Developing resilience to enhance personal effectiveness

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This article was written by stress management consultant Graham W Price, who is a trainer with Body Mind Training. Graham is a chartered member of the British Psychological Society (BPS).

We’re all crazy! Every time we’re having a negative thought, we’re having a crazy thought.

25 years ago I witnessed a senior executive, Stuart McGill, at that time CEO of Exxon’s Australian subsidiary, handle a career threatening challenge. Everyone who witnessed it was impressed. When I later congratulated McGill, I was given some advice. McGill said he thought it was the most valuable advice he could give anyone. He said: “When you’re facing a negative situation, don’t waste a moment wishing it were different”.

Everyone admired McGill for his resilience. He was always calm and focused on action. I was stunned by the simplicity of the advice. So I watched myself for the rest of that day and noticed many occasions when I wasn’t following McGill’s advice. I further noticed that everyone else was doing the same … wanting things to be already different. Everyone that is, except McGill, who rose through the company to become CEO of ExxonMobil, the world’s largest and most successful company.

All dissatisfaction, upset, stress, regret, disappointment, frustration, irritation or any other negative thought, with one exception, involves wanting something to be ‘already’ different. Either we’re wanting something that’s happened not to have happened, or we’re wanting a situation that exists right now not to exist right now. Neither is possible. I rest my case - we’re all crazy!

The only exception is worrying about the future. But actually that’s crazy too - more on that later.

Most people are generally aware that the past cannot be changed and that it makes sense to accept it. Yet we still spend a great deal of time and energy wishing it were different. If we’re regretting a mistake we’ve made, we’re wishing we hadn’t made the mistake. If someone has said or done something we’re not happy about we’re effectively wanting them not to have said or done it. In both cases we’re wanting the past to be different.

But it’s not just the past, the present can’t be changed either. We may be able to change the next moment or any future moment but we can never undo what already is. Yet we spend a great deal of time and energy wanting the present to be different too. Nothing can ever be different right now.

Another term for wanting things to be ‘already’ different, is ‘resisting what is’. All dissatisfaction, except worry, involves ‘resisting what is’.

The opposite of resistance is acceptance. The opposite of ‘resisting what is’ is ‘accepting what is’. People who ‘accept what is’ all the time are highly resilient. They’re never dissatisfied and never maintain thoughts that may have triggered momentary upset, disappointment or irritation.

‘Accepting what is’ means something very different from ‘acceptance’. In our language, acceptance generally means resigning ourselves to something or not trying to change it. In our culture acceptance is therefore generally viewed as being weak, unless we’re accepting something we cannot possibly change.

‘Accepting what is’ is always powerful. It enables us to focus only on what we need to do to change something in the next moment or the future, or to improve the future in some other way.

Practicing ‘accepting what is’ can eliminate stress from our lives. If my boss is putting pressure on me to meet a challenging deadline, and I’m unhappy or stressed about this, I’m ‘resisting what is’. By contrast if I ‘accept what is’ I can then focus only on what I can do about it; meet the deadline, change the deadline or change my boss.

People who ‘accept what is’ focus on solutions not problems, and so are less stressed, more motivated and more achieving.

A variation can also be applied to the future, thereby eliminating worry. When we’re worried we’re always wanting something to be different in the future from the way we think it might be … AND we believe we cannot control it. If we believed we could control it, we wouldn’t be worried. Wanting something to be different that we cannot control is as irrational as wanting something to be already different. Once we recognise this we can drop the worrying thought and focus only on how we can gain more control, or accept the future to the extent we cannot control it.

Some people naturally ‘accept what is’, or ‘what will be’, but for most it’s a skill which, like any other, needs to be learned and practiced. This can be achieved by creating a habit of noticing whenever we’re wishing something were already different (always the case when we’re dissatisfied about something), recognise this is irrational and drop the thought. Then refocus on what we can do to make it different in the next moment or the future, or improve the future in some other way such as taking action to ensure we don’t repeat mistakes.

Jack Nicklaus used a similar, in some ways more powerful, approach to become world golf champion.

Some might think dropping negative thought sounds challenging. It’s much easier when we acknowledge such thoughts are crazy. If the thought returns, we just go through the process again.

Uncomfortable feelings or emotions get in the way of ‘accepting what is’. It’s unrealistic to expect to engage in any type of rational thinking when we’re upset, angry, anxious or experiencing any other emotion. So, wait for emotions to subside before engaging ‘accepting what is’.

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