Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


How to Build Your Resilience

Resilience is more like a muscle than you think.

The band Journey tells us to not stop believin’, Kelly Clarkson preaches what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and of course, Gloria Gaynor will survive. What do they have in common? A crazy little thing called resilience.

The definition of resilience is adapting and responding positively to stress and misfortune. The troubles you face may be long-term, like having an addiction or financial struggles. It also may be a short, dramatic strike of tragedy—a life-threatening illness or a sexual assault. Even small, first-world problems require a shot of micro-resilience, like when the person ahead of you snags the last Boston cream doughnut (I’m talking to you, blue hat). From minuscule problems to life-changing ones, resilience is in the way you respond.

Resilience has gotten some pushback recently. By encouraging “resilience,” detractors say, we imply that setbacks are exclusively individually based, when in fact they often come from systemic barriers, like racism, sexism, economic inequality, or other injustices.

The answer? As Avril Lavigne says, it’s complicated. People should not be expected to drag themselves out of the pit that society is pushing them into. At the same time, resilience isn’t an empty idea: individuals can and do respond differently to the problems life doles out.

BK on Flickr
Source: BK on Flickr

Importantly, resilience is an acquired skill, not a you’re-born-with-it-or-you’re-not trait, which means whether you sink or swim is actually dependent on a skill that can be taught and learned with time. So how do you make sure you come out on top? Here are six ways to make like a rubber band and bounce back.

Tip #1: Let yourself feel lousy every once in a while.

You heard that right. We’ve all heard the cliché encouragement: “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade!” But rah-rah motivational slogans often feel useless, like sunglasses on a cloudy day.

True resilience doesn’t mean you never get discouraged. If you never encounter painful struggle, you never get to discover your resilience. This is why pain is almost universal among the resilient—it happens.

Therefore, resilience isn’t about masking your pain and pretending everything is peachy—you’re human, not a machine. In short, what matters isn’t how you feel in the moment, it’s that you overcome it and stand back up. That’s resilience.

Tip #2: Know that you’re the only one who can control your fate.

In 1955, the psychologist Dr. Emmy Werner began a study that would last more than 40 years. She and her colleagues began to follow every child—almost 700 of them—born that year on the Hawai’ian island of Kaua’i.

Kaua'i in the 1950s was not a privileged place. Many of the kids were raised in poverty, had unstable, chaotic families, and had mothers who never got a high school diploma. But despite all this, by the age of 40, one-third of the group was, as the study said, “competent, confident, and caring.” They defied the odds—they all were employed, had stable lives, and never came into trouble with the law. Their accomplishments equaled or surpassed many of the kids who grew up in more privileged environments. The researchers itched to know: how did they beat the odds? What was the key ingredient to their resilience?

Again, it’s complicated. Some of it was luck, some of it was having at least one emotionally stable and loving family member to look out for them, and some of it was finding an emotional home in a civic organization, at school, or at church.

But the most important thing the resilient kids had was something called an internal locus of control, meaning that these kids believed that they, not their circumstances, were in the driver’s seat. They believed they were the controllers of their own future, and the circumstances they were put in were not a deterring factor. The researchers noted an example of this was that resilient kids with a dysfunctional family were good at “recruiting” surrogate parents, whether a youth minister, a trusted teacher, or even a friend’s parent.

How can you apply this to your life? In short, take decisive action. It’s tempting to use fate as an excuse for your future, but take control as best you can.

Tip #3: Keep yourself value-centered.

It’s all fine and good to make executive decisions, but if the right decision isn’t clear, it can be easy to make mistakes. A handful of studies have found that having a moral compass—an internal system of values and ethics—goes along with higher resilience. Strong ethics and morality seems to give purpose to our lives, which in turn gives rise to resilience. So maybe in the bigger picture that Boston cream doughnut was nothing to get worked up about?

Tip #4: Recharge with a workout.

Dealing with setbacks can be exhausting, so it’s important not just to push your way back too hard, but to rest and recharge along the way. You have full permission to recharge in any way you wish (marathoning Friends on the couch with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s, just as an example), but maybe consider, between episodes, some exercise.

Exercise is often a mini metaphor for life’s larger challenges: We set short-term goals that build mental momentum to reach larger goals in the long term. Pushing through on both good and bad days is resilience in action.

Plus, exercise heightens your mood and motivation levels, which directly relieves stress and puts us in a more positive mindset. It’s the ultimate recharge, with the added bonus of feeling a little better about the aforementioned Ben & Jerry’s.

Tip #5: Don’t set unrealistic goals.

You may want to get rich, get famous, and spend little effort doing so, but part of resilience involves not setting ourselves up for failure. Indeed, in the Kaua’i study, one of the characteristics of the resilient adults was that they set realistic educational and career goals for themselves. If we set too many lofty goals, when we fall short of them we will blame that failure on ourselves. So keep the scale of your goals reasonable. Challenge yourself and aim high, of course, but be fair to yourself.

Tip #6: Express your feelings.

I know—it’s cliche, but it works. According to a study of student nurses doing emotionally exhausting work in a literal life-or-death environment, those who were able to 1) draw on support from friends and colleagues, and 2) genuinely express their emotions from sorrow to frustration to joy, were less prone to burnout. They were able to continue the tough emotional work their job required. So tell people you trust how you really feel. Be honest and authentic rather than trying to please everyone and you’ll come out feeling relieved and sane.

It’s only when obstacles arise that your resilience skills are called on. Even Barry Manilow made it through the rain. And so can you, with a secret weapon called resilience.

 Quick and Dirty Tips
Source: Source: Quick and Dirty Tips

A version of this piece originally appeared on Quick and Dirty Tips titled 6 Ways to Build Your Resistance.

Enjoyed this piece? Listen to the Savvy Psychologist podcast, hosted by Dr. Ellen Hendriksen, on iTunes or Stitcher. Plus, read more on Quick and Dirty Tips, sign up for the Savvy Psychologist newsletter, or connect on Facebook.

More from Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today