There are many definitions of resilience, but simply put, resilience is “thriving despite adversity.” Unfortunately in today’s world, there have been many opportunities for behavioral scientists to study both adults and children who have experienced horrendous and traumatizing events in their lives: natural disasters, man-made disasters, and personal attacks resulting in physical and emotional injury. Psychologists and other social scientists have tried to understand why some people bounce back (or up) after adversity and others struggle to function in their daily lives.
Multiple research projects have shown that there are three basic traits that most resilient people have in common.
Know what they are thinking.
Understand how they feel.
Have positive interactions with others.
But these so-called “traits” are not genetic or innate: they are skills, pure and simple. And they can be learned like any other skill. It is true that some folks will have an easier time learning and using the skills than others, but all of us have the ability to learn and access these skills.
Cognitive/behavioral psychological theory has taught us that thoughts create feelings and feelings create behavior (reactions). Be careful what you tell yourself…because you will believe it and act accordingly.
Self-awareness is one of the keys to resilience. Awareness is being aware of small problems before they become larger and perhaps insurmountable problems. Knowing what you are thinking and how it creates feelings is a powerful self-management tool in dealing with adversity.
But sometimes our thought processes are so routine and natural that we don’t notice what we are thinking. Our thoughts are just part of our everyday world view—they are so automatic that it’s hard to slow down and examine what we actually are thinking in any given situation. That’s when understanding how we are feeling becomes a key element of self-awareness.
There are times when we feel unsettled, perhaps irritable, tired, gloomy or other vague emotional experiences. To examine where these feelings come from means to go back to “What have I been thinking…what’s been going on?” Self-knowledge is a powerful tool in self-management, or as it has been said, “keeping on an even keel.”
And last but certainly not least, resilient people are connected people. They know how to access and accept support. They know how to give support to others, and they are stronger for their efforts. Knowing that we are not alone and knowing that we have much to offer others in times of adversity is a great help in finding the path forward.
Lorraine Watson, PhD, California School of Professional Psychology, is a clinical psychologist with extensive experience developing and conducting educational programs for professionals in mental health and for the public. She taught “Resiliency: The Inner Strength Workout for Seniors” during the OLLI 2019 Winter-Spring semester. This article is a summary of the core concepts of her course.