To Move Forward, Look at Your Past

Studies show some children do well in the face of adversity while others don't. How your upbringing can affect resilience.

Published: Sep 19, 2019

At the end of a long week of putting out fires and barely hitting deadlines, Catherine's nerves were frayed. That's when her boss stopped by and told her how she could have handled an important meeting better. Even though Catherine knew intellectually that the feedback was meant to help her grow, she found herself fighting back tears.

It's important to separate large past experiences from day-to-day duties to help understand how you respond to things both in finite amounts of time and over the long run.

Such a response, no matter how old or young we are, can cause confusion, sadness, or anger. But the way we handle tough times hearkens back to how we reacted to stress when we were children because the defenses we form in childhood-in this case, Catherine's perfectionism and people pleasing-stay with us into adulthood, psychologists say. Indeed, in multiple studies on how children develop resilience, some have the ability to overcome serious hardships while others struggle. Researchers have found that children who are able to bounce back have at least one stable relationship with a parent, caregiver, or adult and a biological resistance to adversity.

Which is all the more reason we must dig into our past to understand the best coping mechanisms for ourselves. Not only will such solutions help our careers, they could also prevent mood disorders down the line; according to the National Institutes of Health, without the necessary coping mechanisms for daily stressors your odds of having a mood disorder later in life increase by 31%. Here's how to look at your past to understand how you can become more resilient now and in the future.

How have you handled past emotions at work?

At our core, we're emotional beings, and growing research is showing that it's okay to show feelings at work, so long as they're measured. "Resilience is more available to people curious about their own line of thinking and behaving," says Brené Brown, a leading resilience researcher and author.

One way to spur curiosity is to revisit past emotional experiences in your mind and ask yourself what happened, how you felt, and how you responded. Write down the answers in a journal so you can track future challenges to help hone your resilience practice. "Over time, you'll have enough notes on your own unhelpful behaviors so that you can spot the places where you participate in creating your own suffering before you act out those same destructive or avoidant behaviors for the zillionth time," Brown says.

Have you shared your feelings with someone?

One of the pillars of resilience is connection, and when looking into your past, a trusted colleague and friend can be a good sounding board to rely on. That's because they often understand the landscape at your company-something a partner may not be able to grasp. "A friend will have a fresh perspective and new ideas that leverage your strengths," says Marquitta Cherry, a career coach at Korn Ferry Advance. "Additionally, your friend is invested in you and might better be able to provide the emotional support you need to grow through challenges."

How strong is your emotional intelligence?

Daniel Goleman, who wrote a best-selling book on emotional intelligence-which is the ability to understand other people's feelings and successfullyexpress your own-says the key to improving this skill is to avoid learning and changing too much at once. "Manage your goal at the level of a specific behavior," Goleman suggests. "Make it practical, so you know exactly what to do and when."

If, for example, you've mined past experiences and discovered you're not the best listener, you can then choose to be more present by telling yourself to pause, listen, take a deep breath, and then respond. The new habit may not happen every time, but even if it happens once a day, you're on your way to change.

How do you handle day-to-day stress?

It's important to separate large past experiences (e.g., your entire childhood) from day-to-day duties to help understand how you respond to things both infinite amounts of time and over the long run. One way to do this is to redefine success. "Success should mean you achieved something that's directly within your control," says Josh Daniel, a career coach at Korn Ferry Advance. If you're looking for a new job, for example, a successful day may be one in which you identified and applied to two positions, sent out three networking messages, and found an in-person event to attend. The more you can focus on what you can control in stressful situations-and also understand what you can't-the more resilient you'll become.

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