Getting rejected for a job — after five rounds of interviews, no less — unquestionably sucks, but you’re back out there sending your résumé all over town. That ability to dust yourself off after setbacks is known as resilience, and it’s linked to higher self-esteem and a strong sense of self. Science suggests that there’s a simple trick to building resilience: It involves going back to a time when you absolutely aced something and visualizing it. Whether it’s a salary negotiation, a tough conversation with a friend, or getting your money back from a company by not taking no for an answer, sitting with that memory for a few minutes can make you more resilient.
“Looking back on your past setbacks, and the ways you got through them, will help you feel more empowered in the present moment,” therapist Heidi McBain, LMFT, tells Bustle.
Tennis champ and mental health advocate Naomi Osaka knows what’s up. Osaka is a model example of resilience: she knew herself well enough to skip the French Open and Wimbledon to take care of her mental health, then came back to light the Olympic Cauldron not two months later. When she’s in need of a boost, Osaka told reporters at a press conference in February 2021, she looks back on one of her most challenging matches: her grueling 2020 U.S. Open semi-final against Jennifer Brady, which Osaka won after three intense sets.
"When I’m having a very hard time, I remember my match against Brady,” Osaka said. “I feel like it helps me out a lot just because I’ve never had to physically and mentally fight so hard. I think about that match a lot sometimes.”
What Science Says About Improving Resilience
"Being emotionally or psychologically resilient reflects our ability to cope with life's many stressors, roadblocks, and changes," Jeff Nalin, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist, previously told Bustle. A study published in Group & Organization Management in July 2021 found that resilience isn’t a fixed trait. In other words, it’s not like having blue eyes; you can build it up over time. If you want to be the kind of person who brushes off failure like it’s nothing, simply harnessing your memories can help you get there.
A study published in March 2021 in the journal Emotion asked 75 people to recall memories that brought up negative emotions — a recent breakup, for instance. The researchers then asked some of the participants to think hard about a time when they showed “self-efficacy” (in other words, when they succeeded at a goal, even in the face of obstacles like broken-down cars or unsupportive supervisors). They asked other participants to recall positive memories about happy times. The people in the study who thought specifically about times when they crushed it were much less likely to be distressed or upset by negative memories than people who just thought positively. For people who tend to replay stressful moments over and over, this study suggests, switching gears to think about one time you crushed that brutal exam — or, say, advanced to the U.S. Open finals — may break you out of it.
Heidi McBain LMFT
Flynn, P. J., Bliese, P. D., Korsgaard, M. A., & Cannon, C. (2021). Tracking the Process of Resilience: How Emotional Stability and Experience Influence Exhaustion and Commitment Trajectories. Group & Organization Management. https://doi.org/10.1177/10596011211027676
Hagen, R., Havnen, A., Hjemdal, O., Kennair, L., Ryum, T., & Solem, S. (2020). Protective and Vulnerability Factors in Self-Esteem: The Role of Metacognitions, Brooding, and Resilience. Frontiers in psychology, 11, 1447. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.01447
Paersch, C., Schulz, A., Wilhelm, F. H., Brown, A. D., & Kleim, B. (2021). Recalling autobiographical self-efficacy episodes boosts reappraisal-effects on negative emotional memories. Emotion. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1037/emo0000949