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Are You Mentally Resilient? Why Some of Us Flourish and Some Don't

Inherent traits help some people flourish in face of hard times.

Key points

  • Mentally resilient people often transcend hard times despite seemingly impossible setbacks.
  • Mental resilience is correlated with emotional maturity and the ability to see reality clearly.
  • Mental resilience is negatively correlated with psychopathology and emotional immaturity.

The study of mental resilience and mental strength hasn't only been a focus by researchers in positive psychology over the last several decades; in fact, it's been a popular topic of exploration since ancient times. Myths, religions, stories, and fairytales have explored how individuals can not only overcome numerous obstacles in their lives but flourish with an abundance of positive outcomes as a result.

For instance, in best-selling books like The Hero’s Journey (Campbell) and The Alchemist (Ruiz), heroes and heroines faced enormous obstacles and setbacks time and time again. However, they emerge stronger on the other side with transformation and enlightenment. In addition, spiritual scholars across cultures have also explored the journey to mental resilience and human strength despite adverse experiences.

According to Dr. Carolyn Myss, religious scholars have also been fascinated by how religions convey messages of mental strength and resilience. For example, various religious figures and mystics such as Abraham, Buddha, Jesus, and Moses share common stories of abandonment, betrayal, alienation, and exclusion from their families or communities. Yet they flourished in the end, despite a litany of adversities.

Real-life examples include Dr. Victor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning, who faced both devastating losses and inhuman treatment during the Holocaust. Yet he became a leader in the field of psychotherapy and argued that if one has meaning in life or a purpose, one can survive any circumstance.

He, like many mentally resilient people before and after him, was transformed by seemingly impossible setbacks. We all know of those in our personal lives and beyond who have made “lemonade out of lemons,” so to speak, and have grown and inspired others in face of quite dire circumstances. What makes them different?

What Resilience Is, and What It Is Not

Resilience is defined as patterns of positive adaptation during or after significant exposure to adversity and risk. What makes some flourish in adversity while some crumble, chronically break down, or lose their spirit during long-term stressful times? What causes a songwriter, for example, to discharge his heartache over a lost love while still creating a product that can help heal others?

The answer is not straightforward because other variables may contribute to a lack of resilience, including earlier unresolved traumas, in some cases, along with environmental factors. However, researchers argue that resilience is closely linked to inherent personality traits linked to adaptability (Lester & Godwin, 2021) and emotional maturity, and adaptive defense mechanisms (Metzger, 2014).

Many theorists believe that mental and emotional resilience—the ability to be adaptable and flexible—is something that one is to some extent born with. These traits are observable in young children and tend to be consistent during one’s life.

Although different criteria have been used for studying the facets that decide resilience (Masten, et al., 2014), mastering various developmental tasks has been used as a standard. In children and adolescents, the presence of things like social and academic success or prosocial behavior are used to determine someone's level of mental and emotional resilience.

These factors are critical because they are largely common across cultures. In most societies, children are expected to get along with other kids, regulate their emotions, and follow the rules of school and home. The ability to adhere to these social norms early on is not only indicative of their potential success as adults but may also be indicators of mental resilience and the likelihood of more positive outcomes vs. negative ones.

Mental Resilience and Emotional Immaturity

Unfortunately, not all individuals have the inherent benefit of these traits that are linked to emotional maturity. Those with less mentally resilient traits may in fact be emotionally immature and show maladaptive defense functioning.

This means that they may experience and cause chronic internal or external emotional distress and drama, fail to successfully regulate across situations (outbursts, interpersonal problems in relationships), may have “failed to launch,” and exhibit toxic and abusive behavior in families and groups. They may exhibit high conflict as a result of their emotional immaturity, both linked to psychopathology and negatively correlated with resilience.

Conversely, those with emotional maturity and adaptive defenses help “turn lead into gold” or make meaning of the painful experiences in their lives. Simply put, emotionally immature people may lack the ability to navigate the world constructively due to their inherent personality traits.

Mental Resilience and Psychopathology

Mental strength and adaptive and effective defense functioning are associated with the absence of psychopathology, positive mental health, psychosocial and emotional maturity, occupational success, and meaningful relationships (Valliant, 2000). Mentally resilient people have “psychological tool kits” full of various tools.

In some cases, these tools can be called traits (Lester & Godwin, 2021). A trait is a united set of behaviors, thoughts, and feelings that are useful in managing a wide range of diverse life experiences successfully. The ability to assess reality clearly, and utilize and have full access to traits to obtain the best outcomes is key. However, those with psychopathology, and particularly personality disorders, tend to struggle with resilience due to their inherent deficits (Godwin & Lester, 2021).

For example, in a “disordered” personality, such as that indicative of antisocial personality disorder, negative consequences are created because their exclusive trait is exploitation and the most important deficiency is in honor. Therefore, someone with this personality may have continual agreement violations in relationships such as cheating, deceitfulness, lying, consistent work or financial irresponsibility, and impulsivity or failure to plan ahead.

Conversely, a mentally resilient person would be able to self-correct, have empathy for a person they violated, and would change their behavior to stop negative consequences (financial problems, loss of relationships due to repeated infidelities). In short, mentally resilient people can recognize and solve their own problems.

One thing is for certain: Life is full of trials and tribulations. However, the way one deals and responds to these continual challenges in life will decide whether have more positive outcomes (thriving, flourishing, or transcending) or negative ones (bitterness, blame, chronic anger, or breakdowns). Mentally resilient people have enough diverse personality traits to allow them to be flexible, adapt over time, and properly adjust their responses to have more positive outcomes than negative ones. They tend to learn from their mistakes and can make meaning of the negative events that occur in life which is essential to good mental health and well-being.

Part 2 of this series will focus on the 7 traits of mentally resilient people.

A version of this article also appears on



Childs E., White, T., & Whit, H. (2014). Personality traits modulate emotional and physiological responses to stress. Behavioral Pharmacolology. 25, 493-502. doi:10.1097/FBP.000000000000006.

Godwin, A. & Lester, G. (2021). Demystifying personality disorders. Clinical Skills for working with drama and manipulation. (PESI)

Lesser, E. (2004). Broken open, how difficult times help us grow. Villard: New York, NY.

Metzger, J. A. (2014). Adaptive Defense Mechanisms: Function and Transcendence. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 70(5), 478–488.

Myss, C. (2001). Sacred contracts: Awakening your divine potential. Harmony Books, 2001.

Turnipseed, D (2018). Emotional intelligence and OCB: The moderating role of work locus of control. Journal of Social Psychology. 2018;158(3):322-336. doi:10.1080/00224545.2017.1346582

Vaillant, G. E. (2000). Adaptive mental mechanisms: Their role in a positive psychology. American Psychologist, 55(1), 89–98.

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