The pandemic has presented numerous and continuing challenges to our well-being. Successfully navigating three psychological paradoxes can facilitate greater well-being and resilience.
My friend Will illustrates how to do this. He has been my good friend since graduate school. I admire so many things about him: He is kind, patient, and smart. It’s no wonder that he has been a beloved and accomplished professor at a big-name university and in his field. He’s a big shot, but you’d never know it from him.
One of the things I most admire about Will is his resilience. Life has dealt him some big blows. His first wife died after a 10+-year struggle with cancer. She hoped to live to see their daughter graduate from high school, but she died when Morgan was 15. Will raised Morgan alone for a few years, then remarried. Sarah, his second wife, died five years later in a body-surfing accident in Mexico.
This much tragedy would make most people bitter, sad, depressed, or angry. Amazingly, Will is none of these things. He is happy, with many interests and friends, and with a sense of wonder and joy. Will is a remarkable person, to be sure, but I also see how his behavior shows how to navigate three psychological paradoxes of well-being, with lessons for all of us about how to find resilience and joy in our lives.
You demonstrate strength by admitting weakness.
Despite America’s admiration of self-reliance, someone who has the confidence to admit weakness and need, instead of pretending to need no one and nothing, is honest and strong. Does anyone remember the song, “Easy to be Hard” from the musical “Hair”?
Showing your real self strengthens the bonds with others, allows them to help and experience the gift of making a difference, and breaks down the walls that a drive for illusory perfection creates. We all need help; a strong person is not afraid to ask for it.
I remember talking to Will in the airport as he carried his wife’s ashes home from Mexico. He was grief-stricken, but even in those terrible first moments, I knew he would survive this horrible loss and would be happy again. I don’t know why I was so sure of it in the moment, but looking back, I think it was grounded in the knowledge that he was open with his feelings and willing and able to ask for support. I remember saying, “What can I do to help? Would calls help?” He said, “Yes, please call me every day.”
You are your biggest and best self when you focus on building up others.
When you look to give and seek credit for others rather than taking credit for yourself, you demonstrate real strength. Law is a highly competitive and adversarial profession. It is easy to get so used to seeking advantage by diminishing others to build one’s own position that it can pervade our way of being in the world, in the workplace and outside.
I see the habit of reflexive and excessive competition in many individuals I coach. They are very smart people, talented and driven, but frequently they use their intelligence to put others down and build themselves up. They are hungry for approval and admiration, and since intelligence has been the source of their power, they wield it like a weapon. They want to be sure everyone knows they are the smartest people in the room. Others know it, but they don’t like it because they are made to feel less than.
Will is a counter-example of this need to dominate the intelligence and credit domains. I’ve never seen him put anyone down for not catching on to ideas as quickly as he does. He is quick to give credit to others, to emphasize their contributions and strengths rather than his own. He never rushes to claim credit. He rarely puts himself as first author on a publication, seeking to build the careers and confidence of others. He is voluble when it comes to praising the efforts of others. He boosts their self-confidence and enthusiasm. Their growth and satisfaction fuel his own satisfaction and sense of purpose and fulfillment in his work.
You show strength by owning your mistakes.
One of the greatest sources of stress I’ve observed in my attorney clients is the inability to admit mistakes. There are objective reasons for this. It is hard to admit mistakes, since it is at odds with the image of having things all together, and it is a deep blow to the pride of hard chargers.
The basic reluctance to admit imperfection is compounded by the tendency of some high-powered, Type A partners to approach associates’ performance as “one strike and you’re out,” and to be generous with sometimes-devastating criticism and stingy with praise.
Junior attorneys learn that nothing short of perfection is acceptable. Perfection is unrealistic, so they become afraid to ask questions or seek feedback for fear of being seen as stupid. It also makes it hard or impossible to admit mistakes, blaming others or avoiding unpleasant confrontation. Equally important, it means it impedes learning. If you can’t own your mistakes you can’t learn from them. Will is a counter-example. He is not invested in being seen as right or perfect. When things go wrong, he is the first to acknowledge his own contributions.
Practicing all three strategies is a way to build our own resilience. We build resilience by being our biggest and best selves: by being vulnerable and willing to be helped, by seeking ways to support and help others, and by being willing to own our mistakes and less-than-perfect selves.
We think that we will be admired for acting self-reliant, showing we’re the smartest one, or by always being right. But paradoxically, it is our willingness to show our less-than-perfect selves that allows us to be authentic, generous, kind, and connected to others. It also relieves the stress of the impossible quest for perfection.
The pandemic has been a time of enormous stress and isolation. The small steps contained in these three paradoxes can foster greater rewards from our relationships and from our own sense of agency and empathy. Taking small steps in these three areas is a path forward.
About the Author
Rachelle J. Canter is the founder and principal of RJC Associates, which provides executive coaching and training to lawyers, law firms, and other professional organizations. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.