6 Ways to Build Your Resilience

Like grit, executive functioning, and mindfulness, resilience is a buzzword these days. But what does it really mean to be resilient? How do we rebound from setbacks? This week, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen offers six ways to rally, rebound, and plain old bounce back.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #140
flower blooming in pavement

Kelly Clarkson reminds us that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, Elton John is still standing, and of course, Gloria Gaynor will survive. What’s the common thread? A little thing glinting in the eye of the tiger called resilience.

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Resilience: it’s adapting and responding positively to stress and adversity. The adversity you face may be long-term, like having an alcoholic parent or growing up in poverty. Or it may be a single lightning strike of tragedy—a car accident that claims a limb, an assault that claims your dignity. Even first-world problems require a shot of micro-resilience, like when the person ahead of you snags the last blueberry scone (I’m talking to you, red beanie). No matter the scale of your tragedy, resilience is all in how you respond.

Resilience has gotten some pushback recently. By encouraging “resilience,” detractors say, we imply that setbacks are exclusively individual, when in fact they often come from systemic barriers, like racism, sexism, economic inequality, or other injustices.

The answer? As with many things, it’s complicated. The solution to systemic injustice shouldn’t be to expect each individual to pull themselves out despite tractor-beam-like forces pulling them back. At the same time, resilience isn’t an empty idea: individuals can and do respond differently to the problems life dishes up.

Importantly, resilience is a skill, not a you-have-it-or-you-don’t trait, which means whether you sink or swim is a skill that can be taught. So what can you do? Here are 6 ways to make like a rubber band and bounce back.

Tip #1: Give yourself permission to feel lousy. You heard that right. We’ve all heard the cheerful encouragement of: “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade!” or “Hey, when one door closes, another one opens!” But rah-rah motivational slogans often feel useless, like a new lid for already-spilled coffee.

True resilience doesn’t mean you never get discouraged. In fact, pain is almost universal among the resilient—after all, if you never encounter painful struggle, you never get to discover your resilience.

Therefore, resilience isn’t about hiding your pain and pretending everything is peachy, nor is it unfeeling stoicism—you’re human, not a machine, and getting knocked down hurts. In short, what matters isn’t how you feel; it’s that you get up again. That’s resilience.

Tip #2: Trust that you control your fate, not the other way around. In 1955, the psychologist Dr. Emmy Werner and her colleagues began to follow every child—almost 700 of them—born that year on the Hawai’ian island of Kaua’i. It marked the beginning of a study that would last more than 40 years.

Kauai in the 1950’s was not a privileged place. Many of the kids were raised in poverty, had unstable, chaotic families, and had mothers who never went to high school. But despite all this, by the time they reached age 40, one-third of the group was, as the study said, “competent, confident, and caring.” They defied the odds—none of that one-third was unemployed, had been in trouble with the law, or relied on social services. Their accomplishments equaled or surpassed many of the kids who grew up in more stable environments. The researchers itched to know: how did they beat the odds? What was the secret ingredient in such resilience?

Again, it’s complicated. Some of it was luck, some of it was having at least one emotionally stable and loving family member to look out for them, and some of it was finding an emotional home in a civic organization, at school, or at church.

But the most important thing the resilient kids had was something called an internal locus of control, meaning that these kids believed that they, not their circumstances, were in the driver’s seat. They believed they could control their life, as opposed to being controlled by whatever life dished out. For example, the researchers noted that resilient kids with a dysfunctional family were good at “recruiting” surrogate parents, whether a youth minister, a trusted teacher, or even a friend’s parent.

How can you apply this to you? In short, act. Do. Take decisive action. It’s tempting to put the future in the hands of fate, but take control as best you can.


Medical Disclaimer
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. 

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