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The ultimate guide to building resilience so you can bounce back from tough times

You can build your ability to bounce back from setbacks and obstacles. Here are 15 ways to strengthen your resilience.

The ultimate guide to building resilience so you can bounce back from tough times
[Photo: Larry George II/Unsplash]

Whether it’s an illness, loss, or other tragedy, some people just seem to bounce back from whatever life throws at them. They do the tough work of picking themselves up, shaking off the dust, and carrying on—even when it seems impossible to others.

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If you’ve ever wondered about others’ resilience, here’s some good news: It is possible to strengthen the ability to bounce back, even in difficult times. And who couldn’t use a little more resilience these days? Here are 15 ways to bolster your own.

1. Build your community

People who bounce back tend to have a network of supportive people around them, says Michael Ungar, co-director of the Resilience Research Centre at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada. For some people, that’s a close-knit family, but for others, it’s a carefully cultivated group of friends, colleagues, mentors, or others who care about you and are willing to help. Ungar says he’s seen the tendency to seek out support sources in children as young as five years old: When the family unit isn’t functioning well, children tend to reach out to coaches, teachers, or other adults as a support network. Similarly, resilient adults seek out others who care about them and can offer emotional, professional, or other assistance when times get tough.

Everyone should have a personal “board of directors,” adds social scientist and leadership expert Frank Niles. Your board can advise you and provide insight when needed. “A board of directors ideally is really kind of your resiliency ‘buddies’ or resiliency ‘army.’ We can help each other out,” he says.

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2. Develop multiple identities

Resilient people often have a number of areas from which they get their sense of self-worth, Ungar says. They may have deep friendships or family connections, strong faith, or a leadership role in the community.

If you get most of your self-worth from one area, it’s harder to bounce back when something goes wrong. For example, if you measure your value by your job and you get fired, you’ve suddenly lost both your source of income and a big part of your identity, Ungar says. When you cultivate several satisfying and enriching areas of your life, you may be better able to bounce back. If you have setbacks in one area, you still have a sense of connection and value from those other areas, he says.

3. Get to know your emotional landscape

Becoming more resilient requires tuning in to yourself and your emotions. “Your ability to become and remain resilient is directly related to your emotional intelligence,” says organizational communication and leadership expert Anne Grady, author of Strong Enough: Choosing Courage, Resilience, and Triumph. How you interact with others, manage relationships and emotions, and make decisions are all affected by how well you know yourself and your triggers.

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Start by observing how you respond when you are under pressure. How do tense or stressful situations affect you physically, psychologically, and emotionally? Practicing “active internal coping mechanisms” such as humor, optimism, and meaningful social interactions in the face of everyday stressors can help you better manage big events, Grady says.

4. Prepare for the worst

Niles says the concept of “preparing” for bad times often throws people off. Isn’t that just being pessimistic? Exploring and preparing for possible negative events helps you spot opportunities to head them off. It starts with a different mindset, Niles says. Accept that change is inevitable. Look at the situation realistically and understand that you get to choose how you react to and how you think about it. People who look for positive aspects or opportunities—or, at least, who don’t always focus on the negative—tend to have greater resilience, he says. (Of course, that doesn’t mean veering into “toxic positivity.”)

When you think about the risks you face from a “worst-case scenario,” you can begin to lay the groundwork for recovery before you need to, like keeping your skills up to date and building savings in case of job loss or investing time and care into your relationships, which can give you support during tough times. Of course, tragedy or devastating events can disrupt the best-laid plans but working on mitigating potential damage may go a long way in helping you recover during tough times.

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5. Look for the lessons

It’s easy to ruminate about why you’re stuck in a bad situation, but challenges are how we learn, says performance coach Bob Litwin, author of Live the Best Story of Your Life: A World Champion’s Guide to Lasting Change. Litwin works with professionals in high-pressure jobs, such as talent agents and hedge fund managers. He advises clients to look for lessons during tough times.

“Adversity is the ultimate great teacher,” he says. As an elite tennis player, he says his toughest opponents were the ones who made him better. While the difficult situation may seem “just awful,” sometimes they “bounce you in a better direction and teach you how you’re going to be in that situation,” he says. The opportunity to learn from your challenges can give them some previously unseen value, he says.

6. Break down big challenges

Many big challenges are really a series of smaller challenges that can seem overwhelming. When you break down an overwhelming situation into individual components or action steps, it can be easier to manage, says licensed clinical social worker and resilience expert Linda Hoopes, author of Prosilience: Building Your Resilience for a Turbulent World.

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Hate your job? Look at the contributing factors, like unpleasant interactions with coworkers and long hours that cut into family time. Facing a health issue? What kind of care will you need? What type of support will help you? When you break down the individual components of a setback, you may be better able to find the solutions and resources you need. Prioritize the most urgent or those that are draining your energy most, she adds.

7. Control what you can

Even within a bad situation, you can make small changes to improve it and turn it into motivation to make bigger changes, Hoopes says. You can look for opportunities to learn new skills, even in a job you hate. If you’re managing care-giving responsibilities, your community might be able to help. Think creatively about your situation and how changes—even small ones—may improve it, she says.

In addition, stop beating your head against the wall trying to change things that you can’t, says high-performance leadership consultant Paul G. Schempp. “We see this with highly successful athletes. Often, people who are less successful focus on things like injuries or ‘The crowd doesn’t like me,’ or ‘I’m not getting enough playing time,’ so they start on this downward spiral, because all they see is the negative things,” he says.

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When you start letting go of things over which you have no control and focusing on the things you can improve through small changes, it’s easier to get out of that trap, he adds.

8. Shed shame

Feeling embarrassed or ashamed isn’t unusual in some challenges. We can be pretty hard on ourselves sometimes, especially if we’re dealing with the fallout from a mistake or poor judgment. But “shame is a toxic form of fear,” says Scott C. Hammond, a clinical professor of management at the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University. Get rid of it. It will only make it harder for you to find your way out of a bad situation. He points to some of the people in his research who were so ashamed of being lost that they hid, making it harder for others to find them and actually putting themselves at more risk.

Realize that people make mistakes and bad decisions, he says. When you catch yourself wallowing in shame, work on changing your thoughts to how you can make it better and work on solutions.

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9. Hang on to hope

When the worst-case scenario happens, one of the most important things you can do is find a way to cultivate hope and a sense a promise of something better ahead, Hammond says. His book, Lessons of the Lost: Finding Hope and Resilience in Work, Life, and the Wilderness, chronicles the stories of people who have survived being lost in the wilderness.

He shares the story of a woman who survived 48 days in a van in Nevada. She says finding a symbol of hope was crucial. As she waited to be rescued, she mentally planned a family reunion to keep her focused on a positive outcome and reconnecting with the outside world. The process gave her something to hope for.

10. Embrace or expand your choices

If you just lost your job or got diagnosed with a serious illness, it may not seem like there is any choice at all. But that’s not the case, says Harvard University lecturer Holly Parker, clinical psychology postdoctoral resident in psychology at the Edith Nourse Rogers Memorial Veterans Hospital. Understanding that there are always actions you can take and that you can choose to try to make your situation better, even in small ways, is empowering.

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“We can make choices about how we respond to things in the moment and how we want to approach a situation moving forward,” she says.

11. Use the power of writing

The act of writing can be enormously helpful in building resilience and recovering from traumatic situations, says Stacy Brookman, a writer who helps people tell their life stories. Simply writing about your challenges and feelings can help you explore them and resolve some of the issues that may be preventing you from recovering from trauma, she says.

“The act of just writing out [traumatic memories] helps you organize your brain where you can cope a lot better,” she says. “It feels much, much safer to manage words on paper than it does to confront tough situations in your brain.”

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study from Michigan State University found that simply writing about feelings can help people perform upcoming stressful tasks more efficiently, and provided the first neural evidence of expressive writing’s benefits. Niles adds that writing down positive things that have happened also helps you remember them when times are less rosy.

12. Know that failure is an option

Failure happens, so expecting otherwise just leads to disappointment. Paul LeBuffe, former director of the Devereux Center for Resilient Children, says it’s common for his audience to include young people who were highly successful students, but were devastated by their inability to find jobs.

“They don’t know how to cope with the fact that they didn’t get the first job they applied for. So, we hear a lot about these young people sitting in their parents’ basements playing video games,” he says.

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If you don’t give yourself the opportunity to fail sometimes and accept it as a part of life, you’re going to struggle with bouncing back, LeBuffe says. Successfully emerging from failure develops the ability to be optimistic that things can be bad now, but they’ll be okay eventually, he says.

13. Learn how to reframe (realistically)

Lorenn Walker had just left a hotel bar one night in 1976 when an unknown assailant nearly murdered her. He fled, but she was left badly injured, needing surgery on her face. Her recovery took four months.

Through therapy and willfully refusing to be mired in fear and resentment, she says she was able to “reframe,” or think about the situation in a different way. Instead of resenting the scars and the fearful memories, the lawyer and counselor sees the attack as the catalyst that led her to her work in what she calls restorative justice–counseling prisoners and victims of violent crime on how to make peace with the past and cultivate meaning in their lives.

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“You have the power to determine how you’re going to look at a situation, and you don’t give that power to other people, particularly people who are bad or who hurt you,” she says.

Motivational speaker and coach Cheryl Hunter agrees. As a teenager, Hunter was traveling overseas when two men who attacked her and then left her for dead, she says. She’s since turned that experience into a career as a motivational speaker, coach, and author of Use It: Turn Setbacks into Success.

Shortly after her attack, Hunter says she was in survival mode and was starting down a bad path. But she realized that, unless she found a way to look at the attack as something she could get beyond, her attackers would have succeeded in ending her life. She began looking at the attack as a turning point and became determined to help others by using her experience.

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Hunter thinks back to lessons her grandmother shared from working in a steel mill during World War II. Steel is put in the fire to burn away impurities and strengthen it. “These things we go through, these circumstances we endure, the ones we wouldn’t have chosen for ourselves, they have to power to do just that,” she adds. “To fortify us. To temper us. To strengthen us. They leave you with who you truly are at the core.”

14. Practice forgiveness

Whether forgiving yourself for a failure or forgiving someone else for an injury or injustice, being able to let go of past hurts and move on is an essential component of resilience, Walker says. When you find yourself “ruminating about grievances and negative stories, you have to just stop yourself and remind yourself of what you have to be grateful for,” she says. If you’re not a naturally forgiving person, this takes practice, but it is a skill that can be mastered, she adds.

15. Find your sense of purpose

LeBuffe says resilient people have a sense of purpose that helps them analyze their situations and plot their next moves. This stems from a set of values that is unique to each individual. When you know what’s important to you–whether it’s family, faith, money, career, or something else–you can prioritize what needs your attention immediately to help you get back to where you want to be. That goes for organizations, as well. When everyone knows the ultimate goal, they can make meaningful contributions. When they don’t, they’re mired in indecision.

Having a sense of purpose beyond your occupation or everyday role also plays a big role in resilience, Niles says. “Our positions are temporary and will likely change. But our purpose should never really change,” he says. That includes our values and the things that motivate us to fulfill a greater purpose in the world. When you connect with a greater purpose, you can use that to keep the ups and downs of life in perspective, he adds.

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About the author

Gwen Moran is a writer, editor, and creator of Bloom Anywhere, a website for people who want to move up or move on. She writes about business, leadership, money, and assorted other topics for leading publications and websites

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