A popular understanding of resilience is that it is the ability to tolerate and survive despite challenges and setbacks. While this perspective is correct, it is incomplete. Resilience is more than hanging on and surviving. Resilience includes learning, adjusting, and responding. While it might be enough to “hold on” and “weather the storm” in the short-term, this approach offers little in the face of sustained pressure and long-term changes. In fact, this approach risks weakening our relationships, shifting our outlook on life, and compromising our future success.
There is another dimension to resilience that is more empowering, effective, and even growth evoking. This approach adopts a learning, adjusting, and engaging view of what it means to be resilient. Rather than “hunkering down” in response to pressure and stress, we can view the situation through a lens of what we can learn from the experience, how we can adjust our perspective and strategies, and where we can engage more effectively going forward.
We see repeated examples of the second dimension of resilience in nature. As living conditions and environmental factors change, animals and even insects adjust. When some sources of food disappear, the search begins for other sources and shifts in diet. When predators threaten, potential victims develop new strategies to counter the danger. While the pressures and stresses we experience may be less existential, they are serious, and our health and well-being depend on us responding in ways that are effective and sustainable.
In this context, we might define resilience as our ability to adapt effectively to the difficulties life presents to us. We are not freed from pain, grief, and anger, but we identify and adopt ways to respond and stay healthy. Of course, each of us needs to discover and adopt what works best for us. Nevertheless, here are five strategies to consider:
- Look for what can be learned. We can start by searching our memory for what has worked in the past. We can examine the situation and seek out elements and aspects over which we have control. We can look for new skills and strategies that others have employed effectively. The key is to view the situation as one that invites learning rather than tolerance.
- Focus on progress and accomplishment Setting goals, marking progress, and celebrating even small wins can provide energy, meaning, and purpose in our lives. Experiencing progress and success can also increase our confidence, provide a sense of control, and renew our commitment.
- Embrace hope. We can take the long view on our current situation. Almost every circumstance will improve over time. Seeing a point in the future where we will get beyond our current troubles, experience greater stability, and achieve success can keep us going even when current circumstances are difficult to manage.
- Act. We may not always know what to do. But doing something is almost always better than doing nothing. In fact, when we try something, we often learn more about what else we can do that would make a bigger difference and be even more successful.
- Choose how to respond. When we are emotional, feel pressured and stressed, or uncertain, we can react to what happens around us with little thought or intention. When we do, we give up our ability to choose. We cannot always control what happens to us, but we always have a choice in how we will respond. In that choice can reside considerable influence over what happens next. When we choose how to respond we inject a degree of control that can be sacrificed in “knee jerk” reactions. In fact, thoughtless reactions can often make the situation worse.
We often have more influence over and control in situations than we realize. However, we need to engage, learn, and adjust to discover what might be possible. Choosing to practice resilience as “toughing it out” can work in response to short-term conditions and challenges. But when life presents significant shifts, changing circumstances, and new expectations, a better choice is to take control for ourselves, engage our learning, and unleash our creativity.