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The Secret to Resilience? A Good Story.

Imagine something unexpected and negative just happened. Perhaps you performed poorly in an interview, blew up in a big athletic competition, got laid off, or worse yet, lost a loved one or suffered some other horrible tragedy. Why is it that some individuals bounce back from these events more easily than others? In Do Hard Things, I set out to answer this question. One of the findings was quite surprising.

According to the latest research, the answer may lie at least partially in the stories we tell ourselves.

When things go south, most of us feel broken — it’s abnormal not to. Yet it turns out that one of the keys to putting ourselves back together lies in constructively integrating whatever happened into our forever unfolding personal story, the ongoing narrative we tell ourselves about ourselves. If we can do that, we’ll feel better and move forward faster.

The word constructively is emphasized because it’s easy to tell ourselves very different stories about the same event. For example:

  • “I didn’t get the job, my streak of failures is continuing,” versus;
  • “I didn’t get the job, but I learned X/Y/Z specific things in the process, and I’ll be better off for learning those things at my next interview.”

Make no mistake: this is not meant to encourage delusional thinking nor lying to oneself. An overly rosy (or narcissistic) view of the world is neither conducive to long-term performance nor mental health. When life takes a turn for the worse, you should feel hurt and grief.

What this is meant to encourage, however, is consciously choosing to encode in your memory, via story, the positive pieces of an otherwise negative incident. Doing so has both acute and lasting benefits.

Here’s an example from one of the most resilient athletes I know, United States Olympian runner Des Linden, on an injury that forced her to pull-out from the 2012 Olympic marathon just two miles in:

“Having an injury is a sign of pushing beyond your limit. When I fractured my femur — an injury that forced me to pull out of the 2012 Olympic Marathon — I did everything I could to stay positive. Sure, it sucked, especially because of the timing, and I let myself be sad. But I also learned about imbalances in my body and fixed them. And, in a weird way, the injury increased my confidence. I ran on that thing for like six weeks — it proved to me that I’m a pretty tough gal. I could challenge that toughness in bouncing back.”

Storytelling is a big part of what separates us from other species. The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are extremely powerful. They have a significant and lasting impact on our lives. Craft yours wisely.


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