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Mind Over Matter: Can You Learn How To
Become More Emotionally Resilient?
by Rachel G. Baldino, MSW, LCSW for This article is dedicated to the memory of Richard Carlson, Ph.D., who helped countless people with his simple but profound advice: "Don't sweat the small stuff."

The big question I pose in this article is:

Is hyper-sensitivity or emotional vulnerability innate and unchangeable, or can even the most sensitive people learn how to be more emotionally resilient and better at coping with life's difficulties?

December 13, 2006 saw the tragic death by cardiac arrest of the much beloved self-help author Richard Carlson, Ph.D., who famously titled the first of his many books about keeping things in perspective and coping with life's pressures, Don't Sweat The Small Stuff ... and It's All Small Stuff.

Dr. Carlson's catch phrase, "Don't sweat the small stuff," is a wonderful, pithy, inspiring mantra, and I like to think of it whenever I find myself having a particularly frustrating day.

Of course, now that he is gone, his beautiful messages of simplicity and love seem even more profound and resonant than ever. His tragic death also serves as a reminder to treasure each and every day that we have on this earth with the people we love.

Nonetheless, his elegantly simple approach to coping does raise a couple of questions. First, what can you do if you are an easily hurt and super-sensitive person by nature?

Second, how do you cope if the difficulty you are facing is admittedly a small one, but it just does not feel particularly small when you are right in the midst of experiencing it?

I mean, let's face it, sometimes no matter how hard you try if you are having a downright rotten day, it can be really hard -- and I do mean incredibly difficult -- not to sweat the small stuff.

Emotionally vulnerable people tend to struggle excessively with life's slings and arrows.

Mandy's Story

Here is a fictionalized example of what I am talking about:

A young mother named Mandy has a very negative experience with a children's librarian who shoots her a mean look, and then yells at her in front of a large group of people when her little son and daughter "act up" during a story hour.

On any other day, she probably would be able to laugh it off. But on this particular day, everything has been going totally wrong, and she has just been feeling so low and defeated all day long that the experience in the library hits her like a ton of bricks.

The incident triggers a whole range of negative feelings: sadness, humiliation, anger, anxiety and frustration. She also feels that the librarian has unfairly singled her out. After all, Mandy's kids are not the only ones running around and acting up, but for some reason, the librarian has singled out Mandy to yell at, and no one else.

Mandy also feels that she is being judged very harshly ... and Mandy despises feeling judged ... mainly because she has felt harshly judged by far too many people her whole life.

Most upsetting of all, Mandy can't seem to shake these terrible feelings no matter how hard she tries. If anything, her emotional pain is getting worse as time goes by. And the more she reflects on the experience, the sadder, more distraught, more embarrassed and more enraged she can feel herself becoming.

She has been trying to distract herself with other thoughts and activities, but that image of the librarian's angry face, along the equally horrible memory of her harsh words just keeps popping back into Mandy's mind.

Mandy tends to view herself as an "ultra-sensitive" person ... and she has always been keenly aware that other people seem to perceive her this way as well. And her experience with the librarian only seems to confirm this widely held perception of her.

Intellectually, she agrees with Dr. Carlson's elegantly simple concept that it's a good idea not to sweat the small stuff, and she fully grasps the fact that "in the greater scheme of things," her negative experience with the librarian is probably not such big a deal. But for some reason ... possibly the humiliation factor, or possibly that terrible feeling of being so harshly judged ... she is having a great deal of trouble putting the experience behind her.

Emotional Vulnerability versus Emotional Resilience

Doctors, psychologists, social workers and other helping professionals sometimes refer to our individual sets of emotional coping skills as our levels of "emotional resilience." On days when you are feeling particularly emotionally vulnerable, the slightest little incident may cause you to burst into tears; whereas on days when you are feeling quite resilient, emotionally speaking, you probably wouldn't even bat an eye if not just one but four people were to behave rudely to you, one right after the other.

Emotionally vulnerable people can learn how to cope like their more resilient counterparts.

Actually, on days when you are feeling extra happy and super-resilient, as if nothing can get you down, you might even be able to laugh off their rudeness and simply let it roll right off you, much in the same way that water rolls right off a duck's back. Not only that, but you may even feel a bit sorry for these rude people. After all, they can't be leading very happy lives if being rude and obnoxious to everybody they meet is their standard way of functioning in the world.

Now we have all met exceedingly emotionally vulnerable people -- people like Mandy, my fictional example, for instance -- who don't just have individual days when they feel emotionally vulnerable, but who seem to feel this way pretty much all the time. These are the most tender, fragile souls among us, and they tend to get hurt incredibly easily. In dealing with such people, you may find yourself choosing your words very carefully, so as not to hurt their feelings.

Such individuals may appear to be predisposed or "hard-wired," way deep down in the cores of their personalities to be supersensitive and emotionally fragile. Conversely, there are other people who may strike you as "hardwired" to be very emotionally resilient. "When the going gets tough," as the old saying goes, "they just keep going."

I think that most of us probably fall somewhere in between these two extremes of personality, in the sense that most of us have our good days and our not-so-good days when it comes to emotional resilience. Sometimes we feel like we could conquer the world, and on those days we find it quite easy not to "sweat the small stuff." But other days, almost anything has the potential to upset us, and we'd love to just crawl back into bed and sleep the day away.

A Promising Scientific Finding about Emotional Resilience

But believe it or not, I have some wonderful news regarding emotional resilience. There is now solid scientific evidence that any one of us can improve our individual levels of emotional resilience. For a look at some of the neuroscience behind this argument, please read the second half of this article.

Researchers urge us to think of emotional resilience (or the lack thereof) not so much as some sort of inborn character trait, but rather, as a skill, a skill that can be learned, practiced ... and perhaps even mastered.

If it is indeed true that emotional resilience can be learned -- and there does seem to be a lot of scientific evidence to support this idea -- then even people who seem to be the most emotionally vulnerable must have the internal capacity to alter -- to "short-circuit", if you will -- their own emotional "hard-wiring" in order to become more resilient.

According to these research findings, one way for vulnerable people to become more resilient is to try to think and act their way into believing that they actually can be more resilient. According to this article, " ... Resilient people believe they can change their moods, and so they work to change their moods. The less resilient among us can instead fall prey to hopelessness."

But there is no longer any need for emotionally vulnerable people to fall into a pit of despair and hopelessness, because as it turns out, they can learn the same techniques for coping with life's slings and arrows that more resilient people seem to know how to do intuitively.

In other words, it's not that less resilient people are lacking some kind of "coping gene" or anything like that. Indeed, they have the power within to become just as resilient as their more intuitively resilient counterparts, simply by training their minds to think more positively, and then learning how to change their behaviors to reflect their new, more positive attitudes.

For some specific, effective tips about how to "train yourself" to become more emotionally resilient, I strongly urge you to read this very instructive, scientifically based article from the same website,

Recommended Reading

How To Pick Your Battles

Effective Ways To Deal With Sadness and Grief


In Memory of Richard Carlson, Ph.D.

A Definition of Emotional Resilience

Tips for Making Yourself More Emotionally Resilient

"What About The Big Stuff: Finding Life After Death," By Richard Carlson, Ph.D.

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