Last week started with a frantic call from a friend: “The security company called to say that my house has been broken into. The front door is broken and standing wide open. Please will you go and help?”

She was holidaying in Knysna, about six hours away. We rushed over to her house, to find drawers strewn about, and her flat screen TVs and jewelry missing.

Midweek I spent some time with two senior managers who had been retrenched. My brief was to assist them to find replacement income streams.

At the end of the week, I addressed a workshop on how the alarmingly high drop-out rate of first year university students can be reduced.

Being robbed, retrenched or failing at university, all require some specific action to deal with the problem. On a more general level, they require the mental and emotional ability to cope with tough times and adversity. That’s the process we call resilience. It involves coming to terms with unwanted change, recovering and bouncing back. In some fortunate cases, it even incorporates personal growth and development.

These three instances last week got me thinking about a crucial component of resilience. When this component is present, resilience is substantially enhanced. When absent however, recovery and bouncing back is substantially retarded.

What is this magic component of resilience? The answer is “self-management” which refers to managing your internal life of thoughts, feelings and attitude during difficult times.

My friend whose house was broken into was furious at the damage and violation of her home. The retrenched managers were angry at being thrown out after years of dedicated service, and fearful about finding new jobs. The first-year students were feeling overwhelmed and guilty that they were failing.

I know from bitter experience in my life, that intense anger and intense fear is a wicked combination. When I am really angry or afraid, or both, I’m not creative when problem solving, I don’t make wise decisions and I feel just dreadful!

More than that, intense negative emotions keep you stuck, preventing recovery, bouncing back, and getting on with your life.

To cope with powerful negative feelings, you need what the professionals call emotional and cognitive regulation. Other people call this special quality grit, which I have discussed previously here and here, whilst some simply refer to it as mental toughness.

Let’s digress briefly to professional sport. Top sports men and women know all about the need to cope with their negative feelings in order to perform at their peak. They always perform under pressure and in the public eye. They say that more debilitating than the external pressure to win is the internal fear of choking and failure – just ask the Argentinean World Cup Soccer team!

Jim Loehr (here) defines mental toughness in sport as: “The ability to consistently perform towards the upper range of your talent and skill regardless of competitive circumstances”. It’s being focused, confident and in control when things are really tough.

With mental toughness in sport, and life in general, one can persevere, endure and start the process of healing after setbacks in order to bounce back and recover.

Now let’s look at mental toughness at work. Some specialised jobs are obviously stressful: soldiers; police; ambulance drivers and so. In the corporate world there are also many stressful jobs: medical personnel, social workers, educators, sales people, process managers, call center agents all need mental toughness in spades (here).

Some fortunate people are born with bags of mental toughness, but what about the rest of us who aren’t? Can it be learnt and developed for work and life?

Fortunately, it’s both an attitude and a process that can be learnt. The good news is that we can all improve our mental toughness quotient!

But wait! I have unfortunately come to the end of this Building Resilience Update. So how to improve your mental toughness will have to be the hot topic of the next Building Resilience Update in two weeks time.