Resilience or the Art of Bouncing Back (Book Snippet 20)

Although it often doesn’t seem like it, at the root of conflict with others lies fear: fear that we will not get what we want or need. Although fear is just an emotion like any other, it is one of the less popular ones, because it is connected with vulnerability and loss of control. Most of us, unconsciously and consciously, devote a lot of time and energy to avoiding feeling fear. But being unaware of or denying fear has consequences.

Unacknowledged fears erect an invisible wall between others and ourselves. When we are unaware of how fear drives our actions, it becomes impossible to resolve conflict because we are busy fighting proxy wars instead of speaking about what we are really afraid to lose.

What if we discovered that we do not need to be afraid of fear, any more than we need to be afraid of a pillow, laughter, a nose, a brick, or a happy thought?

One natural consequence might be expending a lot less energy on avoiding feeling fear. From a physiological perspective, the ability to feel fear has been hardwired into our system in order to protect and remove us from physical harm. This fear response is quick and dirty since it triggers our organism to fight, flight, or freeze. Fear evolved as an emergency switch, a way to protect us from imminent physical harm — not as a fire alarm that is always on. We believe that our physical body is not the only thing that can die.

We carry the misconception that we might not survive emotional pain, that we could somehow break.

In response, we shield against attacks that threaten our emotional and mental integrity. Fear of psychological pain has the intention to protect us from situations in which we anticipate to experience such pain again. Yet, even if we lock ourselves in an internal catacomb we can’t avoid pain, hurt, or disappointment: as long as we are alive, we feel.

Viktor Frankl, holocaust survivor and psychotherapist, observed that some of his fellow survivors had recovered remarkably well from their experiences. He started researching this phenomenon by investing deeper in the nature of emotional and mental well-being of holocaust survivors. What interested him was the very fact that not every person who had survived the horrors of the Nazi regime ended up irreparably damaged. Many did, but some displayed a remarkable ability to withstand and overcome the immense suffering they had endured. Today we call this resilience. Resilience does not mean to not feel in the face of adversity. It describes our ability to bounce back, like a bamboo, which has been battered by a storm. Even just thinking I am a resilient person has the power to increase a person’s resilience. Why? The ability to withstand, recover and bounce back is ingrained in us.

The arguments with others often have little or no connection to the original source of our fear: our imagined vulnerability. With our spouse we argue about unfaithfulness, when we are actually afraid they might not love us. We yell at our children for being messy, when we are actually afraid of losing control of our own life. We arrogantly dismiss the attempts of others to be close to us, when we are really afraid we might not be able to protect our autonomy. We fight against orders and rules, when we are afraid of getting stuck or not expressing our creativity. We sue our company for not giving us a raise, when we are actually afraid of not being appreciated.

If we want to live in a more peaceful world, we have to acknowledge that we have fears, speak about what makes us feel vulnerable, uncover our erroneous assumptions, and see fear for what it is: just another emotion caused by a thought.

The moment we recognize our thoughts as the source of fear and pain, we reactivate our natural ability to be resilient in the face of adversity. Thoughts can change and ‘bounce back’ in an instant and so can we.

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