The survivors of natural disasters, victims of abuse and neglect, and soldiers who have seen the worst of war up close and personal know the truth all too well. There is no shortage of adversity in life. Whether it’s a minor setback or a major trauma, we all endure hardships across our lives. The differences among us lie not only in the shape hardship takes for us but also in how we respond when it knocks at our door. Do you find yourself weighed down by your seemingly unlucky lot in life? Or do you courageously embrace the struggle?
Resilience is the ability to cope with adversity and to use challenges to forge strength and prosperity. Having resilience does not mean that you don’t struggle, make mistakes, or need to ask for help. Quite to the contrary, resilient individuals are those who keep plugging along even when the situation becomes ugly or exhausting, who learn from their own mishaps and misfortunes, and who rely on others with confidence and trust.
Adversity does create a wake in its path and its tragic side should not be downplayed. But even when tragedy strikes, growth is possible. Post-traumatic growth—which can often occur alongside post-traumatic stress—is the set of positive changes that result from a traumatic experience and can include a deeper appreciation for life, a bolstered sense of one’s own capabilities, and stronger connections to others.
Whether the struggles you face are traumas or everyday setbacks, the tools of resilience will help you to gain greater control over your own path forward and to cultivate positive change. The next time adversity floods your day and leaves you treading water, try these four strategies help keep you afloat.
Reframe Your Interpretations
Resilient people find a way to explain their situations in a more positive light while still accepting the reality. Imagine a news broadcast interviewing victims of a natural disaster a year later. Some brood: “We’ll never get our lives back.” Others find the silver lining: “This was the worst thing that’s ever happened to me, but it’s also one of the best. This community has come together and shown its strength in so many unbelievable ways.” (Learn how to get unstuck from your negative emotions.)
We have the ability to decide how we’re going to interpret the adversities we face. The adversities themselves are not positive. But when we work to find an appreciation for what has been introduced and increased for us as we persevere through the adversity, we develop a more grateful approach to living. The hardship that scars us is often the same stuff of life that manufactures hard-earned wisdom. When all you see is negative, broaden your perspective by asking yourself, “What good has come about as a result of this adversity?”
Identify What You Can Control
Optimists are among the most resilient of us, and they succeed by virtue of focusing their attention on how they can make their situations better. When faced with a challenge, pessimistic thinkers are more likely to be blind to opportunities to enact positive changes. In short, they adopt a victim mentality.
Optimists maintain a more accurate view of the control they do have. Consider Admiral James Stockdale’s trials as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. The Stockdale Paradox, a term coined by author Jim Collins who interviewed the Admiral about his experience, is the surprising recipe for resilience that combines a harsh and objective assessment of reality (“Being a prisoner of war is awful”) with confidence and faith that drive hope (“This will get better and I can make it better”). Despite being stuck in solitary confinement, Stockdale and his fellow prisoners in other cells developed a system of tapping to communicate with one another. Realistic optimism identifies points of control and takes advantage of them. Resilience, by definition, is the act of taking a step forward despite dire circumstances, and when we look critically for something we can control, we lay out the path for ourselves.
When you catch yourself feeling stuck or bogged down in adversity, find one thing you have control over and take action on it.
There are many images in our culture of the self-reliant, lone hero whose personal willpower provides enough strength to withstand any obstacle. These images get it wrong.
While personal strength matters a lot, it is ultimately the sense of community and relationship to others that enables true resilience. Studies of children undergoing significant hardship find that kids who have one adult in their lives who provide stability and support are much more likely to do well than kids who don’t. The ability to relate and process one’s struggles in the context of a safe relationship buffers against many of the potential negative effects of childhood trauma.
And relationship benefits extend to adults. Consider Stockdale and his fellow prisoners who created a system of communication that ultimately fostered a “we’re in this together” mindset. Knowing that there’s someone else out there who cares is invaluable when we’re down for the count. Tending to your most important relationships when times are good builds the trust and intimacy that will help those relationships stay strong when adversity hits.
Embrace Challenge and Failure
Failure is hard for many of us to take. We’d rather step back from something and wipe our hands clean than risk making a fool of ourselves. But when we adopt a perspective that appropriate challenge can strengthen us as people and that we can learn from both successes and failures, we’re exercising our resilience muscles.
This is not to say that we should seek adversity, particularly serious adversities that bring along the side effects. But finding small, manageable ways to challenge yourself on a regular basis will build your confidence and character. Take the class you’ve been interested in the past few weeks. Make that phone call you’ve been avoiding but know you need to make. Push your limits little by little and adopt a view of exploration and curiosity whether your pursuits soar or crash and burn. Know that either way, you’re gaining knowledge and insight. When we learn to identify with the process of trying rather than the outcomes we effect, we adopt a resilience-building approach to life.