What Martha Stewart's Lessons Teach Us

When you're down and out, facing adversity, emotional resilience is a good thing.

From the WebMD Archives

Those lemons Martha Stewart hands out to reporters are the metaphor of the year. The finishing touch was when she brandished the very lemons she was using to "make lemonade" of her situation.

No matter which side of the fence you come down on about Martha Stewart, it's hard to deny her resilience. What can we learn from her, and what qualities are universal in people who display such emotional resilience?

Al Siebert, PhD, author of the The Survivor Personality, tells WebMD that Stewart is not unique in her ability to learn lessons from life and make them work for her.

"We all have this inner capacity," he says, "to size up situations rapidly and solve problems -- but at the same time, handle the emotions that accompany the situation."

Unlike other animals, human beings have the lifelong ability to learn to cope with their environment, Siebert points out. Some animals, he says, have the instincts and reflexes to cope in a matter of days, but some psychologists say people don't achieve self-actualization until age 60. Siebert is also author of the upcoming book The Resiliency Advantage: Master Change, Thrive Under Pressure, and Bounce Back From Setbacks.

Part of the learning is how to react in a crisis. "Resilient people," he says, "know when to size up, find solutions, and when to emote. They do not go straight to the emotions."

3 Steps to Greater Resiliency

For many, not feeling emotions in a crisis may be hard to imagine.

Jacob Teitelbaum, MD, author of Three Steps to Happiness: Healing Through Joy, puts the steps of awareness in a slightly different order. He tells WebMD that Stewart handled the three steps exactly correctly.

"First, you feel the feelings," he says. "But if you stop there, with the feelings, you become a victim. If you feel persecuted or claim victim status, you will have a sucky life."

His family, Teitelbaum explains, was killed in the Holocaust, and he made a personal decision to be happy and see the positives. "If the Holocaust had not happened," he explains, "I would not be here, I would not be treating pain and fibromyalgia and telling people how to be resilient."

Step 2 is to make life a no-fault deal. Stop trying to blame.

And Step 3 is to do what feels good. "Instead of wallowing in victimhood, Martha is going out, writing a book, starting a show, making money. You have to focus on what makes you happy."

Where Does Resiliency Begin?

Some people always seem to bob to the top. Is it genetic?

"I think this can be learned," says C. Jeffrey Terrell, PhD, president of a free-standing graduate school in counseling called the Psychological Studies Institute in Atlanta and Chattanooga. "If parents have a high level of nurture combined with a high level of expectation, they will support the accomplishments of their children as well as supporting them in general, independent of their accomplishments."

A child raised this way will attract a strong support group of friends and relatives. "Studies show two main indicators of mental health are intelligence and social support," Terrell says.

Dealing with change is a huge component of resilience. "But if you don't learn these skills early on," Terrell says, "you will have to make an intensive effort to plug them in. People who are resilient don't fear change as much. They figure they have handled it before and can handle it again."

Taking on the subject of resiliency "training" from the flip side -- what not to do -- Siebert says that people trained to do as they are told and think a certain way as children are not likely to be as resilient. "It's OK to be this way unless the environment changes -- and it always will.

"It's not safe in today's world to always do what you are told."

Other Aspects of Learned Resiliency

Siebert says research shows that people who have a lot of pleasant experiences -- hugging, jokes, friends, hikes, trips -- expand their cognitive skills. "They notice detail more, they can size things up better, put things in perspective," he says. "They have resiliency energy."

In contrast, those who operate from fear, stress, and anxiety constrict their cognitive energy, they forget things, they don't notice things that could help them. "They tend to spiral down," Siebert says. "They don't learn good lessons from bad experiences. Instead, they let the bad experiences accumulate."

The former people also tend to attract people with good energy, Siebert adds. "If you have a support system, and you do encounter a period of crisis, people will help you out." (Of course, you have to be willing to be helped -- a mark of resiliency.)

Resilient people, paradoxically, may have a combination of positive and negative traits. "This is fascinating," Siebert says. "They may be both pessimistic ('This is awful,') but also optimistic ('How can I turn this to a positive?')"

Resilient people are also serious and playful, selfish and unselfish, self-deprecating and confident, at the same time, according to Siebert. "Resiliency comes from accepting that you can be both at the same time."

Are You Resilient?

Here are some of Siebert's marks of emotional resilience and excellent mental health:

  • When hit by adversity, you have a learning/coping reaction, rather than a blaming/victim reaction.

  • You have good empathy skills and can comprehend views you disagree with.

  • Things seem to work better when you are involved. You interact with the world in a flexible, synergistic way.

  • You draw your responses from a natural blend of paradoxical traits.

  • You convert accidents and misfortune into good luck. You may even say the crisis was the best thing that ever happened to you.

  • You find life getting better every decade. You become more humorous and free.

"Attitudes have a behavioral aspect, they are like habits," Siebert says.

So think positively? "That doesn't even say it," Terrell says. "It's only one small part of resiliency. Positive thinking is not a cure-all -- you can't fake your way to being resilient."

Of course, a glass of lemonade along the way can't hurt.

WebMD Feature


Star Lawrence is a medical journalist based in the Phoenix area.


SOURCES: Al Siebert, PhD, author, The Survivor Personality and The Resiliency Advantage: Master Change, Thrive under Pressure, and Bounce Back from Setbacks. Jacob Teitelbaum, MD, author, Three Steps to Happiness: Healing Through Joy. C. Jeffrey Terrell, PhD, president, Psychological Studies Institute in Atlanta and Chattanooga, Tenn. www.vitality101.com.

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