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Resilience, What It Is and Why We Need It

When the going gets tough.

Key points

  • Resilience is the psychological quality that allows some to be knocked down by adversities of life and come back at least as strong as before.
  • Exposure to adversity can go either way: we can learn and grow from negative experiences and become more resilient or fearful.
  • We can build resiliency by reframing negative events, having faith in ourselves over our fear, and controlling the messages we tell ourselves.

What exactly are we talking about when we talk about resilience? Psychology Today defines resilience as “the psychological quality that allows some people to be knocked down by the adversities of life and come back at least as strong as before.”

Adversities of Life

Losses, setbacks, bad luck, painful events, and challenging and distressing situations are all part of life. No matter how hard we try, at some point in our lives, we will find ourselves navigating painful and challenging situations, some of our own making, many out of our control, and many that can throw us off course and threaten to derail our lives.

In my clinical practice, I remind patients daily that life is a series of experiences and that we go through life, labeling our experiences as positive or negative. When things are going pretty much according to plan, life flows as it should, free of the difficulties that impede our progress and leave us falling short of expectations.

We all have days when something throws us off course. Sometimes we find that our usual approach to completing a task may no longer be effective.

Adversity comes in all shapes, sizes, and levels of intensity. We may find colleagues uncooperative or unavailable to support us as a deadline looms closer and grows more daunting by the minute.

We may find ourselves struggling to make a difficult choice or a painful decision. An accident or sudden illness may derail our smooth and predictable daily routine and pace of life. We label such events and situations as obstacles and perceive them as negative. A factor in the outcome of a negative event or situation is our ability to navigate through its challenges. In other words, our resilience.

What Makes Us Stronger

If we have never navigated adversity, we wonder whether we can handle these curveballs, challenges, and interruptions. It is often said that life doesn’t give us more than we can handle. Whether or not we buy into this notion, when we’re dealt an obstacle, we will learn from it before it goes away.

We’ve all heard the adage that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. While this may seem like a rather flippant observation, there is wisdom in these words. Vaccines, for example, work on the principle that exposure to a virus provides our bodies with the opportunity to fortify our immune system against disease. In much the same way, the experiences we label as negative can serve to fortify us and teach us that we can handle whatever shows up in our life.

Positive outcomes due to experiencing adversity are not a certainty. In "Resilience as a Dynamic Concept," by Michael Rutter, the author addressed both the potential negative and positive outcomes of exposure to negative, adverse experiences.

He explained,

Resilience is an inference based on evidence that some individuals have a better outcome than others who have experienced a comparable level of adversity; moreover, the negative experience may have either a sensitizing effect or a strengthening 'steeling' effect in relation to the response to later stress or adversity.

In other words, exposure to adversity can go either way: we can learn and grow from our negative experiences and become more resilient, or we can become more fearful and traumatized.

Many professionals who have dedicated years to studying resilience credit the trait of optimism as a key feature of resilient individuals. In his Harvard Business Review article on "Building Resilience," Martin E. P. Seligman Director of the Penn Positive Psychology Center and Zellerbach Family Professor of Psychology in the Penn Department of Psychology, explained:

…about a third of the animals and people who experience inescapable shocks or noise never become helpless. What is it about them that makes this so? Over 15 years of study, my colleagues and I discovered that the answer is optimism.

Optimism, Faith, and Fear

Quite rightly, we may fear that we won’t know how to cope or deal with adversity when it shows up. We may imagine catastrophic events playing out as worst-case scenarios. We may doubt our ability to cope with loss, failure, or an unforeseen tragedy.

Fear makes us doubt ourselves. It makes us feel pessimistic and lowers our self-esteem and sense of self-worth. And it negatively impacts our optimism and resilience. Fear is simply the absence of faith, a lack of faith in your ability to handle whatever challenges come your way. When we lose faith in ourselves, our fears and anxieties creep in and cloud our judgment.

Faith in ourselves, on the other hand, is just the opposite. It is a belief and confidence in our ability to handle whatever comes our way. Faith in ourselves–and our resilience–is not static but something that can strengthen and build, not only when the going gets tough, but in our day-to-day lives.

Building Resilience

Building resilience may seem like a daunting undertaking, but there are steps we can take in our daily lives to build resilience. From starting a meditation practice and paying attention to the way we talk to ourselves to adding in extra self-care practices during challenging times and seeking support when we need it, there are many ways we can choose to build our faith in ourselves and make ourselves more resilient.

Anyone who has ever experienced adversity shares one thing in common: they did the best that they could under the circumstances they encountered. When life handed them unforeseeable and unimaginable difficult situations, they did their best with the knowledge and skillsets at their disposal at the time.

Life is a series of experiences. And the only certainty in life is uncertainty and change. Some changes are good, like a new job opportunity, and others are bad or even tragic, like a devastating accident, violence, major illness, or the death of a loved one.

We are here to live our lives fully rather than merely exist in a state of dread and fear. Day by day, we can build our faith in our ability to handle whatever comes our way. We need to remember that to date. We have handled everything that life has sent our way to the best of our abilities in each moment, using the skills, knowledge, and resources available at the time.

We live and learn and grow, and even though we might not have managed every situation with the utmost class, dignity, and poise, we make it through when the going gets tough. And we can choose to continue to grow our skillsets, abilities, and resilience to handle whatever comes our way.

Seven Steps to Building Resilience

Take charge of the messages you tell yourself. Pay attention to self-talk. Learning to control the messages we tell ourselves and engaging in positive daily self-talk will empower our ability to speak positively to ourselves during difficult times.

Remind yourself that you have handled adversity in your life so far as well as you could.

Reframe negative events. Explore ways you have grown in the aftermath of adversity rather than dwell on negative experiences and forecast worst-case scenarios. Challenge yourself to examine the probability versus the possibility of worst-case scenarios actually happening.

Acknowledge the lessons you have learned so far and what the challenges in your life have taught you, and accept that adversity is a part of the fabric of life.

Add in extra self-care during times of adversity. Take care of yourself, mind, body, and spirit. Limit exposure to negative news cycles, social media, and toxic people.

Develop a meditation practice, whether that means sitting in silence or immersing yourself in an activity or pastime that you enjoy. A meditation practice allows you to calm your mind and connect with your inner strength.

Choose to have faith in yourself over your fear of the unknown and doubt in your skillsets. Have faith that you can pivot, navigate and manage whatever comes your way. Bring in supports, like a mental health professional, when navigating through trauma and grief.

To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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