Imagine a freezing and windy day in the middle of winter. Fingers are so cold that you hug your armpits for the warmth of skin. An FBI firearms instructor shouts orders, and at his command, you drop to the ice and snow on the ground and aim your weapon at a target from the 50-yard line. You fire and hope you hit the target. You don’t dare raise your head to see where the bullets hit (or didn’t) because another FBI agent-in-training is standing over you, aiming their weapon at the same target. Instead, you crawl forward 25-yards and hope the new agent is a good shot and will keep the muzzle elevated so the bullets whizzing over your head don’t hit you.
The purpose of the exercise was to build trust and teamwork, but all I could think about was making it to the finish line. Did I mention that it was a competition and we were racing against other teams of two? The winners were timed and then scored for accuracy.
My teammate and I didn’t win the competition, but we didn’t disgrace ourselves. The horror of those moments with live rounds of ammunition flying over my head left me with anxiety that I choked down because I didn’t want anyone else to know how much the exercise stressed me out.
You deal with stressful situations daily, knowing that giving up is not an option. We all fight our battles and need the resilience to land on our feet when confronted with anxiety, stress and hard times.
The FBI Academy was filled with many people who acted as though they chewed glass and spit nails in their free time. As a new agent, I tried to emulate them. I thought mental toughness was learning how to plow through obstacles; you know, be a tough guy who never let anything or anyone stop them from reaching their goal.
Once in the field, I quickly learned that the tough guy act would only get me so far. Yeah, there were times during arrests when brute strength and ignorance served me well. However, as I became more experienced as a counterintelligence agent, I understood that mental toughness is managing emotions, thoughts and behavior in ways that would set me up for success. The stress produced by my job would never leave, so I learned how to develop resilience when life got hard.
Here are 4 authentic ways you can develop resilience as a leader:
1. Ditch the fantasy
While my colleague, Clyde, could wrestle a 300-pound man to the ground and slap on handcuffs, he found it difficult to elicit a confession from a suspect during an interview. On the other hand, I found that people opened up to me. It didn’t take Clyde and me long to embrace the reality of our situation — we needed to exploit our strengths and mitigate our weaknesses.
Sure, movies portray some women as kick-ass fighters with superhuman strength. I like that fantasy, too! But the reality runs a little closer to this: we all need to know our limits. That doesn’t mean we need to spend the rest of our life within those limitations; success often requires us to push through them before we can reach a new plateau.
Fantasizing about our potential is dangerous. So is the lie that assures us all is well in our current situation. Accepting the reality of our life should be easy, but many people are in denial, which often leads to regret and disappointment. When we fail to connect with reality, we end up in unfulfilling jobs or maybe the wrong career altogether.
The first step in becoming resilient when life is hard is to ditch the imaginary part of your life and come to grips with the reality of your situation. You can’t improve what you don’t acknowledge. Change the mindset, change the behavior, change the outcome.
How to make it work for you:
- Look at your situation as a challenge, not a threat; struggles are a fact of life.
- List of your strengths, your values and your accomplishments.
- List your weaknesses; you must be honest with yourself.
- Develop your strengths; they will enable you to move past your limits.
- Forget about turning your weaknesses into strengths (this is a mistake many people make).
- Find a solution to your problem and break it down into small, realistic steps but make sure each step stretches you beyond your current capability.
2. Build confidence
I learned quickly in the FBI that success would not make me confident; instead, confidence would make me successful. I was placed in so many uncomfortable situations that I’ve lost count. My confidence came from doing things I never thought I could do.
Bottom line: I’d never done much of what would be required before the FBI director handed over a badge and gun. Like many of you, my job and life situation didn’t allow me the luxury of debate. Something needed to happen, and things needed to get done — period. No excuses.
Always remember that confidence comes from accomplishment, not a bunch of people telling you that you’re amazing. Confidence is a feeling that comes from inside. It’s not something linked to external circumstances. It means that we trust our skills, choices and values. When your confidence suffers a blow, spend time digging down for the root cause of it. Each time your lack of self-confidence rears its ugly head, ask yourself, “What other times did I feel this way?” Resilient people are able to uncover a pattern to the times or situations that led to a lack of confidence.
While theories are nice, evidence is better. Resilient people use every moment and every situation to build a case for their confidence. Those moments create the evidence they need to remind themselves when life gets hard that they can set goals and achieve them.
How to make it work for you:
If you achieve small goals, you will feel much better about yourself. It begins with your day-to-day target — what do you need to accomplish today and every day this week to help meet your goal? Once you meet daily ones, set weekly and monthly ones. Remember that progress is incremental, and significant changes do not happen overnight.
3. Embrace discomfort
Comfort zones can make us dumb. They shut down our brain’s learning center. We don’t like uncertainty because it means we can’t predict what will happen, so we opt for boring, safe places, both in life and our career. Before we know it, we’re in a rut. The only difference between a rut and a coffin is the dimensions.
New research from Yale University has found that we only learn when there’s uncertainty. Stability is a shut-off valve for the brain. We don’t like discomfort zones, but they are essential if we want to make the most of our brain.
Resilient people understand that to maximize learning, they need to make sure they’re doing the hard things because growth happens when they push themselves beyond their comfort zone.
We hesitate because we often feel vulnerable and weak when we move out of our core competency. But, this is all the more reason to spend time in a discomfort zone, so you know what it feels like and won’t be sabotaged by negative emotions when the stakes are higher. You will already know how it feels and can predict your response. Your stress hormone systems will become less responsive, so that you can handle your stress better.
We may not be able to rely upon our developed skills when facing a new barrier or challenge, but if we’ve continually and deliberately placed ourselves in situations beyond our core competency, we are more prepared to deal with them.
How to make it work for you:
Cultivate a beginner’s mind because this mindset opens up possibilities of what might be. When have you resisted the opportunity to move past what is easy and comfortable? When have you pushed past your fear to do something that life demanded of you? Reflect on past instances of courage. Then move forward — that’s the key.
4. Discover values
During my training at the FBI Academy, I thought I’d joined a bunch of macho sadists. I mean, who enjoys crawling through mud, climbing a rope in the rain and getting beat up in boxing?
While I didn’t appreciate many of the challenges, I never gave up. Why? Because I wasn’t motivated by money, a glamorous lifestyle or anything external. My motivation came from within — a career as an FBI agent gave me purpose and meaning.
If something doesn’t hold value for us, we’ll give up when the going gets tough and try something easier. But, we persevere if we pursue the things in life that give us purpose and meaning. It’s difficult to have the grit to keep going if the project doesn’t touch our hearts. I was not fond of the five months at the Academy, but I knew why I was there and where it would lead me.
Resilient people are motivated by good values. Crappy values assault us on every front, but a mentally strong person isn’t side-tracked by slick advertisements and an endless parade of fancy cars, big houses, perfect teeth and other material things.
How to make it work for you:
Think about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. If you can’t find good answers, rethink the situation. Not every job or relationship is perfect; there’s a lot of drudge along with the flecks of gold in life, so don’t expect it to be easy. Instead, ask yourself this question: “What am I willing to struggle for to achieve something that gives my life value and meaning?”
LaRae Quy was an FBI undercover and counterintelligence agent for 24 years, during which she exposed and recruited foreign spies and developed the mental toughness to survive in environments of risk, uncertainty and deception. Find out if you’re mentally tough with Quy’s FREE, evidence-based Mental Toughness Assessment. Quy’s new book is “Secrets of a Strong Mind (2nd edition): How To Build Inner Strength To Overcome Life’s Obstacles.” Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn.
Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.