It’s been nearly a year and a half now that I’ve embarked on my deep dive into resilience; to discover how people stay strong through the toughest times of life.
I wanted to write about resilience not because I was good at it, but because I wanted to become more resilient. It started as a selfish mission, but along the way, I understood that I wasn’t the only one who needed inner strength, as I watched friends and family members face their own dark moments.
Can Anyone Become More Resilient?
In the last 16 months, I’ve read 29 books and countless articles to understand resilience, and the biggest thing I learned is that resilience isn’t one thing. Instead, resilience is a by-product of many practices. You gain resilience by doing certain things, over and over, that build your inner strength.
It’s not that you either have resilience or not, it’s that you either practice resilience or don’t. Because of that, anybody can become more resilient in life.
And these are the seven common practices, or habits of resilience that I’ve found repeated in these books again and again.
1. Resilient People Accept the Present Moment
Accepting the present moment as it is, problems and all, means you let go of the idea that life needs to be perfect. It lets you see the present clearly, dropping your stories of “what ifs” and “if onlys.”
Accepting the present moment doesn’t mean that you resign yourself to your troubles. It means you accept that whatever has happened has happened, and that what you’re experiencing now cannot be changed.
What you will experience in the future, however, can be changed. The paradox is that by accepting the present, you gain a more accurate view of reality, giving you a better chance of understanding and solving your problems.
I have realized that the past and future are real illusions, that they exist in the present, which is what there is and all there is. Alan Watts
2. Resilient People Act to Make Things Happen
Resilient people accept that they are things they can’t control, like the weather, the economy and other people. But they also know that there are things they can control, like what they do about what happens. Resilient people practice making things happen.
Emmy Werner, a developmental psychologist, studied six hundred and ninety-eight children over 30 years. One-third of the children came from “at risk” backgrounds, but one-third of this group still managed to achieve personal success as adults.
Werner found that an “internal locus of control” played a large part in their resilience; the successful adults believed that their actions, not their circumstances, dictated their lives. In contrast, people who aren’t resilient tend to have an “external locus of control,” blaming circumstances for their results.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference. Reinhold Niebuhr
3. Resilient People Practice Realistic Optimism
Resilient people practice optimism, but they practice a certain kind of optimism, what psychologists call flexible or realistic optimism. Instead of pretending that problems aren’t there, which will cause its own problems, realistic optimists face their worries.
They can even switch to practicing pessimism, and see how things could become worse than they are. This way, realistic optimists are able to anticipate problems and imagine solutions.
The key difference between a realistic optimist and a realistic pessimist is that the optimist expects a better future, and believes she has the power to make it so. In contrast, the pessimist sees a dim future, and doubts she has the resilience to achieve her goals.
It’s just a case of learning to look at hardship as if today the rain is coming on strong, but tomorrow, baby, the sun is going to come out again. Bruce Lee
4. Resilient People See Problems as Temporary
Resilient people practice talking about their problems in a specific way. Whereas others see their problems as permanent and universal, resilient people feel that problems are temporary and limited in scope.
A person is rejected for a date. He might see it as a sign that he’ll never find anyone (permanent) and that makes him a failure (universal). A more resilient way of seeing the rejection might be to realise that people sometimes get rejected (temporary) and that he can still go on with enjoying the rest of his life despite this one setback (limited).
When something bad happens: Remember that these difficulties won’t last forever. Take one day at a time. Where now there may only be pain, over time good things will return. Keep the adverse event or situation within its limits; don’t let it pervade other areas of your life. Southwick, Charney, Resilience
5. Resilient People Reach Out
The myth of the lone wolf is just that, a myth. The US Navy SEALs rank among the most elite special operations forces in the world, and they commonly refer to themselves as “the teams.” No matter how strong each of them are, they know they’re always stronger together. Resilient people practice reaching out and building a team of family and friends to help them get through tough times.
I was surprised to discover that what prevents this from happening is shame. Shame makes you believe that you’re not worthy of love, and prevents you from reaching out and being vulnerable, for fear of being rejected. Without vulnerability, there can be no connection, and without connection, you can’t build a team.
Paradoxically, the way to overcome shame is to reach out. Sharing your deepest truths with people you trust destroys shame. Resilient people practice vulnerability, which sounds like weakness but actually takes the greater courage. In doing so, they overcome shame and build strong connections.
Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness. Brené Brown, Daring Greatly
6. Resilient People Practice Kindness
Resilient people practice kindness, with themselves and with others. The Fourteenth Dalai Lama has had to suffer the loss of his country’s sovereignty, exile, and the destruction of his culture. His Holiness credits the practice of compassion as the source of his resilience.
Being as kind to yourself as you would to your loved ones helps you get through the tough times, and not only because you give yourself a break and take care of yourself better. It also means that you recognise the common ground you share with the rest of humanity: No matter how hard we try, everyone stumbles, suffers and fails in life. There are no perfect lives.
When you practice facing that with kindness, it opens an opportunity for you to learn from, and move on from difficult experiences.
From my own limited experience, I have found that the greatest degree of inner tranquility comes from the development of love and compassion. The more we care for the happiness of others, the greater our own sense of well-being becomes. Cultivating a close, warmhearted feeling for others automatically puts the mind at ease. This helps remove whatever fears or insecurities we may have and gives us the strength to cope with any obstacles we encounter. It is the ultimate source of success in life. HH The Dalai Lama, In My Own Words
7. Resilient People Find Purpose and Meaning
Viktor Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist who endured unspeakable horrors in the concentration camps of World War II. Over time, Frankl found that it wasn’t always the physically strong who survived the camps’ brutality. Instead, he discovered that those who found a reason for living, in spite of their suffering, had better chances of surviving, while it was only a matter of time for those who had given up hope.
Frankl fought to find purpose and meaning in the camps, and he helped others to do the same. He spoke to his fellow prisoners about finding faith for the future, about loved ones or special tasks that were waiting for them, about how a person could find meaning even in suffering. And if it came to it, even finding meaning in dying.
Resilient people practice finding purpose and meaning amidst the tough times. Deciding on a positive meaning for suffering helps you to learn from it, and looking towards a larger purpose helps to pull you towards the future.
Nothing in life has any meaning except the meaning we give it. Tony Robbins
The Practice That Makes a Big Difference for Me
There isn’t any one practice that has made the most difference in my life, because like I pointed out at the beginning of this post, resilience isn’t any one thing, but is a by-product of many practices.
At the same time, I want to share that meditation has helped me tremendously in reducing anxiety and increasing peace of mind. I don’t mediate as much as I want to, but even taking a few minutes a day has helped. Here’s a post on how and why to meditate.
The Most Surprising Thing I Learned about Resilience
Before my deep dive into resilience, I’d imagined resilience as a rhino, heavily armored, head down and horn forward, charging through the jungle and destroying obstructions in its path.
But when Al Siebert, founder and director of The Resiliency Center, asked resilient people if there was any one quality that contributed most to becoming a survivor, they usually answered, “Flexibility.” It turns out that resilience is more like a monkey, lightly clothed, agile and springy, that adapts to obstacles and finds a way through the winding trees.
There are more resilience habits than the seven I listed here, like taking things one small step at a time, practicing gratitude, sleep and regular exercise. But the point is that you don’t need to practice everything to increase your resilience (in fact, perfectionism is commonly listed as an anti-resilience habit). Instead, flexibly practicing what you can, as well as you can, as consistently as you can, is enough to increase your personal resilience.
I’ve come to see that resilience isn’t something we only need in tough times, but an essential life skill to get us through the setbacks of daily life. I’ve also learned that resilience isn’t restricted to a privileged few, but is a trait that anyone can practice and develop. Whatever your own reasons for growing your own inner strength, I wish you the best of it.
Top Books about Resilience
Among the 29 books I read about resilience, I found Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges by Drs. Steven M. Southwick and Dennis S. Charney to be the most practical (my review). However, the writing can get dry at times. If you can push through it, you’ll find a treasure trove of proven research on how to become a stronger person.
The book I enjoyed most was Resilience: Hard-won Wisdom for Living a Better Life, by Navy SEAL officer Eric Greitens (my review). It’s a unique book that’s part correspondence, part memoir, and part introduction to Stocism, written by a modern-day philosopher warrior.
At the end of tough days, I like to open Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, by Cheryl Strayed. It’s not a ‘how-to’ book, but a book of letters — it sometimes helps just to know you’re not alone in difficult moments. Strayed writes with uncommon honesty and deep empathy, and the book is overfilled with tiny things of wisdom and beauty.
Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, by Brené Brown, surprised me by how good it was. Brown doesn’t write about resilience per se in Daring Greatly, but I’ve come to think that nobody can become more resilient without understanding shame and vulnerability.
Finally, there are two online articles that I’ve read and re-read this past year to better understand resilience. The first is ‘Why Self-Compassion Works Better Than Self-Esteem’ by Olga Khazan on The Atlantic, the second is ‘How People Learn to Become Resilient’ by Maria Konnikova on The New Yorker.