I think we can agree that 2020 hasn’t been the best year, with our resilience being tested on a daily basis.
“COVID has shifted our lives completely, but we’re actually dealing with multiple pandemics,” says Debra Kawahara, associate dean of academic affairs for the California School of Professional Psychology at Alliant International University. “The George Floyd incident created a grief pandemic. We’re dealing with disparities in health and socioeconomics, and we have blurred boundaries between our work and personal life. A new daily stressor happens before we learned to deal with the last one.”
But what is resilience? And why are some people better at it than others? A resilient person can adjust and figure out what do to adapt faster than someone who isn’t as resilient, says Kawahara. To become more resilient, it’s important to understand these five misconceptions around the trait.
People Are Born Resilient
If you look at a resilient person’s daily outlook, they will likely practice resilience as a daily habit. While some people may be more natural at tackling adversity, it can be taught and developed, says Kawahara.
“You can build resilience with various strategies that you use in everyday life,” she says. “For instance, being optimistic and using positive self-talk is a good habit you can start. Another is gratitude. Every day identify two or three things you have to be grateful for. Both are helpful for building resilience.”
Resilience is a verb, not a noun, adds Josh Altman, PhD, associate director of Adelphi University’s Student Counseling Center.
“It’s a set of practical skills that can be developed with practice and patience,” he says. “Resilience is not a fixed state; it is a capacity, a skill that can be developed. Challenges become opportunities to grow and learn. A growth-mindset pattern of thinking experiences failure as temporary, criticism as a guide for growth, and problems as opportunities.”
Resilient People Don’t Let Things Bother Them
People who are resilient aren’t resilient despite failure, pain, and struggle, but because of it, says Altman. “There is already a seed of resilience inside everyone,” he says. “Learning to lean into rather than avoiding difficult situations makes us stronger.”
In fact, the process of resilience involves distress, adds Dr. Vanessa Kennedy, director of psychology at Driftwood Recovery, an addiction treatment center.
“As human beings, we experience difficult emotions—sadness, anger, disillusionment—when faced with a traumatic experience,” she says. “Giving ourselves permission to feel these emotions and seeking support to help us cope with them are important tools to develop resilience.”
Resilient People Don’t Need Help
When we picture someone who is resilient, we sometimes forget to picture all those who boosted and supported them along the way, says Sarah Greenberg, a lead coach with the mobile coaching platform BetterUp.
“Having others who respect you unconditionally, who root for you, and who will be by your side in stormy weather is rocket fuel for resilience,” she says. “Conversely, being there for others, having a big ‘why’ beyond the self, can help us push through tough times. Resilience is more interpersonal than we often recognize.”
One of the most important parts of being resilient is feeling part of a community, feeling supported and not completely alone in your suffering, says Altman. “Asking for help is not a sign of weakness—it is a sign of strength, and people who learn how to ask for help are more likely to be resilient,” he says. “Interestingly, research shows that people who ask for help are viewed as being more trustworthy and competent.”
Resilience Is Always Good
A good trait can become a weakness if you rely on it too much, says Richard Citrin, author of The Resilience Advantage, and resilience can become a weakness too.
“It can lead to people not recognizing when things are not going well but choose to stay in it,” he says. “A common example is a bad work situation with a tyrannical boss where an employee believes they must stay in that role and that they can find a way to perform. Better to admit that the work situation is untenable and find a new job. Nothing bad in moving on.”
Resilience Is About Bouncing Back
Some adverse events may change things so that they do not go back to normal, says Kennedy. “Adapting involves developing a new normal in which we can evolve and even thrive,” she says.
We must learn from our adversity and that we want to “bounce forward” so that we learn from our mistakes and work to not get knocked down in the same way next time, says Citrin.
“I see resilience as a much more comprehensive way of addressing stress by being prepared ahead of anticipated or potential stress,” he says. “This approach to resilience means that we are armoring and vaccinating ourselves against challenges so that they are actually easier and more manageable.”