Adversity comes in two flavors. The first is a hardship due to an external factor often outside of your control. This is a crisis that occurs due to circumstances or something external that impacts you.
COVID-19 and the related economic contraction is a good example of externally driven adversity.
The second type is an internal crisis. This can be a crisis of confidence, self-worth, or identity. Internal crises are often (but not always) precipitated by external crises.
Of the two, it’s typically the internal crisis that is far more impactful than the external.
There’s an old saying that you can't control what happens to you, but you can control how you respond to what happens to you.
When how you respond doesn’t go well, that’s an internal crisis.
Everybody faces both types of crises. That’s just a normal part of being human.
However, there’s a difference between the number of external crises you experience and how many also become internal crises.
For someone with high emotional resilience, it might take ten external crises to result in one internal crisis.
For those with low emotional resilience, it might be a one for one ratio... or they may even have an internal crisis with no obvious external adversity preceding it.
While everyone has internal crises, what differs is our threshold point — how much we can handle before an internal challenge reaches crisis proportions.
A qualitative distinction between a challenge and a crisis is how well you function in everyday life.
If you lose a job because your employer declared bankruptcy, that’s an external crisis.
If you’re disappointed and worried, but still able to get out of bed, eat breakfast, and drive a car to get groceries, you’re in a challenging situation and still functioning.
If you’re devastated, can’t get out of bed, and stop returning phone calls from friends who are concerned about you, that’s no longer a challenge. That’s a crisis. It’s a crisis because your ability to do the day-to-day things that you used to is being impaired.
There is a middle ground between those two extremes. It is possible to have an internal crisis and be high functioning.
I’ve mentioned before that I’ve struggled with depression. That’s an internal crisis.
I remember one year that was particularly bad for me, emotionally. Yet I still hit my sales target that year. That year also felt like the end of the world, and I felt like a failure (a.k.a. internal crisis).
Having high emotional resilience is extremely beneficial… especially in times of high stress and external adversity.
I am seeing a lot of external stressors this year — pandemic, disease, death, recession, job losses, financial losses, food insecurity, lockdowns, social isolation, and the list goes on.
I was concerned (correctly) that this would lead to a lot of internal crises this year.
Several therapists I know are fully booked… have waiting lists… and are feeling the weight of so many clients dealing with so many adversities concurrently. It has been a tough, tough year for mental health and wellness.
The good news is that emotional resilience is not fixed. It can change.
Several things contribute to greater emotional resilience:
- Emotionally close relationships with family or friends
(There is enormous longitudinal and empirical data on this one.)
- Physical self-care, such as getting enough sleep, eating right, and exercising
(The worst emotional moments in my life were always at 2 a.m.; not so much at 9 a.m. The basics matter… a lot!)
- A sense of self-worth that’s tied to things within your control and not external factors that aren't
On this last point, I see a lot of my readers focus their sense of worth, well-being, and self-respect on achievements… in particular, achievements that are predicated on someone else’s decision or evaluation of their actions.
It’s one thing to be proud of yourself because you feel like you did your best at something. It’s another to base your sense of wellness on some other person's choice of words or which checkbox they marked on a performance review form.
One of the best ways to cultivate higher emotional resilience in the long term is to shift the derivation of your sense of worth from other people to yourself.
I call the former “other-based esteem.” The latter is what I call “self-based esteem.”
If your internal view of yourself is based on others, you will forever be subject to the whims and volatility of the outside world. These are things out of your control.
(There is also enormous empirical data that people who suffer from depression often feel like they are not in control of their own life. If your worldview is designed around this perspective, it creates a very high risk of emotional instability. In contrast, those with lower propensities for things like depression often feel like they do have control over major portions of their life.)
If you perceive yourself as not having control over your life or sense of worth, it makes no logical sense to bother trying to improve your life (because by definition, you have no control). A funny thing happens when you don’t try to improve your life… it often doesn’t improve. Go figure.
When your view of yourself is based internally on things like your personal values, your sense of self is far more stable. Your own sense of power in your life goes up, which typically improves your sense of emotional well-being.
As we head into the new year, it’s worth taking some time to reflect on how you see the world and whether that habit is serving you well. If shifting your sense of esteem from others to yourself is something you’re curious about, I encourage you to take a look at my Self-Esteem Improvement program by Clicking Here.