I recently listened to a guided meditation where William B. Irvine, an expert in Stoic philosophy, explained the idea of a psychological immune system. Imagine Billy, a child who grows up never being exposed to anything unpleasant, never receiving any bad news, never criticised or insulted, and always having someone solve his problems. What will happen to the adult Billy when he goes out into the world? How will he deal with setbacks?
Whereas the biological immune system protects us from sicknesses caused by germs, the psychological immune system protects us from the unpleasant emotions that are triggered by life’s setbacks.
The world is imperfect, which means shit will happen. So it seems wise to strengthen our psychological immune system in order to better deal with setbacks. How can we do this?
- Psychological vaccination: Irvine suggests we regularly use the Stoic technique of entertaining negative thoughts, like imagining losing something or someone. Or recognising that our lives could be much worse and imagining what that would look like. He says we don’t want to dwell long on these negative thoughts, but for it to be flickering moments. These thoughts work like a vaccine, preparing our psychological immune system for life’s setbacks. Another Stoic technique he recommends is called “the last time”. I talk about it in this video here.
- Psychological exposure: Another way to develop our psychological immune system is to expose ourselves to “germs”. This means deliberately moving out of our comfort zone, and doing things that are physically and/or emotionally uncomfortable. For some people, karaoke in front of a big crowd will do the trick.
In what shape is your psychological immune system? A good measure is how often you feel outraged or lose control to anger. Another is the average mood of your mind. Is it tranquility and confidence, or agitation and anxiety?
It’s naive to think we’ll live without setbacks. Preparing for them by strengthening our psychological immune system is the wise thing to do.
When anger gets the best of us, we can easily get angry at ourselves and others. What is happening here? In essence, we’re judging our emotions. We consider some good and some bad; some positive and some negative, some acceptable and some not.
In a decade of training teams in organisations, I’m yet to meet someone who does not consider anger to be negative. Even renowned experts in the field, like philosopher and neuroscientist, Sam Harris, consider anger a negative emotion.
We get angry at anger because we think it’s negative. Is it?
I’ve been following Sam closely for the past three years through Waking Up and some of his publications. He’s got an amazing mind. I am thankful for his dedication to helping us live better lives. On the issue of anger being a negative emotion, I think there is a distinction to be made.
Some emotions may be unpleasant, but does that make them negative? What would happen if we did not feel disgust at the smell of milk gone bad? What would happened if we did not feel fear when startled by a spider? These emotions, though unpleasant, avoid a great deal of pain and sometimes even death.
Not all unpleasant emotions are negative.
When emotions have a purpose we are better off labelling them as pleasant or unpleasant rather than positive or negative. Does anger have a purpose? Anger prepares us to fight off threats. It gives us energy and determination to face the threat so as to ensure our wellbeing.
It is true that our brain has not evolved at the speed of our civilisation. This means that we can sometimes feel anger in situations where our life is not being threatened. The question then becomes: How do we deal with anger in order to reach a desirable outcome?
What is sometimes negative is the way we deal with anger.
When we react to our anger, instead of responding to it, chances are the outcome will be undesirable. Responding means recognising the presence of the emotion, identifying what might be triggering it and addressing the issue so as to reach the most desirable outcome.
Let me be clear: I OFTEN fail to respond in a desirable way. Other times, I do manage anger in the direction of desirable outcomes. Either way, I cannot see how thinking of anger as a negative emotion in-and-of itself will help. On the contrary.
Thinking anger is negative is the first step to turning an unpleasant emotion into an undesirable outcome.
One the tenets of meditation traditions, from Zen to Stoicism, is equanimity, the ability to keep cool, especially in difficult situations. These traditions suggest we are closer to equanimity when we accept things for what they are without judging them.
When we accept anger for the unpleasant emotion it is and appreciate the important albeit limited role it plays, we might be closer to the desirable outcomes we aspire to.
On Friday I gave an online workshop for Amazon’s Recruiting Team for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. It was about self-care and self-investment, and my premise was that any life worth living will regularly get messy just like the kitchen gets messy when we use it.
The key then to wellbeing is not to try avoid the mess, but to care and invest in ourselves so as to be emotionally fit when the mess happens. I shared with them several shortcuts for emotional fitness. Here are three that require little effort but have a massive, massive, massive impact in our wellbeing.
- Sleep: Matthew Walker, sleep expert and author of the book “Why We Sleep”, recommends we give ourselves the opportunity of 7 to 9 hours of sleep every night. He says that the pillars of a healthy body are not diet, exercise and sleep, but just diet and exercise, because sleep is the foundation.
- Gratitude: It’s very difficult, if not impossible, to feel grateful and at the same time anger, fear or sadness. Gratitude energizes us to deal with life’s challenges. This is why I recommend starting the day by bringing to mind a few things we can be grateful for, and to connect with the emotions that this generates. This will set us up to deal with what comes our way during the day.
- Hanging out with TRUE friends: There is a growing body of evidence about the vital role of friendship in overcoming challenges. Introverts or extraverts, we are all social beings. Helen Keller said that she would rather walk with a friend in the dark, than alone in the light. The Beatles nailed it when they suggested we get by with a little help from our friends.
Winter is coming (for some of us) and with it the likelihood of another confinement (in one form or another). It would be dumb not to prepare. This is what I’m doing.
Step 1: Take some time alone to fill in the template below. Ask family and friends to do the same, especially those who will be spending more time with you.
Step 2: Come together in a celebrative spirit to share your findings.
Step 3: Decide what you will commit to. Focus on what requires low effort but has a high impact for you and those around you.
Would love to know what works best for you. Please share your results.
“When we are no longer able to change a situation,
we are challenged to change ourselves.”
VICTOK FRANKL (1907-1997), Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist, a Holocaust survivor, and author of “Man’s Search For Meaning“
“The person is not the problem.
The problem is the problem.”
MICHAEL WHITE (1948–2008), Australian social worker and family therapist, founder of Narrative Therapy
Resilience is the ability to bounce back from setbacks. How resilient are you? False modesty aside, I must concede I am tougher than I usually give myself credit for. Here are three questions to help center our focus and boost our resilience in tough times.
1. Past: What misfortunes have I overcome?
Misfortunes are a normal part of life. Shit happens. Life has knocked us down so many times, and yet, we are still here, we are still in the game. This question helps awaken our ability to get up and fight back.
2. Present: How could this be worse?
In bad times, it’s easy to notice the things we were taking for granted that are no longer here. “How could this be worse?” turns our focus to what we might be taking for granted right NOW!
This sort of negative visualization helps develop a sense of gratitude and tranquility amidst difficulties. This is powerful because gratitude and tranquility cannot coexist with fear, frustration, anxiety or anger.
3. Future: What can I learn from this?
Every trial is temporary, which begs the question: How will we emerge from it? How do we want to emerge from it? Most of life’s important lessons come from tough times. If we choose to, painful situations can teach us.
What does this situation show about you, other people, and the world that was unseen to you before? How can you use this to grow and improve?
So how resilient are you? If I had to guess, you are tougher than you usually give yourself credit for. You are a badass. Be a badass.
Darrell is a polite, handsome man, who had little luck meeting people and making friends. He didn’t get why and it was frustrating. I first met Darrell during his final months in prison — a few of robberies and a bad temper had got him into trouble.
But Darrell is one of the few who manage to overcome the nasty effects of jail time. He decided to change. And he did. What didn’t change was the way people reacted to him. It seemed as though everyone knew his past. Then he figured out why.
And it had nothing to do with his past.
People won’t figure out your past by looking at you.
But they’ll read your present in just a glance.
People won’t figure out your past by looking at you.But they’ll read your present in just a glance.It was actually quite obvious and he felt stupid for not figuring it out earlier. Back in the day, Darrell had the side of his neck tattooed with the universal “F*** YOU”. It was small but nonetheless LOUD!
He had it for so long, he no longer noticed it — Gosh, I no longer noticed it and I hadn’t known him for that long. But for people who didn’t know him it was a big thing. Obviously! It automatically kept everyone away, giving him no chance to interact.
So Darrell covered it with a new tattoo. And the next time we met… he was smiling.
Don’t be surprised at the way people react to you
when your face is telling them just how you feel.
We might not have tattoos on our neck, but our facial expression and body language are tattoos we carry around always. They provide universal information before we speak. The way you look, move and talk are the first signals other people pick up.
In the art of human relations, this is nothing new. However, we’re not always aware of how we read these signs automatically (and sometimes unconsciously) and how others do too.
There’s never a second chance to leave a first good impression.
Do you sometimes feel a bit concerned about leaving the right impression or little uneasy when meeting people for the first time? I do. But think about it: other people do too. Chances are they’re busy thinking about themselves, not about you!
So before I step in, I make a conscious decision to step away from this trap, and think: These are people, not monsters. And they’re in the same situation as me.
If you’d like people to walk away thinking: “Well, that was pleasant. Seems like a nice person. What conviction!” here’s a tip:
Your best business card is YOU. Make sure you look the way you want others to see you. Stand tall. Radiate determination and serenity with every step. Smile. Make eye contact. Smile. Speak with a clear, confident voice. Smile.
Love to hear what you do to leave a lasting first good impression?