For her new book “Rising Strong,” social worker and bestselling author Brené Brown set out to determine what resilient people have in common.
Her discovery, after many hours of interviews?
It’s all about a “tolerance for discomfort,” she says.
People who healthfully navigate firings, divorces, and other super difficult situations are able to do so because they’re aware of their emotional worlds — which are often uncomfortable places.
“What I’m talking about is an acceptance that our drive, this insatiable appetite for comfort and happiness, does not reconcile with who we are as people,” she told Tech Insider in a recent interview. “Sometimes we have to do tough things and feel our way through tough situations, and we have to feel tough emotions.”
There’s that word again: emotion.
Before the advent of “emotional intelligence” in the 1990s, emotions had a pretty bad reputation when it came to “serious” discussions about how people function. Emotion, and its adjective form emotional, were (and largely remain) derogatory charges to be levied at people when they’re “irrational.” It’s also a fun disgusting way to belittle women when they’re performing traditionally feminine behaviour or men when they’re doing the same.
As in: You’re being so emotional.
But here’s the thing.
Despite an intellectual history that tells us “I think, therefore I am,” contemporary neuroscience reveals that we’re emotional beings first, thinking beings second. Down to slugs, caterpillars, and the most basic of invertebrates, animals emotionally respond as a way of navigating their environments, and humans are no exception. The thinking comes after.
It’s part of our evolution, says Brown, whose Ted Talk on vulnerability has over 21 million views.
“It wouldn’t work if thought had the wheel — what you think of a dinosaur isn’t going to help you get away from it,” she says. “Taking 20 minutes to think about whether or not you were prey wouldn’t have been very adaptive.”
Like behavioural economists show again and again, emotions drive thinking and behaviour. They get the first crack at making sense of what’s happening, Brown says; they’re in the driver seat, with cognition and behaviour riding shotgun.
So when something difficult happens — a colleague shoots you an awful look at a meeting, a partner breaks up with you, you fail on a project — there’s an emotional response. Before you can articulate why, you have the urge to punch somebody or devour a dozen doughnuts or hide in bed for a fortnight.
And that’s the spot where, Brown says, you need to wade into the discomfort of that reaction. You have to get curious about it, Brown says, and ask what is going on? what am I feeling? what’s driving it? how am I responding to it?
But this doesn’t come naturally, she warns. Some brain hacks will help: write it on a Post It note, type it into your phone, send yourself an email with what happened. Then, over time, you can actually have enough notes on your own unhelpful behaviours so that you can spot the places where you participate in creating your own suffering before you act out those same destructive or avoidant behaviours for the zillionth time.
Brown puts it simply:
“Resilience is more available to people curious about their own line of thinking and behaving,” she says.
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