I recently saw someone raise this question on Twitter and thought it was a great question. How do we weather the hardship of being involved in the messiness of life (our own lives and the lives of others) without becoming unmoved by important things?

Let’s start by asking the question, “What is emotional resilience?” The start of a definition would be something like, “The ability to withstand stressful circumstances without losing perspective, intentionality in response, and bandwidth to respond to other stressful situations on their own merit.” So three key elements of emotional resilience would be:

  • Perspective – the ability to interpret each situation on its own merit; for its own opportunities and challenges
  • Intentionality – selection responses to a situation based on a reasoned approach and towards a desired outcome
  • Bandwidth – our cognitive and emotional reserve to approach future situations with perspective and intentionality

I appreciate that the question posed on Twitter recognized that reactivity (rage or panic) was not the only unhealthy response to hardship; callousness is the equal and opposite unhealthy response. Over-reaction and under-reaction are both unhealthy, can diminish our personal flourishing, and cause us to misrepresent God’s redemptive purposes in a situation.

So far, we’ve defined what we’re after in the first half of the Twitter question, what is emotional resilience? Now we can address the second half of the question, how can we grow in this aptitude without falling to the other extreme of callousness?

Spectrum of Responses

We start by recognizing that there is a spectrum of responses instead of three prototype responses. In any given situation, there is more than (a) one over-reaction, (b) one under-reaction, and (c) one proportional reaction.

There is a spectrum of responses: (a) a host of over-reactions of varying degrees, (b) a host of under-reactions of varying degrees, and (c) a host of proportional reactions, some of which fit the situation and our personality better than others.

As we seek to grow in emotional resilience without migrating into callousness, we are seeking to avoid over-reaction to a current stressor while maintaining the perspective and intentionality to engage with future stressors in a way that allows us to select a proportional response that fits the situation and our personality.

Okay, But How?

I know. I’m doing that annoying thing that counselors do. I’m answering a question by defining words and providing concepts (which is not really answering the question, but makes us sound smart). Here are several steps that may be helpful in your journey; recognizing that personality and context have a strong influence on resilience (so some points may be more helpful for some readers than others).

  1. Give yourself permission to ask the question. It is wisdom, not weakness, to ask this question. When we feel bad for asking important questions, guilt begins to undermine our emotional resilience.
  2. Care for your physical body well. Our bodies have a strong influence on our emotions. Adequate sleep, cardiovascular exercise, and a healthy diet are vital ingredients in emotional resilience.
  3. Engage with activities you enjoy when under stress or entering other’s stress. The harder our context (personally or those with whom we minister) the more important it is to engage our simple, daily pleasures. When we neglect our enjoyable activities, stressors become the defining marks of our life.
  4. Recognize God wants all of these things for you because he cares for you. Don’t fall into the temptation of viewing God as the boss who thinks your replying to personal emails on “his time” when you practice good self-care. God is a father who loves to see his children flourish, not an employer looking for a return on his investment of redemption.
  5. Don’t try to be the church as an individual. Often diminishing resilience reveals that I am trying to do as a “me” what I should be doing as part of a “we.” Western individualism makes this mentality more tempting.
  6. Allow your free time thinking to serve as an alarm system. How many arguments are you having when your thoughts drift? How many “what if” or “worst case scenario” fears are you generating? When this happens in our free time thinking, it is an indicator that we need to be honest with a Christian friend. Trying to “be strong” on your own is a great way to undermine resilience.
  7. Be content with the degree of influence God has given you. Often diminishing resilience reveals that we are trying to have “control” where we only have “influence.” Accepting the degree to which you have the volitional or jurisdictional ability to effect change in a situation is an important part of maintaining resilience.

This list of seven actions is meant to be representative, not exhaustive. Allow it to prompt you to begin to ask, “How can I engage the challenges in my life and the life of those with whom I minister in a way that is emotionally sustainable?” If you want to think about this further, consider my resource bradhambrick.com/burnout or 50 Good Mental Health Habits.

If this post was beneficial for you, then consider reading other blogs from my “Favorite Posts on Emotions” post which address other facets of this subject.