Resilience Tip - Emotions as Communication


Resilience is the ability to cope well with difficulties and to bounce back from setbacks.

While some people are naturally more resilient than others, resiliency can also be intentionally developed.

Emotions as Communication

A critical characteristic of resilience is flexible thinking. For effective problem-solving we want to be able to see the issue from different perspectives and to be able to generate alternative possible solutions. One area where a different perspective may be helpful is in the role of emotions. We all have emotions, that is the way we humans are built. Some people show emotions more then others, some are aware of their emotions more than others, and - we all have them and are all influenced by the emotions that we have. And, different people react very differently to their own emotions. (How we react to others' emotions is a subject for another column, or columns!) Some people try to suppress their emotions so they can concentrate. Some see their emotions as an annoyance, or interference, or negative in some other way. Others value their emotions, and may believe it important to give time to experience their emotions.

I suggest considering emotions as a communication. Once you have a better understanding of what the emotion is attempting to communicate, you have a better idea of how to respond to the emotion. Whether you have previously viewed your emotions as helpful, harmful, or - "what emotions?!"; consider viewing and relating to your emotions as communication. This is another one of those things that is easier said than done, but that is no reason not to begin. A first step is to become better at recognizing which emotion you are experiencing. Sometimes this is a question of taking the time to notice, sometimes a list of emotions (you can find it on Google) is helpful for those who are very out of practice.

Identifying your emotions is necessary but not sufficient. As Aristotle said: "Anyone can become angry. That is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose and in the right way - that is not easy." Knowing that one is angry does not help us in identifying the appropriate target, degree, time, purpose, and form of our response. These questions can be addressed by being curious (another characteristic of resilience) regarding what this anger is trying to communicate to us. For example: "Ok, I'm angry. What might my anger be trying to tell me? What might I be angry about? What else might I be angry about? What might be some of the circumstances that are contributing to my anger? Who might be the people contributing to my anger? What beliefs or values of mine might be involved?" Once these questions begin to be answered, it becomes much clearer what to do with our identified anger.

To make this a little more concrete, consider the example of feeling pain in our foot. We can react to the pain in a very general way (e.g., shaking our foot, taking a pain-killer), with questionable effectiveness. Or, we can ask what the pain may be trying to communicate. Pain draws our attention to something needing care. So, for more effective responding, we need to look at our foot. The information gathered from our observation guides us to choose a response to the specific communication of the pain: if we see we have stepped on a sharp pine needle - we pull it out; if we see a rash  - we acquire an anti-rash substance; if we see our foot is swollen - we elevate our foot and perhaps eventually get an x-ray. Being attuned to the specific communication leads us most naturally to identifying an appropriate response. Similarly, if we are feeling anxious, we can react generally (e.g., take an anti-anxiety medication) or take a closer look at what the anxiety may be trying to tell us, what the anxiety may be drawing our attention to. What might this anxiety be trying to communicate? What warnings might it be giving? Are these warnings relevant to the current situation and time? Are there ways to address the potential threats? We can then more effectively respond to the felt anxiety.

So far more effective and resilient responses to your emotions, tune in to your emotions' communication.


Carolyn S. Tal, PhD

Psychologist and Consultant

Working with individuals and partners in

developing resilience and related issues.