On Cultivating Resilience

Resilience is the process of adapting and rising above adversity, trauma, tragedy, significant sources of stress such as childhood abuse or neglect, relationship problems, serious health or financial stressors.  It means “bouncing back” from difficult experiences by honoring the past hurts we have sustained at the same time as embracing our potential.  It is a balancing act of pain and courage.

Human beings have considerable capacity for strength and resilience.  Being resilient does not mean we escape unscathed.  Emotional pain and sadness are common in people who have suffered major adversity or trauma in their lives. In fact, building resilience is likely to involve considerable emotional distress.

Research shows that resilience is both an inherited trait and one that can be cultivated.  It involves behaviors, thoughts and actions that can be learned and developed in anyone.

  • Reframing and perception are at the heart of resilience. Positive construal of an event can be learned by reframing the way we think about it, which in turn shapes the way we experience and react to that event.  Positive reframing does not mean we think of the event itself as being positive, but rather we shift the spotlight onto strengths and resources we can use.  Martin Seligman, the University of Pennsylvania psychologist who pioneered the positive psychology field, proposes that training ourselves to change our explanatory style from internal to external (“Bad events are not my fault”), from global to specific (“This is one single event, rather than an indication that something is wrong in my life”), and from permanent to impermanent (“I can change the situation, rather than assuming it will feel like this forever”) has helped to improve emotional states after a traumatic event.
  • Another characteristic that can be cultivated is insight. We do this by asking poignant questions about ourselves and our experiences and responding to them with honesty and compassion toward ourselves.
  • Taking charge of problems as they arise and stretching ourselves to find solutions and build healthy boundaries, we cultivate a sense of self-competence and confidence. The belief that we can impact and change our outcomes and goals, rather than our environment shifts the control and power to an internal “locus” or place which informs our approach.
  • Critical to creating resilience is having or finding support systems to help us grow in a healthy direction. Whether our family of origin, or a friend, teacher, or spouse, these supportive relationships will foster our resilience.

Thinking along these three lines will help us remember our capacity for strength and cultivate our resilience:

  • I have: strong relationships, role models and healthy rules in my life;
  • I am: a person of strength, compassion, and hope who can develop my inner strengths;
  • I can: solve problems, express myself clearly, and seek healthy relationships
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