I don’t recall what Cara looked like, only what she said on our first and only date —some vague reference to my thinning hair. Time has clouded my memory, so I can’t claim her comment was intended as an insult. Perhaps she found it attractive or distinctive, and I merely misinterpreted her words.
Regardless, the effect it had on my confidence devastated me for almost a decade.
Back in the 90s, as a young twenty-something, the smallest insult, the most insignificant rejection, and even the hint of indifference would decimate my self-esteem, sending my anxiety off the charts.
Had I come of age in modern times, you would have labeled me a snowflake. Minor rejections and failures devastated my psyche so much, I avoided almost all interactions where such an outcome might repeat, even if it meant giving up on opportunities I desired.
But as I came to realize, always choosing the safe path led to a life of boredom, and I found myself desperate to build some resiliency, grit, thick-skinnedness, or whatever you want to call it.
In my darkest moments, I found myself eschewing social interactions altogether. This avoidance strategy felt safe in the moment, but it led to boredom and the general malaise feeling of a wasted life.
Twenty years after Cara’s offhand remark, I finally discovered a way to harden my emotional shell, building emotional resiliency in the face of failure, setback, criticism, and even bullying.
Sure, these everyday problems don’t compare to real struggles like living in poverty or coping with a terminal illness, but the emotional daggers wound nonetheless. And perhaps that makes it even more frustrating. We let meaningless shit exert too much control over our happiness.
The truth is, almost everyone I come across nowadays struggles with a lack of emotional resiliency. It’s not just the everyday causes like rejection or the feeling that someone isn’t listening to you, but it’s the neverending abuse, condescension, and attacks on social media.
Experiences like these make you less likely to take reasonable chances in life and more hesitant to share your opinion and engage with people. Fortunately, you can train yourself to become more resilient to these setbacks.
Emotional resiliency is a choice but only with the right tools
There’s an oft-quoted line from Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning that it has become somewhat of a punchline, thrown around like catch-all advice to developing grit. “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
You have the freedom to choose the way you respond to any given situation. It doesn’t feel that way because life has conditioned us to recoil in anxiety and fear when emotional jabs strike our gut.
That understanding alone won’t help you overcome the conditioned response. The quote is not a tool, just a starting point, a reminder that you possess control over your emotions. The next exercise will help you put it into action.
The twenty-five-year lens
In time, you’ll train your brain to perform this exercise on autopilot, but first, you need to build the habit.
The pre-bedtime routine
Think of this exercise as a way to relieve yourself of the emotional head trash you accumulated during the day — the times someone told you weren’t good enough, brutalized you on social media, ignored you, or decided you weren’t good enough.
Think of the singular moments, the ones we replay over and over, that somehow morph into life-altering catastrophes.
In your journal, write about the experience, detailing how it made you feel and how you wish you would have responded — both outwardly and inwardly. Next, write about how the incident will affect you in the future if you don’t come to terms with it.
Include past events too, the ones that have stuck with you for months and years but still replay in your mind during crucial moments.
Your future-self retrospect
When I look back on that experience with Cara, I can’t help but laugh at how I let that one offhand comment destroy my social life for the next eight years.
There were other moments, sure, but that one really burrowed its way into my psyche, spawning further emotional daggers. You’re ugly. You’re unattractive. Nobody worthwhile will ever want you. I’ve long since jettisoned that self-loathing and now look back on the experience as an absurd overreaction.
That’s the goal of the twenty-five-year lens.
Go back to your notebook and read about the adverse event. Next, picture yourself 25 years in the future. Then, from the perspective of your future self, ask yourself these questions:
- With the benefit of hindsight, how do you evaluate the experience from 25 years ago? Distance and time yield the gift of perspective and healing. Even if you remember the incident that ruined your day twenty-five years later, the emotional pain will have dissipated. You’ll question why you had gotten so worked up over it. You might even regret your overreaction to the minor setback more than the misfortune itself.
- Did the experience warrant the emotional pain it caused? What would have been a more appropriate reaction? Now that you have perspective, what would have been the most constructive way to react?
- How did this experience affect the last 25 years? From the perspective of your future self, imagine how your reaction might have impacted your subsequent decision-making and personal beliefs. Did it instill fear, encourage you to avoid situations that might produce the same outcome?
- How might life had been different if you had used the negative experience as a way to strengthen your emotional defenses? What if the experience had made you stronger? How could have you used it to bulletproof your emotional defenses?
- Looking back on that experience from 25 years ago, what was funny about it or what could have made it more satisfying by changing one aspect of it? A final exercise I adapted from NLP. I’ve found that rewriting history so that it’s funny or at least satisfying helps the recovery process.
Once you complete the exercise, recall the first lesson. You get to choose how you react to any given situation.
The resiliency habit
In time, you’ll be able to run through this exercise in your head whenever you need it. But it takes time. By incorporating it into your bedtime routine, you’ll enhance your awareness of moments that wound your emotions, affording you a better opportunity to deal with them.
A few weeks ago, a friend of mine posted a picture of her new kitten. She gave the cat an odd name I can’t recall. I commented on her photo, what an unusual name. A week later, she messaged me to say that my comment had bothered her, hurt her. I hadn’t intended my random observation as a slight, but that’s how she interpreted it.
Small, seemingly insignificant experiences like these often cause outsized wounds on our emotional well-being, affecting our self-esteem and decision-making for years, possibly even indefinitely.
You have a choice in how you respond to these events, and the twenty-five-year lens gives you the tool to neutralize the effects of these experiences.