How to end the year in a better place
There’s no pretending that 2020 was easy on anyone. Yet whilst no psychologist would wish hardship on any individual, there is a hidden value to be found in hard times.
In the summer, I ran a series of reflective workshops with my business clients who were still reeling from the personal and professional impacts of lockdown. The success of these sessions got me thinking about how beneficial it is to stop and look back. Ultimately, reflection leads to resilience.
Research shows that the act of reflection (rather than wallowing) is a useful technique which helps us to appreciate what we’ve learnt over a period of time and apply this new knowledge in the future.
The reason mindful reflection is so powerful is that the brain has a natural negativity bias. American psychologist Rick Hanson has a good analogy on this. He says the brain is like velcro for negative emotions and teflon for the positive – meaning that in the wake of a tough experience, we are likely to only remember the bad.
That’s why reflection – in which we acknowledge the hardships but celebrate our achievements – is so vital in building resilience. Savouring the good experiences and feeling gratitude for our blessings allows our brains to wire those positive emotions, making them easier to orientate towards next time they arise.
Taking the time to notice the good in situations doesn’t negate the bad, but it does set us up to appreciate both positive and negative equally. And by appreciating the positive, you’re adjusting your brain’s bias meaning you’ll be better equipped to notice the good experiences moving forward.
During my reflective workshops, we did some work around truly understanding what resilience does for us.
A good way to illustrate this is with a thought experiment. Imagine holding a tennis ball in one hand and a tomato in the other. What happens when you squeeze?
Under pressure, the tennis ball dents then springs back – the definition of resilience: a rapid recovery after a period of disruption. However, the tomato is a different matter. It will collapse into a liquid mess.
Perhaps, at times, we all feel like the tomato – but look at it a different way. If we return to the spot on the ground where that tomato collapsed some months later, we may find the green shoots of tomato plants emerging once again. That is a different kind of resilience: the power to start again, to grow from the experience.
An end of year challenge
If you’re looking to make the best of a tricky year and end on a positive note, I encourage you to try a personal reflection exercise over the coming weeks.
Take a moment and allow yourself the time to do this well. Recognise its worth alongside the rest of your daily jobs and remind yourself of the benefits of building resilience.
Now, look back on the year. You’ve survived 9 months of a global pandemic: what have you learnt about yourself? An important part of reflection is making a physical link from your thoughts, so make some notes. It doesn’t have to look like journaling – it may be just a few scribbles on a page, a list or a mind map. Consider your response to questions such as:
- What is easier now, than in the beginning?
- What were some of the unexpected bonuses of this period? The high points?
- How did I cope with things that went wrong?
- What will I do differently next time?
- What have I learnt which I want to carry through into the rest of my life?
We know that resilience is born out of adversity. If everything went well all of the time, we’d never learn. But we only get stronger if we reflect and notice our strengths. This is part of having a “growth mindset” and what matters is not our mistakes or our failures, but whether we’re prepared to learn. Pioneering psychologist Angela Duckworth talks about “grit” and defines it as “passion and sustained persistence towards long term goals”. A key ingredient in achieving this is resilience.
So if there’s one thing we must take away from this year it’s the unexpected value that such a testing period can have. Also to remember that everything changes – even pandemic status – and that includes our ability to cope. After a year like this, we’re all better equipped for our futures, whatever may pass.