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Resilience: What It Is, What It Is Not, and Why It Matters

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Resilience: What It Is, What It Is Not, and Why It Matters


Much is said about resilience. But what is it? What is it not? And why should it matter to you?

5 min read

While the definitions vary, most include notions of adaptation and adversity. The Mayo Clinic says that resilience means “being able to adapt to life’s misfortunes and setbacks (Mayo Clinic, 2020), while the American Psychological Association notes that resilience is:

“. . . the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress. . .. It can also involve profound personal growth” (APA, 2020).

Unbeatable for the image it conjures is the remark by Dr. Amit Sood, the executive director of the Global Center for Resiliency and Well-Being, that, “Resilience is the core strength you use to lift the load of life” (Hurley, 2020).

What resilience is not

It does not mean having a smooth or painless life. The road to resilience is fraught with barriers, obstacles, setbacks, and challenges, and, while some people seem to naturally possess traits that make them resilient, we can all grow our resilience. Doing so involves learning thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that anyone can develop; in this sense resilience is more ordinary than extraordinary. And guess how it happens? If you said, “through dealing with problems and challenges”, you’re onto it! It’s like a muscle that, when you work it with regularity and intentionality, becomes stronger over time.

Why does being resilient matter?

Angela Duckworth’s seminal research into grit, a type of resilience, has clearly shown – repeatedly, in many domains of endeavor – that it is not talent (though it helps) that gets people across the finish line to success – but persistence: the willingness to get back up and try again after being knocked down, over and over (Duckworth, 2019). People who have not developed their resilience may respond to setbacks by feeling overwhelmed or helpless, or relying on unhealthy coping strategies, such as avoidance, isolation, and alcohol or drugs. One study showed that patients who had attempted suicide had significantly lower resilience scale scores than patients who had never attempted suicide (Fletcher & Sarkar, 2013).

It’s not that resilient people experience no stress or challenge, but that they use their emotional strength to cope with trauma and hardship. Resilience matters because, by finding ways to utilize resources, strengths, and skills to overcome challenges, hardy people empower themselves to bring forth their highest potential, to help others in the greatest way possible, and (usually) to play a solid role in creating a better world.

What are resilient people like?

What does a paragon of resilience look like? Katie Hurley, a licensed social worker, writes that resilient people tend to have the following characteristics:

  • They have an internal locus of control (looking primarily to their own inner advisor and focusing on how they can control the outcome of events, as opposed to external forces doing so).
  • They have social support, knowing who they can rely on when needed. They know how to build this when their networks are down.
  • They have problem-solving skills, identifying (multiple) realistic ways to solve problems.
  • They see the glass half-full, using skills of optimism to sustain their belief in their ability to handle whatever comes their way.
  • They have coping skills: techniques to reduce stress and anxiety.
  • They do self-care, making both mental/emotional and physical health a priority.
  • They have self-awareness, knowing their strengths and how to utilize them for the best outcomes (Hurley, 2020).

How do you see resilience manifest in your life?