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WHAT IS RESILIENCE?

On this page: Three sections to understand resilience

  1. What is Resilience
  2. Why Resilience is Important
  3. Factors of Resilience

What is Resilience

Stress is the norm. Whether it’s from our work, finances, or relationships, experiencing stress is part and parcel of the human experience. The problem comes when it escalates to untenable levels, perhaps even taking over and becoming a dominant emotion. Unease and anxiety push us toward feeling despair and maybe even hopelessness. We get stuck in the cycle of wondering when in the world we’ll achieve some sort of normalcy amidst what seems like accelerating change and ever-present chaos. Resilience is an important quality that can help.

Resilience is the capacity to bounce back following adversity. It is tied to rapidly activating a stress response, but then quickly and efficiently terminating it once it is no longer needed. Resilience starts with acceptance. Accepting the reality of a difficult situation and our capabilities to respond to it. Contrary to conventional wisdom, we need not suck it up or bulldoze through the obstacle that is in front of us.

True resilience is experiencing discomfort or distress, leaning in, paying attention, and creating space to take thoughtful action that aligns with your values. Do this over and over again, and you can bounce back from just about anything. We don’t have to be Navy Seals. We’re all capable of developing it.

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Why is Resilience Important

The concept of resilience is difficult to pin down. We all intuitively ‘know’ what it means, but when we drill down to what makes someone resilient, tough, or gritty, it quickly devolves into an all-encompassing cure-all to our problems. Being mentally tough becomes the answer to any performance shortfall. Even in the research world, over 30 attributes have been attributed to being tough, including: determination, confidence, self-control, handling pressure, discipline, dealing with adversity, intrinsic motivation, self-belief, work ethic, and more. Add in the opposite of our popular conceptualization of toughness, ‘weakness’, and it gets even murkier. Once a person is labeled mentally ‘weak’, the person in charge of getting them better is absolved of all responsibility. After all, any performance shortfall can be explained away. The concept of toughness can apply to just about whatever we want it to. Maybe this is why we love to profess its value?

Instead of a concept that can mean whatever we want it to be, why not narrow down onto the core performance issue that toughness is trying to solve? What do the military experiences describe above have in common with Bob Knight’s goal in improving his basketball team? Or the employee who is about to give a major presentation or the parent who has to decide what the best route for their child is after he or she has gotten in trouble? In just about every situation we describe as needing ‘toughness’, whether it works out or not is dependent on the decision made.

When we talk about resilience, what we are after is the worker, child, parent, or athlete making the 'correct' decision. They choose to get up after getting knocked down, to work through their anxiety to nail their talk or make the difficult call to move on from a project that they invested time and money into. When it comes to toughness, it's all about the decision.

True toughness is quiet and comes deep from within. It’s about making the right choice under stress, uncertainty, and fatigue. It requires emotional control: cultivating the power to respond—not react—and thus making thoughtful, deliberate decisions during pressure-filled situations. Real toughness is borne out of authentic self-security that is rooted in confidence, but not arrogance. Toughness is about figuring out how to thrive in the face of stress, adversity, and everyday challenges. It isn’t concerned with posturing; it’s about what puts individuals in the best place to find the ‘correct’ answer in difficult situations.

On the athletic fields, that means staying calm and collected to make the pass while 300 pound linemen are about to tackle you to the ground; refocusing with clarity instead of rage after your last pitch just got knocked out of the park by the opposing team; accepting that the correct decision is to ignore your ego and turn back down the mountain, despite the peak being a stone's throw away.

Real resilience means offering guidance, but not holding their hand; putting them in situations where they are challenged just beyond their reach, instead of sink or swim; of letting individuals figure it out with support and care, not mindless discipline; of seeing failure not as an invitation for punishment, but as a necessary part of growth and development; of allowing for exploration and imperfection.

Resilience is about that nuance. It’s understanding the space between demanding and responsive. Toughness is playing in the grey area. It being able to feel, to express emotions, to cry. But also to be stoic and measured. It’s knowing when to attack something head on, and persist until we can’t, and when to throw in the towel and quit.  It’s being able to resist, accept, or navigate. It’s filling our basic needs–to have a sense of control, to make progress, to belong– so that we are able to persist or quit. It’s seeing reality– both in our self and situation– so that we know what we’re facing and can plan accordingly. It’s understanding the signals that our body is sending, to clearly interpret the message so that we have the information to make the right call. Listening to them when needed but throwing them to the wayside when they just get in the way. It’s using the power of meaning and purpose, not just as a motivator to drive us forward, but a beacon to remind us of what matters, of the bigger picture.

Toughness is not simply pushing through, overcoming, or surviving It is creating space so that we can choose how we respond to whatever we face, to do so in a flexible manner. And knowing that if we choose the wrong path, or even fail, that we welcome it with empathy and understanding, instead of scorn.

Freedom doesn’t come from bravado, or some external sense of strength. It comes from the inside. When we are secure in who we are and what we can do, we are truly equipped to take on a challenge, and possibly fail. And be entirely okay with that. It’s in exploring, not avoiding. It’s having the space to step back, see the world as clearly as possible, and choose. No matter the situation or circumstance. As Viktor Frankl said so many years ago when discussing the plight of those in concentration camps, “He retains a freedom, the human freedom to adapt to his fate, his environment, in one way or another- and indeed there was a one way or another.”

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Resilience Factors

When we think of being resilient and bouncing back from stress, we tend to picture stoic individuals. Those who are immovable to the pulls of emotion and the stress that often follows. Yet, according to research, resilient individuals often possess emotional flexibility. They don’t suppress or ignore the stress of what they’ve been through, they accept it. According to research, there are a few key characteristics that resilient individuals tend to possess:

Embrace Reality

Resilience is tied to having low levels of denial and the ability to face your fears. Being able to face whatever challenge is thrown your way, not through delusion, but with realistic optimism. A belief that it may be really difficult, but that we possess the skills and ability to get through what comes our way. The The School of Life echoes this definition, “The capacity to remain confident is therefore to a significant extent a matter of having internalized a correct narrative about what difficulties we are likely to encounter.”

Seeing Meaning in Adversity

Resilient individuals are able to extract meaning from struggle. This is tied to having what’s called cognitive flexibility, or the ability to reinterpret or reframe what you’re going through and what’s happened. For example, interpreting anxiety as excitement, or a loss as an opportunity for growth and development.

Appraisal of the situation as a challenge

Whenever we face stress, we can either see the situation as a threat or a challenge. A threat is something we need to protect ourselves from. Something that we aren’t equipped to handle. A challenge, on the other hand, is something that is difficult but within our capacity to deal with. What unfolds in our bodies follows the appraisal. During a threat, a slew of stress hormones like cortisol will be released, preparing us for potential damage. Under a challenge response, adrenaline and positive stress hormones will prepare us to take on whatever we’re facing.

Proactive, Instead of Reactive

Instead of waiting to see what happens and then reacting to it, resilient individuals are proactive. They work to increase their resources or capacities to handle stress before hand, and look for challenges or opportunities even while going through tough times. Researchers looking at proactive versus preventative coping in the work place summed it up quite succinctly: “Be proactive if you want good outcomes.”

Strong and Diverse Social Network

One of the best antidotes to stress is social support. When we feel connected to others, or have an outlet for working through whatever we’re going through, we are able to move from stressed out to back to normal. It’s why research shows that after a big loss, surrounding yourself with teammates who care and support can not only reduce stress hormones, but put us in a place where we’ll perform better in the next game.

The Ability to Let Go

When it comes to dealing with stress, it’s not the physiological responses—the increase in heart rate, adrenaline, etc.—that can cause our performance to drop. It’s the thoughts and feelings that come with it. It’s when we spiral into rumination, when our thoughts become overwhelmingly negative and repetitive. Learning how to let go, to stop the cascade of fear, doubts, or negativity. To experience the strong emotions that often accompany stress, but then to let them go.

Emotional Flexibility

Emotional flexibility is about holding everything at once — happiness, joy, and enthusiasm at the same time as anger, sadness, and frustration — and being able to feel differently at various points throughout the same day and perhaps even the same hour. Embracing the murkiness — and cultivating the emotional flexibility required to do so — yields large dividends. Resilience comes from deliberately practicing joy, even during awful times; happiness is intensified by experiencing and feeling deep sadness.

Perceived control

Viktor Frankl noted that when he was in Auschwitz, another prisoner told him that to increase his chances of survival, he should shave and stand and walk smartly. In other words, control what you can. Dr. John Leach believes that bringing some sort of normalcy to perilous situations “requires an appraisal that the person has, at least, some control over his situation, has not accepted mental defeat.” The most powerful weapon against adversity is having a sense of choice. In many environments, from the micro-managing office boss to the dictatorial football coach, we’ve eliminated choice from the lives of those we want to perform well. Often, we do so in the name of ‘toughening’ up individuals. When we don’t have control, we lose the capacity to cope. We were born to choose, so let us learn how to do it. If we believe we have some degree of control over the outcome, then we are more likely to choose to persist, to find a way through whatever adversity we face.

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