…The key to displaying “resilience,” therefore, is employing a strategy that tends to generate hope and inspiration: focused positivity.
Resilience has been described as the ability to withstand adversity and bounce back from difficult life events. Times are not easy now. How do we develop greater resilience to withstand the challenges that keep being thrown at us? In this interview series, we are talking to mental health experts, authors, resilience experts, coaches, and business leaders who can talk about how we can develop greater resilience to improve our lives.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. John F. Tholen, author of two books, most recently Focused Positivity: The Path to Success and Peace of Mind (Rowman & Littlefield, October 2021, focusedpositivity.net), a comprehensive self-help program based on research discoveries about the connection between our thoughts and actions, our relationships with each other, habit change, assertiveness, relaxation, and even the competition between the two sides of our brains. Dr. Tholen is President of Shoreline Mental Health & Psychology, Inc., where he served as Chief Psychologist for more than 30 years. He is also an avid cyclist, kayaker, and duplicate bridge player. Dr. Tholen and his wife of 42 years, Sandy, now divide their time between homes in Long Beach (CA) and Austin (TX), where they delight in spending time with their two sons’ families.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory?
I was very fortunate to grow up in a stable middle class Southern California family and to have had a mother who nurtured both my academic strengths and the assumption that I would be successful. I enjoyed college so much that after receiving an undergraduate degree in Psychology and a MS in Public Health from UCLA, I returned to the University of Miami, where I earned MS and PhD degrees in Clinical Psychology. After working for the Veterans Administration, two state hospitals, and the Orange County Mental Health Department, in 1980 I became a Licensed Psychologist and started my independent practice, which eventually became Shoreline Mental Health & Psychology Inc., of which I am President and where I was Chief Psychologist until my retirement in 2017. Focused Positivity is my second book as I earlier published Winning the Disability Challenge (New Horizon Press, 2008).
I was 32 when I made the best decision of my life in marrying Sandy, who at that time was employed as a School Nurse. Sandy subsequently earned an MS in Nursing, became a Pediatric Nurse Practitioner, completed law school, and eventually became a partner in a prestigious LA firm. We also somehow managed to raise two wonderful sons with whom we love spending time.
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
On two occasions my business — psychological services for the recently disabled — was threatened by legislative or insurance coverage changes. I responded to the first in the early 1990s by moving my office from downtown Long Beach to Seal Beach, home to an affluent population of potential clients. I responded to the second in 2006 by writing and publishing my first book (Winning the Disability Challenge) on a subject I knew well, coping with the challenges of becoming disabled. The changes that occurred during each episode resulted in the demise of many disability mental health practices, but mine survived. Furthermore, clients preferred my new location and the publication of my book increased referrals and improved treatment outcomes. Although the fears that motivated the changes I made were never realized, the assertive steps I took in response enhanced my business.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
The positive personal relationships I and my staff were able to establish with our clients distinguished Shoreline Mental Health from other practices. On several occasions I have encountered clients in our waiting room who had no appointment that day. They dropped in for the positive “vibe” of our office. Our focus on right-brain motivations (e.g., compassion and community) as opposed to left-brain concerns (e.g., acquisition and competition) created a sense of “family” that enhanced the therapy we provided.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
As Chief Psychiatrist of the Orange County Mental Health Department, Dr. Bernie Rappaport was my supervisor for several years before I became licensed. He taught me that the best approach for me to any relationship is to learn the other person’s goals and demonstrate the intent to do everything reasonably to assist them in attaining those goals. He helped me recognize that that honoring right-brain concerns (as in this case empathy and affiliation) is often a winning strategy.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?
Although we often speak of resilience as though it is an admirable personality trait that a person may or may not have, the ability to recover from adversity — to persist until we thrive — is more a behavior pattern that almost any of us can develop provided we find and employ an effective strategy. Research has shown that many of what we often consider personal strengths (e., g., willpower, self-discipline, etc.) are learned rather than inherited. This distinction is critical because many of us fail to pursue our goals as productively as we might because of the belief that we lack some inherent quality necessary to succeed. When we focus too much attention on this type of counterproductive thought, we tend to be inhibited from taking even reasonable risks or finding peace of mind — even though such thoughts are almost always unreasonable, incomplete, or entirely wrong. Our most powerful tool for altering our feelings and behavior is our ability to shift the focus of our attention — the greatest power we have to change how we feel and what we do.
To increase our “resilience” when confronted with adversity, it is best to focus as much as possible on ideas likely to inspire hope and constructive self-assertion, such as:
- By viewing this setback as a learning experience rather than a failure, I will remain on the path to success.
- Connecting and sharing with others who have survived similar setbacks/losses will help me recover and thrive.
- If I refuse to stop searching for activities that provide me with a sense of purpose and meaning, I will almost certainly eventually attain better outcomes and feelings.
- Despite this adversity, I can still feel grateful that…
Perhaps the single best step we can take to improve our resilience is to learn this four-step focused positivity strategy:
- Becoming mindful of our thoughts — recording and examining the ideas that occupy our minds when we feel discouraged,
- Identifying those thoughts that are dysfunctional — causing distress without inspiring constructive action — and that have become the focus of our attention, inhibited constructive action, and disrupted our peace of mind,
- Constructing more reasonable and balanced functional alternative ideas that tend to inspire hope and self-assertion, and
- Systematically refocusing our attention away from dysfunctional thoughts and toward functional alternatives.
The key to displaying “resilience,” therefore, is employing a strategy that tends to generate hope and inspiration: focused positivity.
Courage is often likened to resilience. In your opinion how is courage both similar and different to resilience?
Courage and resilience are alike in that they are descriptions we assign to ourselves and to others who have displayed a particular pattern of behavior. They are also alike in that the pattern of behavior associated with each word is more dependent on the thoughts on which we focus than any characteristic strength.
Whereas “resilience” is a universally desirable behavior pattern, behaviors that appear to reflect “courage” can have profoundly negative consequences. Research has shown that most “courageous” acts involving the rescue of a stranger were the result of irrational impulsivity. It turns out that when we pause to think about the risks to our own life, we rarely attempt heroic rescue of someone who is not of great personal importance to us. Our thoughts create our perspective, and our perspective determines how we feel and what we do.
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
Anyone who has never failed has probably not been taking enough risks to accomplish anything important. Almost everyone who has attained major success has encountered significant setbacks and been forced to display “resilience” along the way.
Three examples of resilience that come to my mind are George Washington, Mohandas Gandhi, and Sidney Poitier:
Washington first rebounded from the disastrous result of his first military leadership role during the Seven Years War (aka, the French and Indian War) to become the commander of the 1776 revolutionary force. Then during the first few years of the Revolution he repeatedly retreated after being defeated by superior British forces. Over the winter of 1977–1978 he managed to train and reinforce his army sufficiently that they were able to take on — and eventually defeat — the British, leading to the birth of our nation. In addition, after eight years as our first President, Washington demonstrated his commitment to our democracy by stepping down from the presidency.
Gandhi attained possibly the most remarkable success in history when — without ever resorting to violence — he led India to freedom from a century of British colonialization. In attaining that goal Gandhi repeatedly overcame setbacks created by racism and conflicts among his allies.
Sidney Poitier, the first black lead actor to win an Academy Award and civil rights pioneer who died recently at the age of 94, is another example of great resilience. Partly due to a thick Bahamian accent, Poitier’s first audition went so poorly that he was escorted from the building and advised to seek a career in dishwashing. Rather than being deterred, Poitier spent months copying the voices he heard on radio to improve his speech pattern. As a result, he was accepted into a theater group. When he still encountered little success, Poitier studied acting for several months until his skills became developed enough that he won major roles and eventually earned fame as one of the greatest actors of all time. Poitier’s story is certainly one of great resilience that led to great success.
Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us?
Although I have generally encountered good fortune in my life, I was born with a deformity of my left foot so severe that my parents doubted that I would ever walk normally. Fortunately, I walked early and inherited enough athletic ability to be competitive despite the deformity.
Although I have no memory for it, I have been told by an older sister that I was teased about my deformed foot by other children. I believe that my adult fitness “addiction” represents a compensation for my deformed foot and a tendency toward childhood obesity.
Although she could not have been more loving and encouraging to me, my mother struggled with depression. I believe that my interest in Psychology and my development of “focused positivity strategy” emerged from my desire to find some way to help her. Unfortunately, she died while I was still in graduate school.
I also remember a high school guidance counselor who advised my parents not to expect high achievement from me. In retrospect, I believe that incident helped motivate me to graduate from UCLA with honors, earn two Masters’ Degrees, and finish near the top of the Clinical Psychology PhD program at the University of Miami.
Although it is tempting to experience “pride” about our displays of “resilience,” it is healthier and more appropriate to be humbly grateful for having had the ability, resources, and strategy that allowed us to succeed.
Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?
My fortunate childhood family experience had the adverse side effect of leaving me rather naïve when I left home for college, and my relative immaturity led to two major mistakes. First, I was “starstruck” by a fraternity’s famous college athletes — many of whom I later discovered were mostly interested in humiliating those they considered “inferior.” After pledging had taken a major toll on my initial grades, I dropped out of the club, but to graduate with honors and secure a spot in graduate school I spent the rest of my college career rehabilitating my GPA.
My relative immaturity also led me to propose to my second girlfriend, who was a wonderful person but even more immature than me. I soon recognized that I had made a mistake, but my dread of disappointing her and our families kept me from calling off the wedding. The marriage fell apart two years later after we moved across the country so I could attend graduate school. I consider the divorce to my greatest failure, and I still experience guilt about it. I rebounded during the next seven years, however, and at the age of 32 made the wisest decision of my life in marrying Sandy, an extremely talented, thoughtful, and mature person.
Another disappointment was the failure of my first book to more than break even for its publisher, despite considerable promotional effort on my part. I have rebounded by publishing Focused Positivity, which is addressed to a much wider audience.
How have you cultivated resilience throughout your life? Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?
Rarely does anyone set out with the intent to build “resilience.” Instead, we experience desires strong enough to motivate persistence even when we encounter adversity. And if we are fortunate enough to have sufficient ability and resources — and to find a good strategy — our efforts to surmount the obstacles we encounter can succeed. I have confidence in my ability to recover from adversity because I have a strong social support network, ample survival resources, and the focused positivity strategy to inspire my efforts.
Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.
Resilience is like a muscle in that each time we overcome adversity our confidence in our ability to surmount future obstacles grows. It is unlike a muscle, however, in that “power” is less the key to success than knowledge. Although some who have displayed resilience may feel “powerful” as a result, success is more often the result of good fortune and effective strategy. We benefit more from humility and gratitude.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I believe that the most people would be most helped by being introduced to a cognitive shaping strategy such as focused positivity, which involves:
- Becoming more mindful of our thoughts,
- Identifying those thoughts that are dysfunctional, causing distress and inhibiting self-assertion, and
- Constructing — and focusing our attention on — reasonable and functional alternative ideas likely to inspire hope and constructive action.
Focused positivity strategy is the most efficient method of altering our perspective in a way that increases our chances of producing positive outcomes while at the same time enhancing our peace of mind.
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂
When I think of a living person who has demonstrated resilience, Bethany Hamilton first comes to mind. She is the former surfing champion who lost an arm in a shark attack at age 13, then rebounded to again become a competitive surfer. I will never forget admiring her positivity as she defeated the able-bodied contestants in physical challenges on The Amazing Race. I would love to explore the cognitive strategy she has employed to recover and thrive after traumatic loss.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
The website for my book (Focused Positivity: The Path to Success and Peace of Mind, Rowman & Littlefield, October 2021) can be found at focusedpositivity.net.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
Thank you for providing this opportunity to share my thoughts.