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  • Alison Lincoln

Developing resilience by thinking differently

How resilient are you? How well do you react to unexpected challenges and conflicts? In general, it’s not the hard times we face that determine our success or failure as much as the way we respond to these hard times. The good news is that resilience is a skill that, like any other, can be learned. The key is to recognise your own thoughts, beliefs and emotions and then decide if they are helping or hindering you.

Analyse your thoughts

Human beings tend to have a negativity bias, we glaze over the good stuff and focus on the bad stuff. This means that criticisms often take up more head space and carry more weight than compliments. We typically spend 80% of our time looking at, worrying about or considering the bad stuff and only 20% thinking about the good. Research has shown that people who habitually acknowledge and express gratitude get health, sleep and relationship benefits by training the mind to focus on the good stuff more of the time (Emmons, 2007).

Our other tendency is towards confirmation bias. In other words, we will search for or interpret information in a way that confirms or supports what we already believe. To counteract this you may need to take a slightly more scientific approach to your thinking. If you were conducting an experiment you would start out with a hypothesis and then look for evidence that either supports or refutes it before making a balanced, informed decision about whether your hypothesis is proved or not. We can do the same with out thinking by asking ourselves:

· Is it true?

· Is there another explanation?

· Does thinking like that help me?

· Could I think differently about this?

· Does thinking like this give me something useful to work with?

If you’re specifically struggling to deal with somebody’s criticism try asking yourself the following questions before deciding whether to take it on board or forget it and move on:

· Is it valid?

· Who said it?

· Is their opinion of value?

· Are they a prejudiced or honest critic?

In his book, The Chimp Paradox, Professor Steve Peters describes the twin gremlins of thinking as unrealistic expectations and unhelpful expectations. He suggests that if you get upset about something use it as a prompt to check whether your expectations are realistic or helpful regarding the situation or others involved.

Beware the thinking traps!

It’s very easy to fall into one of the 3 main thinking traps - over generalisation, catastrophising and jumping to conclusions. Pessimists will tend to attribute the causes of negative events to permanent, uncontrollable, general factors - ‘that always happens to me’, ‘typical that it blows a gale just as I’m starting my round’. Whereas optimists tend to attribute causes of negative events to temporary, changeable, specific factors – ‘I got a bit distracted by the wind in that round’, ‘I fell into my habit of looking down I must concentrate on looking up next time’. If you can train yourself to think like an optimist, even if your initial reaction is a bit negative, it will help immunise you against learned helplessness, anxiety and giving up when things don’t go to plan. Aim for realistic optimism which is the ability to stay positive about the future but realistic in planning for it.

Catastrophic thinking is the tendency to ruminate about irrational worst case scenarios which can drive up anxiety and prevent you from taking action. At this point it’s important to distinguish between catastrophic thinking and contingency planning. Thinking about what could go wrong, going through your options and planning what action to take if / when things don’t go to plan is essential. Going through the worst case you can imagine for the umpteenth time is not! If this is the tenth time you’re seeing yourself falling in the water jump, crashing through the treble or forgetting your test halfway through, stop and ask yourself is this helping?

So the first step to managing this type of thinking is to recognise it. The next step is to accept the worst case scenario as a possibility – unlikely but possible. Then generate a best case scenario if everything goes exactly to plan - also possible but unlikely. Now put both of these in perspective by identifying the most likely scenarios which generally fall in the middle of the two extremes. The number of alternative scenarios you can envisage in the ‘most likely outcomes’ category will avoid the third thinking trap of jumping to conclusions as well as enhance your ability to contingency plan, boost your confidence because you feel prepared and enable you to think clearly in the moment by reducing the element of surprise. The final part of the process is to accept that you won’t have thought of everything and the unexpected may still happen, that’s OK you’ll handle it!

Challenge your beliefs

Your beliefs drive your emotions and behaviour and deep seated beliefs that no longer serve you have the potential to do the most damage. You may have heard these deeply held beliefs described as ‘Icebergs’ because they lurk beneath the waterline ready to catch you out. A bit dramatic but you get the gist. The point is that deep seated beliefs are often ones that we have inherited, grown up with or been instilled in us by trainers or instructors. Beliefs like:

“if you fall off you must get straight back on”

“don’t let the horse win”

“make him / her do it – they must learn to do as they’re told – show them who’s boss”

“don’t be a wimp, tough it out”

“you’re too soft, he’s not sore, he’s just being difficult”

“I’m not brave enough to go eventing”

“I’m just not elegant enough to do dressage”

“I’m not a talented rider”

“I’ve got no feel”

“I can’t see a stride”

“Winning is everything, second is first loser”

“There’s no point going if you’re not going to win”

“Do whatever it takes to win”

Take some time to identify your deep seated beliefs. Monitor when they make an appearance and evaluate if they’re still useful, meaningful and accurate or if they are too rigid, contribute to or undermine your effectiveness and whether they support or dent your ability to be resilient.

A quick word on self limiting beliefs. You’ll recognise them when you find yourself saying ‘I can’t’ or ‘I should’. These types of phrases take away your power to choose whether or not to take action. Replace could with should and you move from placing pressure on yourself and stating failure to feelings of possibility and opportunity. “I should practice lengthening and shortening the stride then I wouldn’t get into trouble in the combinations” becomes “I could practice lengthening and shortening to help improve my performance through combinations”. Feels quite different doesn’t it? How about replacing ‘I can’t’ with ‘I can’t yet’ or even better ‘I will’ or ‘I won’t’. Exercise your power to choose. Choose if you can be bothered or not, choose how much time to invest in something, choose to practice or not, choose how to develop yourself, choose where your priorities lie, choose to get help from a trainer or not, choose to believe in yourself rather than doubting yourself.


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