Highly resilient people share 3 common traits; luckily, we can all learn how to cultivate them.
It would make sense to begin an article about resilience with a story of profound heroism in the face of grave injustice—Viktor Frankl surviving the concentration camps or Rosa Parks sitting wherever she damn well pleased.
But in this article, I want to talk about resilience on a smaller scale. I want to talk about being resilient in ordinary life.
Even if we’re fortunate enough not to need heroic levels of resilience in our lives, it’s important to know that we can all learn to become a little more resilient in the face of everyday difficulties.
For example, being more resilient in ordinary life could mean that we:
- Take criticism well rather than getting defensive and losing our temper.
- Process grief and loss in a healthy way, rather than trying to avoid it or allowing ourselves to be consumed by it.
- Choose to bite our tongue in a fight with our spouse rather than resorting to sarcasm or worse.
In the rest of this article, I’m going to describe three traits that are common among people who are highly resilient. Then I’ll offer some practical thoughts on how we can learn to cultivate each of those traits to become a little more resilient to the challenges and stresses of ordinary life.
Trait #1: Acceptance of Reality
Resilience does not mean naive optimism. In fact, a core characteristic of highly resilient people is that they are clear-eyed about the nature of the challenges they face. This acceptance of the way things really are allows them to be more effective at designing strategies to navigate their particular struggles or challenges productively.
For example, suppose you’ve just given a presentation to your boss at work. You believe strongly that your idea is a good one, and you feel like the presentation itself went fairly well. But to your shock, the first words out of your boss’ mouth are to criticize a key component of your idea.
You feel the hurt and anger quickly rising up. Thoughts run across your mind like: Why does she have to be so negative all the time? She doesn’t really know what she’s talking about—I’m the engineer, after all.
At this point you’ve come to a fork in the road:
- You can continue down this path of defensiveness that your mind as started you on. And while you feel justified in this, you suspect that the end result may not be so good—your boss could scrap the idea entirely, for example. Or you could end up saying something out of anger that risks your position and relationship.
- You can acknowledge feeling hurt but try to better understand what your boss’ criticism is getting at and whether, in the long run, it could lead to an even better idea. While difficult to not act on those defensive urges initially, this seems like the smarter play in the long-run.
Notice that while it’s natural to feel angry and upset in response to criticism—and to interpret that criticism as unfair—this default response is not always in line with reality. Did your boss literally do something wrong by pointing out what she saw as a weakness in your idea? Is she literally always negative? Does she really not know what she’s talking about? Probably not.
A more realistic assessment of things might be: She was a little blunt with her criticism—which hurt—but that’s not a bad point. Or True, she doesn’t have as much technical expertise in this area as I do, but, an outsider’s perspective could be really helpful.
When we get in the habit of checking our initial interpretations of things, and then aligning our thoughts more closely with reality, we not only feel better in the moment but we’re more likely to discover productive ways forward.
Psychologists refer to this acceptance of reality when confronted with new information as accommodation, which means to be flexible with our own beliefs in order to accommodate new facts and information. It’s in stark contrast to the more primitive strategy of assimilation where we attempt to distort the facts so they fit without our pre-existing belief structures.
How to Practice
Use Cognitive Restructuring to get in the habit of questioning your default interpretations of things and replacing them with more flexible, realistic thoughts.
Here’s how it works:
- Pause. Any time you find yourself surprisingly upset, pause and say, “Okay, what’s really going on here?”
- Identify the trigger. Ask yourself: What happened initially to set me off in becoming upset? Was it something someone else said or did? Was it a thought or memory that randomly crossed my mind?
- Notice your automatic thoughts. What thoughts and interpretations of the trigger crossed your mind immediately? How did you talk to yourself about what happened?
- Identify and rate your emotion. Notice how you’re feeling emotionally? What the strongest emotion present? On a scale from 1-10, how strong is it right now?
- Generate alternative thoughts. How else might you interpret what happened? How would a third-party see it? Are you falling into any cognitive distortions or exaggerations? List at least a couple alternative thoughts for each automatic thought you identified.
- Re-rate your emotion. Having generated some new, likely more realistic alternative thoughts, check back in with how you feel. Re-rate that same emotion from Step 4.
Cognitive Restructuring is best done on paper, at least at first. If you do it enough, you’ll begin to change your default way of interpreting difficult situations to be more flexible and realistic. This is a huge step in becoming more resilient.
Trait #2: Sense of Purpose
Purpose doesn’t have to be something grandiose or spiritual. Having a sense of purpose can simply mean that you have positive things in your life that you are excited about, curious about, look forward to, and that you consider valuable. The more of these intrinsic values we have, the stronger our sense of purpose and therefore the more motivation we have to push through difficulties.
Here’s an example of how a modest sense of purpose can help us stay resilient in the face of adversity:
I had a client once who lost her mother to cancer suddenly at a relatively young age. My client was devastated. For the first few weeks after her mother’s death she hardly left the house, barely ate, and was almost totally disconnected from her family and friends. She felt bad about this, but as she explained to me, she was “just too overwhelmed with the grief.”
After a couple of unsuccessful attempts on my part as her therapist to help, we stumbled onto something that was just what she needed by taking a look at this idea of purpose.
One of the things that she was most distraught about was that her own young daughter was never going to have any experiences with her grandmother. I recognized that right there was a value, something personally important to my client. And while we couldn’t literally give her daughter experiences with her now-deceased grandmother, maybe we could approximate it.
My client and I began to explore what aspects of her mother she most valued and wished her daughter could experience. She recalled favorite memories with her mom, favorite qualities in her, and even some of her favorite meals that her mom used to cook for her. My client brightened visibly as she talked through these parts of her mom that she valued.
Then I suggested that even though her daughter would not be able to experience her grandmother like my client had, she could still come to know her grandmother in powerful ways through stories that my client could tell about her. And at that moment, things really clicked for my client.
By clarifying a value she held dear (her daughter getting to experience her grandmother) we were able to generate a sense of purpose (telling her daughter stories about her grandmother) that allowed my client to process her grief in a healthier way and move forward with her life.
How to Practice
Use Values Clarification as a way to create a constructive sense of purpose to help pull you through difficult times and circumstances.
Values Clarification is a complex-sounding idea for a very simple activity. All it means is to spend some time intentionally reflecting on your values, the things that matter most to you in your life.
While values are often big—perhaps because they’re spiritual or political in nature, for example—values can also be small. Spending quality time with a good friend, learning new skills, or being compassionate with your spouse during disagreements.
I usually recommend setting a recurring calendar appointment for 20 or 30 minutes once a month at a convenient time (Friday afternoons work well for me). Then just sit down with a blank piece of paper or notebook and start writing down whatever comes to mind when you think about your values and what really matters to you.
When we consciously take the time to discover and clarify our values—all the things, big or small, that really matter to us—we create a powerful reason for persevering through difficult circumstances.
Trait #3: Adaptability
People who are resilient to the stressors in their life have an uncanny ability to be flexible when circumstances change. Rather than becoming paralyzed or resorting to wishing and complaining that things were different, they set about to change the one thing they actually have control over—themselves.
In other words, resilient people have a knack for being creative and inventive in the face of stress which allows them to adapt and “roll with” their difficulties rather than crumble or try to escape.
One of the best examples of everyday resilience and adaptability came from a client of mine and how she learned to communicate better with her husband.
By nature, this client of mine had a very direct, matter-of-fact style of communicating. As soon as she recognized something was wrong, she wanted to bring it up and “process” it immediately. That’s what worked for her.
And for a long time, that’s how she approached difficulties in her marriage—she would try to get her husband to talk about things immediately, even though he was resistant to this and found it difficult. She would then get resentful that he wasn’t—from her perspective—trying as hard in their marriage as she was.
What my client discovered, though, was that her husband simply preferred to think things through slowly and on his own before talking about them together. That’s how he liked to “process” things. But from his perspective, he never got a chance to do that because she was always “forcing” him to process things right away and on the spot.
When my client (after some productive couples counseling) realized what was going on, she made a conscious effort to be patient with her desire to “talk it out” immediately, and instead, give her husband some space and time. As a result of this adaptability, they were able to find a better compromise for how they handle relationship issues.
How to Practice
Because creativity is perhaps the key element of adaptability, learning to become more creative—and yes, creativity is absolutely something anyone can learn!—is essential. And there’s perhaps no better way to exercise your creativity muscle than to practice Divergent Thinking.
Divergent Thinking is the mental process of taking one question or problem and generating multiple answers or solutions. It’s the opposite of Convergent Thinking, the more common mode of thought that involves choosing the best answer from many possible solutions (think multiple-choice tests).
A great way to practice Divergent Thinking and build up your creativity is something called the 10 New Ideas Exercise, originally suggested by James Altucher.
Here’s the basic idea:
Pick a length of time (a week is good to start) and every day try to generate 10 new ideas within a specific category or topic.
For example, Monday might be 10 ideas for a new book. Tuesday might be to come up with 10 ideas for a new business. Wednesday might be 10 ideas for a date night with your spouse.
Here are a few more tips and guidelines for the exercise:
- Choose a specific time and place to do this exercise and schedule it. I like to do it right after I’ve worked out as I’m cooling down. Not sure why, but that works for me.
- Physically write down your ideas. Pen and paper seem to be best, but typing them into a notes file on your phone or computer is fine. Just don’t try and do it in your head.
- Know that actually coming up with good ideas is not the point; it’s the act of generating new ideas that we’re working on.
- An extension of the above point is that you don’t want to censor or edit your ideas. Just get them out.
For more examples of Divergent Thinking exercise that will improve your creativity and adaptability, check out this guide to Divergent Thinking and Creativity.
Summary and Key Points
Highly resilient people share 3 common traits: Acceptance of Reality, a Sense of Purpose, and Adaptability. While resilience is crucial for people undergoing extreme suffering and trauma, it’s also a trait we can all benefit from in small but important ways in everyday life.
3 practical strategies for becoming more resilient in everyday life include:
- Use Cognitive Restructuring as a way to make your self-talk and default reactions to stressors more realistic and constructive.
- Use Values Clarification as a way to identify meaningful values that motivate us to persevere through difficult circumstances.
- Use Divergent Thinking to foster creativity and flexibility so that we can be more adaptive in the way we react to new challenges and difficulties.