcending this power but about befriending it and using it for the good of ourselves, others and the planet. Tapping into the powerful energies of the dark emotions takes skill, patience and faith.”

Learning to “cultivate” (yes like a garden, seeding, watering, feeding and nurturing your emotional landscape) takes effort. So it’s helpful to select cultivation of an important all-purpose emotion like patience to support you in doing the work. Patience requires the careful application of mindfulness to become habituated. Because patience produces physiological calmness and mental clarity, it can be a friendly emotional enabler to help you with other emotions.

Other emotions that may support you in tipping your resilience point are:

  • Gratitude – There’s abundant science on the positive effects (on self and others) from being grateful. 
  • Confidence – Allowing yourself to experience the areas of your strengths can be an esteem (resilience) builder. It’s not hubris to recall the things in your life that you’ve done well and celebrate them.
  • Optimism – Another emotion that has shown its beneficial effects in many studies.  We’re not talking about rose-colored glasses or blinders here but a genuine belief in the possibilities of positive outcomes.  As with all emotions, your beliefs play a major role in what you will see and experience.
  • Inspiration – Begin working up your playlist for what inspires you. Anything can do it:  music, nature, hope in the face of adversity, excellence in any endeavor, faith – whatever gets you in the zone of inspiration is a place you should visit often.
  • Empathy – Hardwired for empathy, our brains like empathy because we like attunement with others. Empathy can move and motivate us at a very deep level.  It reinforces our humanness and truth that we are all vulnerable to life’s challenging events.
  • Compassion – In the wisdom of the Dalai Lama, “Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.”  Compassion is the great “joining” emotion.  We don’t have to know someone to feel compassion towards their circumstances.  According to author and creator of the blog, Kristin Neff, a major obstacle to allowing ourselves to feel self compassion is a belief that it is self-indulgent. This is the voice of the harsh inner-critic – no ally to our resiliency.
  • Enthusiasm – If you find yourself caught up in the feeling of enthusiasm and eagerness, grab hold and ride them for as long as you can. These feelings are potent energizers and they send out waves of positive energy.  Conversely, when you hit those patches when you can’t summon a spark to motivate you, don’t be hard on yourself.  Acceptance is the emotional choice you could make when this happens. Your willingness to let go and accept depends a great deal on your trust in yourself. 

All of the emotions that make you feel expansive will assist you in building your capacity for resiliency.  This is a work in progress. If you accept that we will all be challenged by life’s twists and turns, then investing in your resiliency portfolio will serve you well. 

To become more resilient, we must make a commitment to the continuous nourishment, rejuvenation and replenishment of our emotional energies. It is about heart set and mindset, working together to bring us back to our internal balance.

Resiliency is not just about learning to navigate life’s turbulence but finding ways to become more of ourselves. As the Japanese proverb goes, “The bamboo that bends is stronger than the oak that resists.”

Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, subscribe, share, like and tweet this article. It’s appreciated.

Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants

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15 Comments leave one →
  1. February 23, 2012 8:58 am

    I totally agree; emotions can go both ways: you can have good ones and bad. It’s how you handle them that matters the most. Great post and I look forward to sharing more with you;)

    • February 23, 2012 10:34 am

      Thanks for your comment. Yes, living the full spectrum of life means that we will experience a full range of emotions, sometimes within an hour!
      What matters is extracting the value and meaning from emotions that feel particularly important.
      Glad you stopped by,

  2. Ronnie Ann permalink
    February 23, 2012 10:07 am

    Another wonderful post, Louise. Lots of helpful ideas for tipping our resilience points. It’s so frustrating knowing that what is happening isn’t even connected to reality sometimes and yet the amygdala kicks in to “help”. Your explanation of the timing is a good one. Thank you.

    One thing that works for me is drawing pictures of the positive outcomes that the fear is telling me not to believe. (Even stick figures with smiling faces works. I add success words too.) I sit and picture myself in them. It’s helped me overcome some whopper triggered reactions. Not sure anyone else would find that useful, but thought I’d share. Oh, and as you mention, patience is key.

    • February 23, 2012 10:30 am

      Hi Ronnie,
      Wonderful suggestion. I love the idea of working with visuals to communicate with emotions. For some, with the auditory as their primary
      channel for sensory processing, it might be working with sound.

      Yes, it all comes down to patience, which many of us resist – it’s important to understand the voices that compel us to keep moving.

      Thanks for your comment, insightful as always.


  3. February 24, 2012 4:32 am

    Thank you for this wonderful post! It was very timely for me. I see acceptance as the pivotal point. By accepting that we are where we are in the moment, we are able to then move the needle in the appropriate direction. Recognizing the physiology, understanding our patterns, and modifying our thinking and our actions comes from that single point in time.

    • February 24, 2012 8:18 am

      Thanks for the comment Michael,

      Acceptance is pivotal, and I mean that literally. Sometimes we get so stuck in our resistant to “what is” that it’s only acceptance (letting go but not
      “giving up” or “giving in” that shifts our feelings – and often the circumstances around us. Even if we just shift our perspective a tiny bit – as a line from
      Leonard Cohen goes, “There’s a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in.”


  4. February 24, 2012 12:45 pm

    Louise, another great, thoughtful post. I smiled at the comment, “I want the emotional intelligence but not the psychology.” Made me think that there are plenty out there who want the magic wand that grants resiliency, self-awareness, self-regulation or whatever capability people are looking for. Those capabilities are hard-won and embarking on a journey of self-discovery and self-awareness is not for the faint-hearted. We don’t get any of those things by being un-conscious and simply applying some top tips. We also don’t get them by pretending that only some of our emotions are good, I would say that in a sense, they are all good because they shine a light on some aspect of ourselves that we can either reinforce or develop further. So when’s your book coming out? 😉


    • February 24, 2012 4:13 pm

      John, I always value your comments.
      Been hearing a great deal about resiliency lately. Although there are many behavioral practices (like meditation, exercise, sleeping, eating well) etc.,
      that are part of increasing resiliency, I believe it pales by comparison to emotional awareness and development. When I think of the so-called good and bad emotions, I think of whole systems. Unless we begin to understand why a particular emotion shows up, however uncomfortable, we’re realy ignoring one aspect of our overall system. I think we haven’t even begun to glimpse the real underlying dynamics of this.
      Consciousness is tricky. The ego is brillant by impressing us with what it thinks it knows. But staying committed to self-awareness is challenging – and it is a journey – an epic one. However difficult, I think once we begin to experience the freedom of emotional truth, there’s no going back.

      As for the book…I’d say that’s the kind of question that can trigger a string of emotions…Let’s say it’s a long work in progress. Maybe what I need is a
      good editor!

      Warm regards,

  5. Tafacory permalink
    February 26, 2012 9:10 pm

    Great article. It sounds a bit like Viktor Frankl’s viewpoint. It’s very inspiring though. It helps us to try and analyze ourselves so that we can better understand ourselves as well as others. This was an important part of the philosopher Bernard Lonergan. Again, very well written.

  6. Gwyn Teatro permalink
    February 27, 2012 4:59 pm

    Louise ~ what stands out for me is your statement, “stress is not a thing” It reminds me how easy it is to dismiss things that troubles us by lumping them all under the general heading of “stress”. Indeed, in my observation, stress becomes a focal point of conversation when people begin to compare and compete with each other about how “stressed” they are, which, to your point only serves to pile on more stress.
    I love the notion of using emotions as a resource and can see that if we were to choose to focus on our more positive emotions, the impact on our lives and how we experience them would also be positive. It makes a lot of sense. Now, the challenge, at least for me, is to raise my own awareness enough to break habits of a lifetime.
    Thank you for this thought-provoking post ~ best, Gwyn

    • February 28, 2012 11:44 am

      Hi Gwyn,
      Thanks so much for your comment.
      Yes, you’re so right, these days there is often a competition over who is more stressed out
      than others. Overwork often seems worn as a badge of honor – proof that we’re worthy or deserving.
      So glad you’ve focused on the important of emotions as a resource. This has been my mantra since
      the early EI days, more intuitive then. Now we know this is being “proved” by science.
      We’re all in the same boat about changing habits, but I think Barbara Fredrickson is on to something
      very important with her Positivity Ratio. My hunch is that the “tipping point” doesn’t happen with the normal
      2-1 ratio because we’re literally rewiring neural networks when we are at the higher 3- 1 positivity ratio.
      It’s all fascinating and potentially life changing.

  7. Steve permalink
    September 10, 2013 10:56 pm

    Hi Louise
    Enjoyed the article/post..I am conducting a PhD workplace study examining the results of using EI to promote resilience (process) rather than resiliency (trait). Initial study results are promising with a full study involving multiple workplaces and control groups in progress.


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