What Does It Mean to Be Resilient and Can Anyone Do It?

Rear view of person with long hair and backpack walking up hill into field of trees and grass under cloudy skyI’ve been amazed by the strength and resolve shown by students after the Parkland school shooting and by the brave women who have spoken out about their sexual harassment and abuse experiences. These are some noteworthy examples of resilience arising from difficult circumstances.

In my last article, I wrote about emotional darkness and finding a “flashlight” to begin healing after a trauma or loss. I now want to explore how one can move from the depths of pain to a place of genuine resilience.

Much has been written about resilience and yet there is a great deal of misconception surrounding it. Perhaps the biggest myth about resilience is that some people have it and some don’t. The truth is it is a practice that takes work, but it’s attainable by anyone. Depending on the severity of the trauma(s), the hill to be climbed can seem insurmountable. But with time, processing, and coping skills and techniques, it can become manageable, if not overcome.

According to the American Psychological Association, utilizing friends and family as a source of comfort and emotional security is vital to resilience. While it is true some people have stronger networks and more relationships than others, there are ways to improve relational skills and options.

Being open to the support of others, coupled with the ability to discern support that is truly helpful, is important in gaining resilience. Many who are well meaning may not possess the best supportive abilities or, worse, may be more toxic than helpful. Generally, listening is more helpful than giving advice (“You should go out dancing”) or judgment (“You should be over this by now”). It’s good to have an idea of what is needed most from others and to seek it from several sources.

Expressing feelings authentically is also important. There may be social pressure from friends, family, and coworkers to have a “stiff upper lip” or to downplay feelings as time goes on. Real resilience is about having the courage to feel. To have high-intensity emotions can be overwhelming, but in the long run, burying them can be more dangerous. By internalizing emotions, one risks compromising the immune system and becoming more susceptible to illness. It may be harder to sleep or eat, and it may lead to self-medication with alcohol or other substances. Internalizing feelings usually only prolongs the recovery process.

Trauma and loss can create a sense of despair, which can in turn lead to questioning our worth or value. In these times, finding and maintaining a sense of meaning and purpose is crucial.

To manage or regulate feelings is to adequately express them and acknowledge and feel them without shame. This gives one some parameters within which to operate. For example, it may become necessary to manage emotions at work or around children. In those circumstances, emotional responses may need to be postponed or modified in the moment without denying them. There needs to be time and space to fully grieve and process when and where it is safe to do so.

Giving words to feelings may help, either spoken or written. For some, creative expression such as drawing, singing, or writing poetry may be useful. For others, physical activity such as walking or working out helps. Various forms of meditation, prayer, and/or mindfulness have also been shown to be grounding and beneficial. Each person is encouraged to find the strategies that best fit their own needs.

Finally, maintaining a sense of value and identity as a human being is key to being resilient to any adversity. Trauma and loss can create a sense of despair, which can in turn lead to questioning our worth or value. In these times, finding and maintaining a sense of meaning and purpose is crucial. This is often temporarily lost in the face of trauma but can be restored in time, particularly if it has been previously nourished. A spiritual foundation, a deep connection with others, and/or serious introspection are some ways in which positive self-valuing can occur.

Regardless, it’s important to appreciate the full level of pain being experienced and to hold on to self-respect. Honor the process and trust that healing will come. Resilience is not reserved for a select few. It often takes hard emotional work and patience, but it is achievable by anyone who chooses to stay on the path toward a richer life. A therapist can help you stay on course.


The road to resilience. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/road-resilience.aspx

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  • Leave a Comment
  • Chelsea

    May 18th, 2018 at 7:27 AM

    I wish that I felt that I could be resilient but honestly resiliency feels to me like it might as well be an invisible force field. Some things are just too much to overcome, brush aside, etcetera. When will we start being real about this??

  • Susanne Slay-Westbrook

    May 18th, 2018 at 9:20 AM

    Chelsea, by no means is resiliency an easy thing. It takes ongoing work and may only be evident in small steps. I hear how difficult is for you and wish you the very best in your journey toward peace.

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