Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


How To Build Resilience

How our environments can trigger personal transformation.

Source: CC0/Pixabay

For many around the world, Cinderella is a story of resilience. Here is a good-hearted, poor orphan, working tirelessly for her evil step-relatives, until one day, her life takes an enchanted turn, and she finds herself at the royal ball with a dashing prince in her arms (and glass slippers on her feet). The key to Cinderella’s magical transformation is often attributed to her inner traits: it’s because of her kindness, warmth, ingenuity, positive attitude, and perseverance, that she was able to withstand her bitter circumstances and find her happy ending.

But what if, as resilience researcher and therapist Michael Ungar invites us to consider, our understanding of Cinderella’s triumph was missing an important part of her story: the fairy godmother?

What if resilience hinged equally upon the world around us, as the world within us?

In his latest book Change Your World: The Science of Resilience and The True Path To Success, Dr. Ungar describes resilience as not so much about being “rugged,” but about being “resourced.” Just as the fairy godmother orchestrated Cinderella’s conquest, it takes a spark with the outside world to ignite the full potential of resilience within us. From our own fairy godparents to strangers, from our neighborhoods to cultures, our worlds are full of opportunities to nurture resilience.

After decades of research and clinical practice across cultures, Dr. Ungar’s message is this: by all means, build up your inner riches, work on your mindset, strengths, thoughts, emotions and behavior – but don’t underestimate the power of your external resources to help you sustain the changes you worked hard to attain.

Here are 7 insights on resilience from Dr. Ungar.

Source: CC0/Unsplash

Resilience is a dynamic process.

Based on my clinical work and my research, a resilient person is one who is able to navigate towards the resources that they need to cope in difficult situations, as well as one who can negotiate to get these resources in a way that makes sense to them. Resilience is a dynamic process, as opposed to an individual state. In fact, even those individual characteristics that we commonly associate with resilience, whether at a biological or cognitive level, are mostly triggered by our environments. So, resilience means that your environment has to provide you with the resources you need in ways that are useful to you.

Resilience is not just inside of us.

Resilience is not a DIY endeavor – it’s a dance with the world. What I began to understand from my research is that when people actively put themselves into situations that brought out their best (in other words, when they changed the world around them), it triggered a cascade of individual transformations. We tend to think that if we create the transformation inside of us, the world will then sustain us. It actually rarely happens. For example, when diets or well-being practices fail, it’s largely because the environment around us hasn’t necessarily been adapted. When we consider resilience as something that applies to situations with an atypical amount of stress, risk or danger, then we understand that the way through those conditions often involves as much external resources as internal resources.

It’s easier to change the world around you than to consistently change yourself.

Let’s say you are really fed up with your job and you are very stressed. Do you get up every day at 5 am, try to center yourself with meditation and yoga? Meanwhile, at work, you are still confronted with a toxic boss and employees who bully you. Is that really the right effort? Or would it be better to look for opportunities to change your environment? For example, by finding a different unit within the business where you would have less contact with the people that are bullying you, or maybe changing your hours at work? While this takes a certain amount of personal motivation, it isn’t just about changing you – it’s about making the world around you a bit different. As another example, if you are feeling isolated at work, what about becoming the person on the team that remembers everybody’s birthdays and brings the cake and stimulates the environment to be more forgiving or social?

By changing your world, you will trigger a change in you.

If I trigger a change in my world, the world will reinforce the change in me. As science shows, this change is much more sustainable. If I try to make the change individually, then I have to take responsibility for everything – even when I don’t succeed. If I don’t do my work well enough, or meditate enough, or have the right thoughts, or show compassion, then it’s all due to my own failing. But while some cognitive reappraisal is important for personal transformation, so is engaging your environment. Try to put yourself in opportunities where your talents are recognized and where people appreciate you, where you could be more settled in who you are or what you want to be.

Don’t take all the blame.

Flexibility is one of the traits that facilitate your ability to go out there and navigate and negotiate for the resources you need. In our assessment tools for resilience, another skill that is important is knowing how to behave in different social situations. Also important is a cognitive appraisal style where you don’t blame yourself for every problem. Beware of interventions that make you feel like if you fail to make the change, it’s somehow your fault. Make sure the responsibility is shared. We keep blaming ourselves, while the number of people with health problems increases.

12 resources to nurture resilience

There are a number of resources that can help us cope with adversity and stress. Among those that seem to be very poignant are: Do you have a positive and powerful identity? Do you have relationships that are supportive? Do you have a sense of belonging and a life purpose? These resources are all important depending on the context and each one of them can ignite a “positive feedback loop” to sustain resilience and personal transformation.

CC0/Pixabay/Marianna Pogosyan
12 resources to nurture resilience by Michael Ungar
Source: CC0/Pixabay/Marianna Pogosyan

Overcome adversity by matching your needs with the right resources.

I often hear, “If you just have someone who loves you…” But research doesn’t support that. There is no single factor. What we do know is that when you get exactly what you need that matches your needs in a moment of crisis, then you do well. And that need will be very specific to your situation. For example, for the Japanese students post-tsunami, what they needed was the structure of going back to school and continuing their education, which gave them hope for the future and inspired psychological well-being. People who are affected by a major wildfire will need insurance adjusters. For someone who is being bullied, the best resource would be having one friend who they can spend time with. If a child is moving often and changing schools, they will need a stable home environment. If a person with a disability is going to university, they would need accommodations that allow them to succeed on the university campus.

When you get the right resource that you need at the right time during a crisis, it’ll act as a catalyst that stimulates a whole cascade of other internal and external resources. And then, magic happens.

Many thanks to Michael Ungar for his time and insights. Dr. Ungar is a Family Therapist and Professor of Social Work at Dalhousie University where he holds the Canada Research Chair in Child, Family and Community Resilience. Dr. Ungar is the director of the Resilience Research Centre. He is the author of Nurturing Resilience for Psychology Today and his latest book Change Your World: The Science of Resilience and the True Path to Success.

More from Marianna Pogosyan Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today