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Coping with lockdown thanks to the Stockdale Paradox

Coping with lockdown thanks to the Stockdale Paradox

There is no denying we are in uncertain times. It is challenging, scary and somewhat unknown. So how can we get through it? The answer may be in the Stockdale Paradox.

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What is the Stockdale Paradox?

The Stockdale Paradox is named after Admiral James Stockdale, one of the most decorated US Navy Officers, who received the Medal of Honour in The Vietnam War after being a POW for 8 years with no release date. However, throughout this he shouldered the burden of command by always trying to help others survive.

When asked how he survived when many of the other prisoners didn’t, he said, "I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which in retrospect, I would not trade".

When asked who didn’t survive, he said: "Oh, that’s easy – the optimists". This was because "they were the ones that said, 'we’re going to be out by Christmas'. And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, 'we’re going to be out by Easter'. And Easter would come, and Easter would go". This blind optimism would cause them to “die of a broken heart”.

Stockdale went on to say that "you must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be".


What we can learn from the Stockdale Paradox?

It’s hard to think about the Stockdale Paradox without also thinking of Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor and author of Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl coined the term ‘tragic optimism’, which refers to how the super optimists would sadly die of hopelessness. However, while the survivors would also have the enduring belief that they would triumph, they also acknowledged the reality of the difficulties that they were facing.

To us, this means that the Stockdale Paradox refers to the ability to retain faith while confronting the facts of your situation too. In other words, not to have blind optimism, nor heaps of pessimism. This is one of our favourite paradoxes as it suggests we be incredibly grounded yet hopeful - and we think that this is especially important, now more than ever.

So, how can you use the Stockdale Paradox to be a realistic optimist


Watch your words

How you talk to yourself has a big impact on how you think, feel and behave. The way you speak to yourself is linked to your creativity, persistence and ability to deal with stress. During these challenging times, lots of people may start to think negatively which is totally normal because those thoughts can protect us. But, to thrive in these times instead of just surviving, good tips would include:

  • Saying ‘stop’ straight after having a negative thought.
  • Telling yourself what to do in a positive and a helpful way.
  • Using energised language with yourself as this can help block out distractions and increase your motivation.


Regain a sense of control

During times like these, there are two types of people when it comes to thought processes. The first type is what we call ‘problem-focused’. These people are always looking for threats and problems.

The second type of people are called ‘solution-focused’. These people ask themselves questions like, ‘What can I do to improve the situation?’. By doing this, they stop focusing on the problem itself. Instead, they start to focus on what they can do about it which promotes persistence and a sense of comfort and control.


Acknowledge your contribution

Whilst lots of you are working from home where possible, it’s easy to become de-motivated quickly. However, the people that are able to maintain their drive acknowledge the work that they are doing and reflect on why it’s important and how it’s making a difference. As teachers, you make a difference every day, particularly now.

A nice way to do this is writing to-do lists and reflecting on what you have achieved from your list at the end of the day. Doing this task can also prompt positive thinking as it encourages you to think about what you are grateful for on a daily basis. This can improve your mood, well-being, and it helps to increase satisfaction.


Take a balanced approach

Sometimes it’s easy to forget that things aren’t always going to go our way. Especially whilst we are all experiencing new working arrangements, the key is to never get too low when things go against us, but also never get too high when things go our way. This helps can help you to have a stable emotional base to operate from. So, whilst you should acknowledge how you’re feeling, and why you are feeling that way, the most important thing is to debrief with yourself or with others, keep moving forwards, and of course, learn from any setbacks along the way.


Have a good team around you

In times of isolation, it is incredibly helpful to have a good team around you, both in person and virtually. There are lots of positives to keeping a good team around you. These include:

  • Enhancing your effort
  • Providing social support and advice
  • Helping develop resilience
  • Boosting motivation
  • Improving your self-view
  • Enhancing performance
  • Helping you deal with stressful situations

Clearly, having a team is important. Here’s a quick guide to help you build one.


Keep a routine

Lots of us will be using new strategies and trying new behaviours whilst in isolation. Being creative and trying new things is great, but the trick is to keep them going. New behaviours are more likely to endure if you weave them into an existing daily routine.

Not only does having a routine help you to keep up new behaviours and habits, it also makes it easier to achieve things throughout the day and gives you a sense of familiarity and control. Therefore, where possible, keeping your routine as close to normal is important. This includes sleeping at the same times, getting dressed, eating at the same times and exercising where possible.


Picture the positives

Sometimes it’s easy to forget the bigger picture; especially nowadays, our focus can naturally narrow into what’s happening on a purely day-to-day basis. However, not forgetting why you do what you do, or what you are working towards, is really important. Although the goal posts may have shifted, the game will still be the same. So, people that deal with the current climate best will see this as an opportunity to focus on how to ‘bounce back’, whether this means thinking about new learning strategies, new teaching methods or even new school cultures. This will help you keep a bit of perspective and motivation.


Final Thoughts

In many ways, we’re all in our own Stockdale Paradox at the moment, and the question you should be asking is: ‘What can I do to improve my situation?’.

Yes, it’s natural to think about the negatives and by no means should we ignore them either, but less pessimism, more hope and a more realistic optimism can go a long way.


We have put together free resource six-packs to help support you during lockdown. There is something for everyone: teachers, parents and students. Download them for free here.

We also recommend our free printable goal setting worksheets. They will help students develop and maintain a good routine to promote their learning and well-being during lockdown.

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