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Walls Bound, Do You Re-Bound?

Creative Commons LicensePhoto credit: Rob!
What happens when you “hit the wall?”

So much wisdom in such a simple sign. When thrown against a brick wall, tennis balls and baseballs both bounce back.  But the baseball isn’t quite as resilient as the tennis ball, and neither is the wall.

Here’s how Daniel A. Russell, Ph.D., of the Graduate Program in Acoustics, Pennsylvania State University, explains the phenomenon:

When an object, like a ball, is thrown against a rigid wall it bounces back.  …If the collision between ball and wall is perfectly elastic, then all the incident energy and momentum is reflected, and the ball bounces back with the same speed. …If the collision is inelastic, then the wall (or ball) absorbs some of the incident energy and momentum and the ball does not bounce back with the same speed.

Which is a fancy way of saying that when balls hit walls, something’s gotta give. Usually it’s not the wall, it’s the ball or the bounce that loses just a little bit of itself to the collision. Interestingly enough, the more elastic tennis ball will bounce back better than the more rigid baseball.  And the wall?  Well it takes a lot to knock down a wall – much more than just one bouncing ball!

Much like tennis balls and baseballs, when we “hit the wall”, sometimes we bounce, (perhaps even vaulting ourselves above and beyond the wall) and sometimes we ricochet, fall flat, and/or take a piece of the wall with us. How we bounce has a lot to do with resilience – our skill at bouncing back when faced with adversity.

When you have resilience, you harness inner strength that helps you rebound from a setback or challenge, such as a job loss, an illness, a disaster or the death of a loved one.

When our responses to adversity are inelastic, hesitant or fragile, we take a hit. We lose energy and momentum. We may still bounce but not as elastically as when our responses to adversity are more resolute, more pliable.  And, regardless of our elasticity, if we incur too many hard hits, it’ll be us that goes crunch!

Can We Improve the Elasticity of Our Resilience?

I’ve been reading Charles Duhigg’s book, [amazon-product text=”The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business” type=”text”]1400069289[/amazon-product], and some of his commentary about willpower and its sustainability intrigue me:

Willpower isn’t just a skill. It’s a muscle, like the muscles in your arms or legs, and it gets tired as it works harder, so there’s less power left over for other things. …

If you want to do something that requires willpower – like going for a run after work – you have to conserve your willpower muscle during the day… if you use it up too early on tedious tasks like writing emails or filling out complicated and boring expense forms, all the strength will be gone by the time you get home. …

But how far does this analogy extend? Will exercising willpower muscles make them stronger the same way using dumbells strengthen biceps?

Not only am I anxious to learn the answers to those questions, I also wonder whether the skill of resilience could be interpreted as equivalent to the skill of willpower – and if so, might Duhigg’s conclusions about willpower habits provide me with insights about how well people bounce when they hit the wall?

The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.

— Ludwig Wittgenstein

Although I haven’t arrived at a definitive answer as to whether the skill of resilience is equivalent to the skill of willpower, I’ve decided to proceed as if it is.

Exercising Our Resilience Muscles

Having hit a wall, the next logical step is not to bang our heads against it.

— Stephen Harper

It seems inevitable that we will encounter walls (self-imposed and/or other-imposed) on our way to our goals.  In his post, What Do You Do When You Hit the Wall? Daxx Bondoc, a blogger for suggests that walls are there to help us:

Life is full of walls sad to say. But these walls are not supposed to hinder or stop us from getting to where we want to be. The walls are there so we can grow bigger than them. … The walls are there to expand us. …

So how do the walls we encounter in life helps us? [They force] us to go beyond ourselves… to think beyond our normal way of thinking…

And researchers seem to support Bondoc’s claim:

When we build physical strength, we typically break down our muscles first—causing tiny tears in their fibers so they can grow back thicker than before. It turns out that building emotional strength isn’t all that different: A little bruising makes us stronger.

In a recently published review of research, Mark D. Seery, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at the University at Buffalo, SUNY, found that subjects who’d endured a moderate amount of adversity in their lifetime not only had a greater sense of well-being than those who’d suffered a severe amount of trauma; they were also better off than those who’d experienced no trauma at all.

So, instead of letting a wall deter us, let’s choose to take the advice of Dr. Brene Brown who encouraged her TED Talk audience to have courage while they wholeheartedly “lean into discomfort.” According to The Power of Habits author, Duhigg, making the choice invigorates the outcome:

This is how willpower becomes a habit: by choosing a certain behavior ahead of time, and then following that routine when an inflection point [wall] arrives.

He goes on to cite researcher Todd Heatherton:

People get better at regulating their impulses.  They learn how to distract themselves from temptations.  And once you’ve gotten into that willpower grove, your brain is practiced at helping you focus on a goal.

This is the Way We Bounce our Best, Bounce Our Best,*…

(*Hum along to the tune of Here We Go ’Round the Mulberry Bush…)

Here’s my recipe for “Bouncing Our Best” – AKA, for getting into a flexible resilience groove:

  • Foresee and name the walls you’ll likely hit.
    • Could it be you’ll run out of energy, expectations, or encouragement? Or could it be you’ll lose your way and begin to feel that “you just can’t get there from here?”
  • Visualize “leaping” the walls.
    • Name the flexible and resilient responses you’d like to claim as your own alternative to “hitting the wall.”
  • Anticipate and savor the success you’ll enjoy…
    • …when you’ve chosen resilient responses
    • …when you’ve leapt those walls.
  • Make a plan.
  • Reward your successes.
    • Even if all you do is acknowledge your success, this step is crucial to forming your resilience groove.
  • Practice, practice, practice.

Once the flexible and resilient habits take hold, we’ll be able to use that resilience-power to leap the walls that stand between us and our goals.  Perhaps we’ll even grow so elastically resilient that, like Helen Keller whose “walls” were high and wide, we’ll be able to say:

I seldom think about my limitations, and they never make me sad. Perhaps there is just a touch of yearning at times; but it is vague, like a breeze among flowers.

Hit the wall? Be flexible like the tennis ball and bounce!

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