Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: Do You Recognize Your Own Resilience? Some Guidelines

I was recently in a shop with a friend when a young man in his late twenties came in to get his hair cut. Friendly and likeable he was amusing the hairdresser with some stories of his birthday. It was not until he struggled to get the money out of his wallet, that I realized his hand was quite deformed. I was so struck by this positive young man that I said to my friend, “ I love his resilience.” I was very surprised when my friend replied, “ I envy it.”

Given that she had managed a considerable amount of anxiety over the course of the year while working and dealing with family loss, I was struck that she seemed unaware of her own resilience.

What about your resilience?

Resilience can be understood in a number of ways. The most common definition of resilience is the capacity to adapt in the face of adversity – essentially the ability to bounce back from traumatic and difficult life events.

As such, resilience is neither a single trait nor a static quality. Resilience looks different in different people because it is a function of many different factors including inborn traits like physical strength, intelligence, artistic ability; family of origin, early attachments, learned skills, emotional regulation, social skills, verbal abilities, problem solving, life experiences and more…

  • From her earliest years, a woman who spent her life moving between family members, knew  the one thing she could depend upon was her intelligence.
  • Choosing to do manual labor to pay his bills, a man regulated his stress and felt enlivened by playing his guitar every night.
  • A woman had learned from her mother that when you face a crisis, you turn to God and your church community
  • A family rebuilt after Hurricane Sandy with the plan to stay on the water. It was a given that it would flood again, they would be evacuated again and they would  live again in the place they loved.

The Importance of Recognizing Your Resilience

  • There is common acknowledgement of the value of self-reflection and the capacity to acknowledge negative and painful feelings in the aftermath of adversity – as a step toward coping, support, and processing.
  • At those times, there is less invitation to personally identify and acknowledge our resiliency traits. While we speak of resilience, it is often as a vague abstraction associated with bigger than life feats of courage and accomplishment.
  • As a result, we can easily fail to account for the obstacles of childhood we have weathered; the personal strength it  takes to just get the kids up and ready every morning; the self-resolve you find to deal with another job search; the self-care you muster to end a toxic relationship; or the terror you handle facing a medical diagnosis.

Central to coping is the belief that we can find a way to cope.

Remembering our comebacks as well as our setbacks is essential to our resilience. It is an aspect of our known self that we need to affirm.

In the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti, a young woman acknowledged,

“Haitians are like Bamboo, they bend but they don’t break.”

The Myths about Resilience

Dispelling the myths about resilience makes our own resilience easier to recognize.

Resiliency is not time bound

In his conceptualizations of resiliency, expert Glen Roisman clarifies that resiliency is the capacity to find a way back to successful adaptation and functioning even after a period of disorganization and disruption. 

Often in the aftermath of a traumatic event we are frozen.  This is a normal reaction to danger and threat.  We need time to move out of a numbed state to reassess how we go on with our life.

Sometimes it can take time to remember – “ I have coped before.”  “ I will find another job.” “ I will take it day by day” or as one young lady who lost her brother said, ” Minute by Minute.”

People cope in their own time and in their own way.

It took a number of years before a woman could feel entitled to feel joy after the death of her son. Despite the fact that she kept on with her family and job, she judged herself by world’s message “to get on with it.”

Resilience is not incompatible with pain

  • My young friend in the opening vignette dismissed her resilience because of the anxiety she had faced, and the fact that she often still had difficult days at work. Sadly her negative judgment detracted from the resilience she was actually using.
  • If she were able to draw upon Kristin Neff’s recognition of the Proven Benefits of Self-Compassion in Daily Life, my young friend would have mindfully considered that anxiety is human- we all deal with it;  that if it was a friend who was anxious, she would give her a hug not a critique; and that  directing “ Loving Kindness” to herself would reduce stress and be a gift that keeps giving.
  • Resilience is not the absence of tears, anxiety, anger or despair. It is dealing with them, sometimes carrying them with you, while finding the way to go on.

Resilience is not diluted by support of others

  • Siddharth Ashvin Shah, drawing upon his international disaster work, reminds us that in times of stress there is not only a release of stress hormones but of oxytocin, the hormone associated with mother-infant attachment and the breast-feeding bond. It would seem we are wired to attach to others in the face of adversity and trauma. Our urge and ability to connect expands resilience.
  •  In the face of war, natural disaster and even the trials of everyday life, the presence of family and loved ones serves to buffer stress. Particularly for children, connection to loving parents or caregivers is the most important antidote to traumatic impact.
  • Attachment serves to enhance resilience as it offers the opportunity to affirm “ the capacity to go on.” It is not a replacement for attunement or empathy for suffering. It is the shared message that we can do it.

“ It is frightening to move to the shelter, but we will  figure out how to make it work.”

“ It is so hard that Mom isn’t here, but we know how to make the holiday the way she would have been proud.”

“  Dad, you may not feel physically strong; but we all know – you will always be a powerful man.”

  Strategies to Identify and Own Your Personal Resiliency

What do you use to regulate your stress on a day-by-day basis?

Walk, bake, pray, read, draw, garden, read the paper, watch sports…Your daily activities are the infrastructure for dealing with life events.

What do you do to regulate stress in the moment?

  • Did you know that just sitting and placing your hands around the back of a chair or singing in your car (keep your hands on the wheel) puts you in the position to regulate your breathing which lowers stress?
  • Do you have an image of a happy or peaceful time that you can call upon when stressed? The more details and the more you call it up–the more effective a resource it will be.
  • Do you have a family default position that you use when life has just gotten too rough?   “ We need a road trip.” “ Someone make the popcorn!”

What would you identify as the personal trait that has been a life gift?

Patience, intelligence, social skills, artistic talent, spirituality, love of nature, athletic ability, persistence, curiosity, sense of humor?

Do you have flexibility of perspective?

  • When the future seems difficult to fathom are you able to focus on achievable tasks of the day?
  • Can you be mindful of the joy of walking in nature, preparing a delicious meal or playing with your dog while suspending worry about the future?
  • Are you aware that the dark moments will come side by side with good moments and that cooking, walking, or praying through them is worth trying?

Can you feel and receive gratitude?

Can you feel gratitude for the small things, the human connections, and the reasons to go on even in the face of pain and suffering? Can you accept the gratitude of others? Gratitude is expansive as it involves positive perspective and propels movement.

Can You Feel Hopeful?

Hope is related to resilience because it is the ability to have options, to believe the future can be different from the traumatic past or difficult situation.

Do you wish to be hopeful?

Consider that the wish itself is a sign of resilience!


Listen in to Steven Wolhandler on Psych Up Live discusses resilience as an important protection from toxic people