Given that change, with accompanying losses and hardships, is an inevitable part of life, it is crucial to learn how we can increase our capacity to rebound or spring back after painful life events, a capacity called resilience. Although we know that some aspects of resilience are inborn (related to temperament as explained in another blog), others aspects can be learned and practiced. Just as children are vaccinated to avoid physical disease, parents can help by inoculating them for the challenges they will face throughout their lives.
This can be done by teaching kids to have a resilient mindset or a positive lens through which they see themselves and the world. An example of this is teaching young children that mistakes are an inevitable part of learning new skills and are actually helpful rather than something bad to be avoided. An essential building block of resilience is a high level of self-efficacy. Although I have a pet peeve against fancy words when simple ones can do just as well, I think that it is important that parents, teachers, and therapists learn about self-efficacy: what it is, why it is important, and how to build it in ourselves and others.
Self-efficacy is defined as a person’s belief (whether true or not) in his or her ability to succeed or manage in specific situations or tasks. It is what helps nurture effort, perseverance, resilience, serenity, and optimism in the face of adversity. Do you remember the children’s story, The Little Engine That Could? When the little blue train has to pull a load of toys over the mountain, she succeeds only when she tells herself, “I think I can, I think I can, and then delights in her success by saying to herself, “I thought I could, I thought I could!” The little engine is a model of high self-efficacy.
“If your emotional abilities aren’t in hand, if you don’t have self-awareness, if you are not able to manage your distressing emotions, if you can’t have empathy and have effective relationships, then no matter how smart you are, you are not going to get very far.” -Daniel Goleman
As a psychotherapist, I am constantly struck by how little the average person knows about emotions– both why we have them in the first place and what we are to do about them when they cause us pain and suffering. It seems as though half of humanity wishes they could do without them–and they try very hard to avoid or suppress any painful feeling that comes along. The emotion-avoiding types say things like, “I don’t want to talk about it because then I’d feel sad,” or “It won’t change anything to get angry, so why bother…”
The other half, the emotionally dramatic as-if-on-a-roller-coaster type, seems to honor their emotions, giving them not just a voice but the whole driver’s seat. These folks say things like, “I can’t do that when I don’t feel like it,” or “I can’t possibly change the way that I feel since it is who I am.” If given too much weight, feelings can be used to blame or shame others or to justify inappropriate behavior.
As clinical psychologist and Buddhist practitioner Daniel Goleman so aptly reminds us, feelings are an essential part of our humanity, and we need to learn how to work with them so they don’t get the best of us. As infants, our emotions helped communicate our needs to our caregivers, and as adults they still help us to know what we like and don’t like. They are essential in order for us to be able to empathize and have compassion for ourself and others. The trick is how to find the balance between too much expression and too little. For most of us, this is a lifelong process. Here is a way to begin.
First, ask yourself which one of these two tendencies are you most likely to exhibit? Are you able to express your emotions? When was …
“When you plant lettuce, if it does not grow well, you don’t blame the lettuce. You look for reasons it is not doing well. It may need fertilizer, or more water, or less sun. You never blame the lettuce. Yet if we have problems with our friends or family, we blame the other person. But if we know how to take care of them, they will grow well, like the lettuce.” -Thich Nhat Hanh
The wish to seek and have a deep sense of family connection and commitment is universal. Ask people what is most important to them and their first answer is always the same–their family. Our families give us a sense of identity and belonging, reminding us of who we are and what is unique about us. They are also the context, the garden soil, out of which our individuality flowers. The metaphor of a garden is an apt one for many reasons. All over the world, there are gardens of vastly different designs, planted at different times, at different stages of growth and decay, with different types of plants. In spite of the fact that no two are alike, all gardens have some common needs–sunlight and water, planting of seeds and cutting back weeds. In short, for a garden to flourish, it needs tending.
What gives families a strong sense of connection? The answer is so simple even though often so difficult to do. We must spend quality time together, or if separated by geography, spend time communicating. Only by making the time to share the details of our daily lives as well as our successes, hardships, dreams and disappointments can we reap the rewards of our intimate bonds. Twenty-first century families are more isolated than ever before. With both parents working more hours than ever and with the demands of work infiltrating family time via computers and cell phones, most everyone we talk to complains about the same thing. There’s just not enough time!
“Your family and your love must be cultivated like a garden. Time, effort, …
When I see couples or families in therapy, improving communication is often the first goal. Most people, convinced that they are already good communicators, quickly discover that many of their skills need honing. Effective communication can be far more difficult than any of us first imagined. I am constantly shocked and reminded just how easy it is to hurt or be hurt by our loved ones due to correctable misunderstandings. What are some of the most common mistakes all of us make?
One of the most universal communication errors in our relationships with our parents, partners, and children is that we are tempted to speak without thinking first. This is understandable because we are typically less guarded with people we feel close to. The downside of having this increased freedom of expression is that we often blurt things that we would never even dream of saying out loud to a friend or colleague.
Hence, Tip #1: Engage your brain before you open your mouth, and ask yourself if anyone will really be served by what you are about to say. The old adage “some things are better left unsaid” happens to be true. Healthy families are lavish when it comes to sharing positive words and more restrained and deliberate when it comes to delivering negative feedback.
The second most common error is that we assume that the other person actually understands precisely what we have communicated. Unfortunately, this is very often not the case. Tip #2: The more important the information being communicated, the more we need to slow down, taking ample time to make sure that the message we are sending is the same one that our loved one is receiving. The best remedy for this (besides making your communications short and to the point) is to learn how to paraphrase and make a habit of asking the listener what they heard. I know that this may sound incredibly tedious, boring, and unnatural–which it will be until you get better at it. Difficult as this may be at first, the …