The Roots of Resilience

The elements of resilience can help you turn adversity into an opportunity for growth
December 16, 2021 Updated: December 16, 2021

Many years ago, I took a class from a woman who was doing her doctoral thesis on the topic of psychological hardiness. She was a nun, but not the black-and-white kind of nun I remember from growing up. This particular nun wore flannel shirts and swore from time to time, but that’s not what I remember most. What stuck with me over the decades was her study of psychological hardiness and what exactly that means.

In Chinese medicine, the ancients had a saying that if the “shen” was bright, the patient would survive; but if the shen was dull, the prognosis wasn’t so good. Shen, in Chinese, is the idea that the spirit, consciousness, memories, and being-ness of a person reside in their heart but is reflected in their eyes. As a practitioner of this medicine, I agree that looking into a person’s eyes is a good indicator of their spirit or psychological hardiness, and can be a gauge of their prognosis.

In the years since hearing about Sister Flannel’s thesis, I’ve thought about the topic of psychological hardiness, and why some patients seem to shrug off seemingly huge amounts of pain or disability while others are completely leveled by comparatively inconsequential health complaints. And while I don’t have all the answers, one word keeps cropping up to explain these phenomena—resilience.

Resilience is the ability to bounce back quickly in the face of a tough situation. It makes me think of the element of wood in Chinese medicine—from the green shoots that singlemindedly sprout out of the earth each spring to the flexible strength of mature wood that can bend but not break.

Resilience isn’t one thing or another but is the sum of several pieces that make up the whole. The components of resilience are also the tools that help you get through difficult times, including:

Perseverance. The Japanese have a proverb: Fall down seven times, get up eight. Not quitting when things get tough is a key component of resiliency, whether it’s something as simple as continuing to play the guitar even though your fingertips hurt or as overwhelming as continuing to function through great pain or illness.

Optimism. Knowing that things will turn out OK even when the deck is stacked against you.

Gratitude. Personally, during some very dark days, I found that being grateful for what was not going wrong, appreciating the people around me, and acknowledging the small miracles in my life is what got and continues to get me through.

The confidence that you can handle hard times, even when you’re in the middle of them. Self-assurance in your abilities to cope means that ultimately, you will cope.

A strong support posse is a huge piece of resilience. Knowing you have people in your life who have your back when things are rough can give you the mojo to keep going.

Flexibility. Being able to see things in shades of gray, rather than black and white, or to stand back and look at the situation from a different viewpoint, takes flexibility. Additionally, like the wood element in Chinese medicine, being able to bend without breaking is the essence of resilience.

Humor. When your life is crumbling around you, being able to throw a little humor on the whole mess keeps things in perspective and relieves tension. Clearly, there are times when humor isn’t appropriate, but they’re rare.

Kindness and empathy. Your kind words have the ability to change someone’s entire day for the better. Admittedly, it can be really hard to be happy for someone who just landed their dream job right when you’ve recently been laid off. However, the reality is that their happiness doesn’t make your situation any worse unless you want to go down the comparison rabbit hole. It’s entirely possible that saying something kind or being genuinely happy about someone else’s good fortune might just make you feel a little bit better.

We all know people who inspire awe because of their ability to live fully despite great hardship. Simply put, it’s the difference between coping and getting stuck. Whether you call it resilience or psychological hardiness, the ability to deal, bounce back, and maybe even learn some lessons from life’s hard times is how you get through them and maybe even come out stronger.