What Do Resilient People Look Like?

by Glenn Schiraldi, PhD, author of The Resilience Workbook

What is resilience?

Most people already have a sense of what resilience is. In the course of my work, I’ve asked people in many settings what they think of when they think of “resilience.” They’ve said:

  • The ability to bounce back with new skills

  • The strength to navigate tough situations, adapt, and function at a high level

  • The property of resisting stress and shock and maintaining form (This was from an engineer!)

  • The capacity to absorb stress and maintain yourself

  • The ability to take a licking and keep on ticking (from an old Timex watch commercial)

  • The ability to deal with the high, inside pitches and not fear taking a swing

  • Great, no matter the forecast. Holds up better and longer in wet weather (from a Resilience Paint commercial; Stoltz 2014)

There are hundreds of definitions of “resilience” found in the psychological literature. We’ll use this as our working definition: Resilience comprises those inner strengths of mind and character— both inborn and developed— that enable one to respond well to adversity, including the capacities to prevent stress- related conditions, such as depression or anxiety, or their recurrence; recover faster and more completely from stress and stress- related conditions; and optimize mental fitness and functioning in the various areas of life.

As this definition suggests, resilience is standard issue, meaning that we all already possess the strengths of mind and character in embryo— like seeds that can be grown. You wouldn’t have survived this long if you completely lacked resilience. And you have the capacity to greatly expand your resilience. Responding well to adversity suggests that we adapt calmly and capably to changing circumstances, drawing upon available strengths— be they mental, spiritual, emotional, physical, financial, or social (for example, mentors, family, or friends).

Resilience is a process and a staircase.

Resilience is a process and a staircase. You might be on step four of the staircase, and I might be on step one, but we can both keep moving up the staircase so that our resilience levels will hopefully exceed the rising tide of stress. You can enlarge your capacity for resilience by practicing resilience skills. As we build resilience, health and functioning typically improve.

What do resilient people look like?

I wanted to truly understand what makes real people resilient, so I traveled the country over a five- year period and interviewed members of the “Greatest Generation.” These were ordinary people who were called to endure extraordinary adversities— economic depression, hard work, war, and sometimes family upheaval. I interviewed 41 survivors of WWII combat who returned well adjusted, built enduring marriages, and lived fruitful lives. Being eighty years of age on average when I interviewed them, they had much wisdom to share. While most of us will not experience combat, there is much we can learn about maintaining sanity and high- level functioning in everyday life from ordinary people who have. From this and other studies of resilient adults and children (such as Werner 1992), it’s clear that some resilient people seem to capably sail through adversity, while others seem to falter for a time but rebound later in life. It appears that internal strengths and coping mechanisms better predict who will triumph over adversity than external circumstances. These strengths and coping mechanisms— the so-called protective factors— are what grow when you work on your resilience skills:

  • Sense of autonomy (having appropriate separation or independence from family dysfunction; being self-sufficient; being determined to be different—perhaps leaving an abusive home; being self- protecting; having goals to build a better life)

  • Calm under pressure (equanimity, the ability to regulate stress levels)

  • Rational thought process

  • Self-esteem

  • Optimism

  • Happiness and emotional intelligence

  • Meaning and purpose (believing your life matters)

  • Humor

  • Altruism (learned helpfulness), love, and compassion

  • Character (integrity, moral strength)

  • Curiosity (which is related to focus and interested engagement)

  • Balance (engagement in a wide range of activities, such as hobbies, educational pursuits, jobs, social and cultural pastimes)

  • Sociability and social competence (getting along, using bonding skills, being willing to seek out and commit to relationships, enjoying interdependence)

  • Adaptability (having persistence, confidence, and flexibility; accepting what can’t be controlled; using creative problem-solving skills and active coping strategies)

  • Intrinsic religious faith

  • A long view of suffering

  • Good health habits (getting sufficient sleep, nutrition, and exercise; not using alcohol or other substances immoderately; not using tobacco at all; maintaining good personal appearance and hygiene)

Notice that resilience is a flexible, relative concept. It does not occur in an all-or-none fashion but exists on a continuum, from complete helplessness and vulnerability to surviving, to resilience (optimal coping), to perfection and invulnerability.

While everyone is resilient to some degree, no one is perfectly resilient, or resilient in all circumstances. Resilience does not mean invulnerability, because anyone can be overwhelmed when circumstances are severe enough. Rather, resilience is about generally working, playing, loving, and expecting well and functioning at our best possible level in any given situation. As the legendary coach John Wooden taught his highly successful basketball players, success is doing your personal best; sometimes the other team will simply be better on a given day. Resilience can even vary within an individual depending on many internal and external factors, such as how rested and nourished one is, one’s training and experience, or the nature of the situation.

As you train, your aim is to grow your resilience to a level that is greater than the challenges you’ll face. Nearly anyone can learn how to be resilient at any age. Ideally, we can develop resilience before crises strike. Sometimes adversity causes us to summon and apply strengths we didn’t know we possessed. And sometimes, looking back, we learn from difficult experiences and “get it together” later in life, recognizing weaknesses and turning them into strengths.

See also: What Is Psychological Flexibility?

Glenn R. Schiraldi, PhD, has served on the stress management faculties at the Pentagon, the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation, and the University of Maryland, where he received the Outstanding Teaching Award and other teaching and service awards. His books on stress-related topics have been translated into sixteen languages, and include: The Resilience Workbook; The Self-Esteem Workbook; Ten Simple Solutions for Building Self-Esteem; The Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Sourcebook; and The Anger Management Sourcebook.

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