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ABCs of Mental Resilience

FAIRCHILD AIR FORCE BASE, Wash -- As I sat there holding the letter, a whirlwind of emotions flew through me. I felt angry, hurt, bewildered, confused, annoyed, and a myriad of other feelings I couldn't even describe.

I could not wrap my thoughts around the idea that in 2014, we still have people who hold so strongly to their personal values and beliefs that they would be intolerant of others whose beliefs differed from their own.

Thankfully, this is not the first time I've encountered what I perceive to be a hostile person. In my 22 years working for the Air Force, I have had my share of people venting their frustrations to and at me--even when I wasn't the cause of their turmoil.

So, why was I taking this letter so personally? I typically have thick skin and don't let words hurt me. I envisioned my teenagers reciting their typical, "I am rubber, you are glue..." banter when one says something insulting to the other.

It finally occurred to me that I was so emotional over the words in my hands because I felt my own personal values and beliefs were under attack. I also felt that people I cared about were being harshly judged by someone who never met them.

As a champion and instructor of resiliency, I went back to my toolkit and decided this was the perfect scenario on how to describe the 'ABCs' of Mental Resiliency.

A = Activating Event. This is any event that leads the brain to interpret information in a particular way--positive or negative. For me, the activating event was receiving a letter from a stranger who didn't like some information I presented.

B = Brain's Interpretation of the Event. This is what immediate thoughts and beliefs occur in response to the activating event. They can be productive or counterproductive. My beliefs were this person didn't read the information in its entirety, they missed the whole point, and it's because of people like this I published the information in the first place.

C = Consequences. This is a fancy word for physical and emotional reactions. I mentioned my emotions earlier, but my physical reactions included shaking hands, walking out of my office for fresh air, venting to a close peer, and sitting down to write a strongly worded letter back.

In between my 'B' and my 'C,' there was a space to pause and ask myself a series of questions:
1. Are my reactions going to interfere with my performance?
2. Are my reactions going to interfere with my values?
3. Are my reactions going to interfere with my relationships?
4. Are my reactions going to interfere with my goals?

Before I took resilience training, I may have responded differently. I may have put pen to paper and told this person what I thought about their letter. However, now I know that doing so may have repercussions that may affect my job performance by bringing discredit to the Air Force. Reciprocating the tone of the letter would go against my personal values and against my goals of keeping my job. My professional relationships may also be negatively affected if I respond in kind.

As I thought about it, I realized this person's words stemmed from their own values which-based on some of the information they provided-were somewhat similar to my own. It appeared their tolerance and understanding was not at my same level and that is okay. I had no evidence that this was a bad person deserving my wrath of retaliation, especially because I had to interpret tone in the written word. I also know that everyone is entitled to their own thoughts and opinions, and to have their own belief and value systems.

I used 'ABC' to become aware of how my brain was influencing my reactions to an event. I wish I had learned this tool earlier in my career when I was supervising young Airmen, when I was newly married, when I deployed for the first time and when I was raising my children. I would have responded to some situations and disagreements so much differently.

By asking four simple questions to find out if my reactions were helping me or hindering me in working toward my goals, acting based on my values, improving my performance, or strengthening my relationships, I would have been a better supervisor, mentor, mother, and wife.

In any future situations, I know to pause before reacting and ask myself four simple questions. If I answer no to any one of them, then I know it is time to come up with a different way of responding, but that is a lesson for another day.