Very often in life, we look at a person who has made it through a difficult time—the death of a loved one, abuse, a natural disaster, a horrific accident—and applaud that person’s ability to persevere by using words like brave and courageous and fearless to describe them.
Sometimes these words are, indeed, true descriptors of the survivor’s character. More often than not, however, we fail to understand what it really is that enabled the person to make it through a trial.
According to many social science experts, the key to overcoming trials is very rarely courage or bravery or fearlessness.
Rather, it is three-fold: resilient individuals have an innate awareness of their thoughts and emotions, they are able to determine what those thoughts and emotions mean, and they choose to act on them appropriately. In short, they are emotionally intelligent.
Best-selling author and researcher Brené Brown, in her book Rising Strong, explains:
“The most transformative and resilient leaders that I’ve worked with over the course of my career have three things in common:
First, they recognize the central role that relationships and story play in culture and strategy, and they stay curious about their own emotions, thoughts, and behaviors.
Second, they understand and stay curious about how emotions, thoughts, and behaviors are connected in the people they lead, and how those factors affect relationships and perception. And, third, they have the ability and willingness to lean in to discomfort and vulnerability.”
Fortunately, this type of emotional intelligence can be learned, nurtured, and grown.
Here are 12 things you can do to foster your own emotional intelligence:
1. Identify your emotions.
Don’t be afraid to let yourself feel; instead, take the chance to explore each emotion you experience. Name the emotion. Write it down, even, and try to identify what brought it on. You can do this on your own, with a trusted friend, or with a licensed therapist.
2. Look for clues in your emotions.
In the Emotions Mentor podcast this week, I spoke with wellness expert Anastasia Borserio about emotional resilience. She beautifully explained how every emotion we experience contains a clue as to what we need.
After you have identified an emotion and what brought it on, see if you can then identify the clue it reveals. Ask yourself what the emotion means and what it indicates you might need.
3. Practice acceptance.
When you feel an emotion, let it ride out. Accept that you feel sad or angry or frustrated. Don’t try to change things right away.
Accept that sometimes things don’t work out. Likewise, when you feel happy or excited—or any other good emotion—accept that you are worthy of feeling loved, well, and blessed.
4. Choose to be happy over being right when the occasion warrants it.
One way to practice the acceptance mentioned above is to consciously declare that you don’t always have to be right. Sometimes the best path through a difficult situation is to accept that someone else’s needs may be greater than your own.
5. Learn from your mistakes.
When you make mistakes, take time after the fallout to write down what you’ve learned—or should learn—from the experience. And make amends if your mistake caused harm or hurt feelings to another person.
6. Practice spirituality.
If you have faith in a higher power, nurture that belief. For many people, faith can guide and direct them through hard times. If you don’t practice a specific religion, however, you can still tap into spirituality through meditation, self-reflection, and adherence to your own moral code.
7. Get social support.
Don’t isolate yourself when going through difficult times. Let others into your circle and rely on them as needed. Say yes when someone offers help.
8. Have good role models of resilience.
Part of the social support mentioned above can come from good role models. Identify people in your life who have passed through hard times and talk to them about how they did it. Listen to or read stories about people who have developed resilience.
There is great power in stories. In fact, studies have found that both literary fiction and true stories from your own family’s history can foster empathy, perseverance, and kindness in the reader or listener. So, go ahead and identify your heroes and learn from them.
9. Exercise your body.
I’ve written many times about the benefits of exercise on the mind and body.
Read this for a more in-depth look about the ways exercise is a cure-all for so many of the things that ail us.
10. Exercise your mind.
The more you know and understand about the world around you, the better able you’ll be to navigate that world. Don’t ever stop learning. Take classes on a topic you find interesting. Audit classes at your local community college. Read a book.
11. Find meaning in what you do.
Sometimes it’s hard to slog through the mundaneness of life. But if you can attach meaning to some of the less exciting things you do, your productivity and outlook are likely to increase.
One of the easiest ways to attach meaning to something is to add an element of giving to it. Serving others your work with or live with, even in simple ways, is proven to increase satisfaction and decrease anxiety.
12. Have a sense humor.
Of all the emotions to explore and embrace, one of the best is the emotion you feel when you’re able to just let go of whatever stress you’re experiencing and laugh it off. Sometimes, laughter really is the best medicine.
Also, take your mental health learning with you! Listen to our podcast on a variety of mental health topics. Click below to listen!
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