Emotional Resilience in Professional Life


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Author: Jeff Colombe

Regular sources of stress in our lives can arise from challenges at work, challenges in personal life such as with partnership and parenting, and challenges from societal divisions at home and abroad, among many other factors. With one public crisis after another appearing in the news to add to what’s happening directly in our lives, these stress factors may pile on and conspire to make well-being hard to maintain. Sustained stresses, even if they seem like everyday matters, can result in long-lasting traumatic effects that impact our ability to perform and to flourish. The emerging study of emotional resilience has wisdom to offer about how to weather the difficulties that are a normal part of life, and that can make us happier and more effective contributors in our workplaces and our communities.

Emotional Resilience Depends Both on Circumstances and Acquired Attitudes

Emotional resilience is the ability to abide through challenging experiences intact and with full function. Scientific understanding of psychological trauma in response to severe stressors has evolved over the past 20 years in part as a result of treatment of those who were directly affected by 9/11, or those returning from theaters of combat, with earlier foundational studies focused on at-risk youth who endured significant adverse experiences.

While much attention has gone to understanding how stressors can lead to harm and reduced function in some individuals, an important finding is that other individuals manage to cope effectively without long-lasting negative effects. Circumstances are not wholly responsible for causing harm. Extreme stressors like mortal danger need not leave a mark, whereas comparably milder stresses like conflicts with coworkers can be debilitating, depending on how they are received by an individual’s mind.

People who show emotional resilience to stressors enjoy some combination of the following factors:

  • Social support from others
  • Positive self-image and readiness to engage in self-care
  • Ability to take a constructive perspective on what happens to them
  • Adaptability to changing circumstances
  • Humor and openness to experience
  • Feeling agency or control over what happens to them

All of these factors can contribute to emotional resilience on the job, and all can be acquired through changes in circumstance or developed through conscious effort.

Stressors Specific to Work Can Be Obvious or Subtle

Perhaps the most obvious work stressor is concern over livelihood and financial security. Even people who have a relatively secure job may still have an overactive, risk-analytic mind that leads them to imagine worst-case scenarios from time to time. The threat of economic shocks like recessions and government shutdowns are very real and affect large portions of the workforce. The “creative destruction” of capitalism and technological evolution also routinely put the relevance of specific knowledge and job skills at risk. This churn can create insecurity.

MITRE has historically weighed in favor of job stability instead of rapid promotions or raises, unlike many for-profit organizations that need to lay off workers during economic downturns in a “feast or famine” model of employment. An old adage claims that, “slow and steady wins the race.” MITRE has been, and remains, a place where employees are hired with the intention of developing them and keeping them as trusted assets whose value increases over time. MITRE’s long-standing flexible policies regarding telework have proven essential to protecting employment security for its staff this year. MITRE has made it a priority to study what matters to its employees and its customers. This wisdom can serve as an example to the wider world. Workplace stresses around livelihood are less intense at MITRE than in many workplaces.

Aside from earning a livelihood, people also use work to define their identities, and a great deal of personal well-being is tied up in identity. When introduced to someone new in the Washington, D.C., area, the most common question they ask first is “What do you do?” This question may read as, “Why should I think that you matter?”

Why, indeed. Humans are hyper-social members of the animal kingdom, and as a result, one of the major preoccupations of human time and effort is the seeking of interest, attention, cooperation, approval, status, and admiration from others, and we do this in part through our work, and we do this at work.

How do we measure such value in practice? We want to help others and know that others will help us. We want to feel effective and influential, and that we have some control over what happens to us and those we care about. We hope that others will invite us to participate, that they will seek our advice (and even sometimes take our advice), seek out our goodness and our intelligence, speak well of us when we’re not around, and perhaps even wish to be like us.

These are good things to strive toward. Despite our best efforts, however, we don’t always succeed, and depending on how we receive and react to the information, apparent failures can lead to insecurity, anxiety, alienation, even shame.

Stress Lives in the Space Between Circumstances and Our Reactions to Them

Stress is related to outer circumstances, but its consequences are in thoughts, emotional reactions, and behaviors that may not be helpful. If you looked in a mirror and saw some dirt on your face, you wouldn’t reach out to clean the mirror. And still, we often only attribute sources of difficulty to what’s around us, when the thing that can most easily be repaired is in the self. Often, the ways that we react are partially or wholly unconscious, and don’t get identified until they are called out for careful consideration. In that spirit, the examples that follow might be useful. Whether or not any apply to you, they may help you relate to others.

Depending on your disposition, it may be that even conspicuous successes don’t feel like enough to satisfy you. Small failures might expand in the imagination to become major sources of stress. The potential for large failures may seem intolerable. Prior life experience might condition you to readily take insult or feel disrespected by others, whether or not any was intended. You may have been taught to equate respect with agreement, and chafe whenever your ideas, opinions, plans, or work products are not readily and unconditionally embraced by others.

Some work situations may feel like a struggle for power or dominance. You might experience shame, self-doubt, or worry, for example about being an unqualified and undeserving participant in a room full of legitimate experts. You may feel like you are underappreciated for your better qualities, or that your environment doesn’t contribute to your flourishing. You might get bored, or feel unmotivated or unproductive at times, and worry about how that will affect your standing. You might have a mental habit of being judgmental toward yourself and others, which can create stress for all involved. Maybe you think, rightly or wrongly, that others disregard you because of whatever categories or stereotypes you might fit into in their minds.

You might experience mortal terror at the prospect of public speaking. Perhaps you sometimes lie awake at night worrying about who you might have offended in a meeting earlier that day. Maybe you wish at times that you could invent a time machine to go back and hit “reply” instead of “reply to all” in response to an e-mail.

You might reflect on your experience and add to this list. It’s useful to realize that, at least on the surface, there’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these reactions. They are normal, garden-variety artifacts of our wandering minds and our innate concern for risks to our well-being. Things get challenging when these reactions become frequent, persistent, or reach intensities that become intrusive and distracting to us, or unconstructive to our relationships. There are remedies.

Ways for Professionals to Develop and Deploy Emotional Resilience

Emotional resilience amounts to a set of “self-righting tendencies” that transform difficult reactions of thought and feeling into harmless or even advantageous ones. Something that once threatened to enrage you might be transformed into something that merely annoys you, or even better, something that amuses you. You might be able to actively coax the nervousness you feel before giving a public talk into something like neutral excitement, which, with some additional skill, can be further reformed into feelings of appetite and anticipation for a highly skilled performance and connection with a deserving audience. The following approaches may be helpful.

Tip 1: Break down habitual reactions of unhelpful thought and belief

Unconstructive thoughts and beliefs can be broken by insisting on a fresh evaluation of the evidence behind them, and the use of systematic doubt about your initial conclusions. For example, you may have had the experience of meeting someone who seemed aloof, and you might have thought that the aloofness was due to arrogance on their part, but later you found that they were just shy. Seeing arrogance where shyness was to blame might count as an unconstructive interpretation of evidence. Getting unstuck from unproductive interpretations is a special skill that you can learn, though it requires practice, and this skill can benefit from seeing it done well by others.

Tip 2: Actively demonstrate that you can be effective in helping yourself

The sense of being able to help yourself out of trouble has been called self-efficacy, and it can be developed through active demonstrations. An emerging therapeutic technique that is being used to develop a sense of self-efficacy involves a therapist presenting controllable stressors and giving their client the chance to right the stressful conditions through voluntary action. This serves as a kind of inoculation against future stressors by allowing the client to develop confidence in their abilities. A trusted workplace mentor may be able to play the role of therapist in this process, creating stressful situations for you that they know you can fix. Or, you can “go into the danger” yourself by tackling minor stressors on purpose and being effective in mastering them, to make you stronger for tackling more difficult situations.

Tip 3: Build trusting social connections with others, especially at work

We become more emotionally resilient by feeling that we have a strong sense of social connections and healthy mutual dependence, as in “I’ve got your back.” Our hyper-social needs are satisfied, and we build a positive sense of self by spending real quality time with other people, in person if possible, doing things that make us feel seen and appreciated for who we are and who we strive to be, and in the act of helping others and being helped by others.

Taking Care of Yourself Isn’t Selfish

When you are a passenger on an airplane, the flight attendants recommend that you put your own oxygen mask on before trying to help someone sitting next to you with theirs. This principle of helping yourself to help others applies in so many parts of life, including at work.

If you seek the things that build emotional resilience in yourself—including finding more positive ways to understand what’s going on, finding ways to encourage your sense of your effectiveness in making things better, and developing strong and trusting social bonds—you will not only help yourself, but you might become a person who will be a steadying influence for others.

If you undertake the effort to develop yourself in this way, you will not only relieve yourself of the burdens of difficult situations, but you will make situations less difficult for all involved. If so, I would hope to enjoy the pleasure, someday, of working with you.

Dr. Jeff Colombe is a neuroscientist and biomedical engineer by training. He has worked in biologically inspired approaches to artificial intelligence and machine learning, the biomedical science of blast injury, human performance monitoring and enhancement, and federal workforce development.

© 2020 The MITRE Corporation. All rights reserved. Approved for public release.  Distribution unlimited. Case number 20-1799

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Interview with Dan Ward, Rachel Gregorio, and Jessica Yu on MITRE’s Innovation Toolkit

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