Resilience is the ability to cope well with difficulties and to bounce back from setbacks.
While some people are naturally more resilient than others, resiliency can also be intentionally developed.
Secret of Balance
One of my favorite anecdotes is an exchange between a student and his martial arts teacher. After watching the teacher practice for some time, the student asks in wonder: How did you become such a master in maintaining your balance? The teacher replied: I am not a master in maintaining my balance, I have become a master in regaining my balance.
This anecdote is packed with characteristics of resilience. The first characteristic is Realistic Optimism, intimately related to expectations. Realistic optimism is a belief that we will be able to manage the obstacles in our way, obstacles that could potentially throw us off balance. Not infrequently clients of mine have noted wistfully: "If only life could flow smoothly, without surprises and bumps in the road." It depends on expectations. When we expect a straight and perfectly smooth road, any blemish can unnerve us. When we expect a winding and undulating road, we can marvel at the beauty in the changing views, as well as enjoy our ability to maneuver this challenging road. I have met no human being that did not have some challenges, some surprises, in their life. People with high levels of resilience have, or develop, an expectation for these instances of the "un-expected", and include them in the stride of their day. The martial arts master did not expect to maintain his balance, and seemed confident in his ability to regain it.
A second characteristic of resilience is the Problem-solving Focus. While not privy to the martial arts master's inner thoughts, I venture to imagine them as significantly non-judgmental. I would imagine that this master did not spend a great deal of time thinking: "Oh no, I have gotten off balance, how could I have done this?!" And then continue with an inner tirade of blame. For if he had done so he would likely have been trying to regain his balance while lying flat on the ground. Rather than judging his performance, my guess is that he quickly had a sense whether his current movement was getting the results he wanted or not, and then equally as quickly problem-solved on what adjustment needed to be made to regain his balance.
A third characteristic of resilience is Self-Efficacy, and the importance of building the literal or figurative muscle toward the desired activity. We have a higher or lower overall sense of being effective in the world (overall sense of Self-Efficacy), and we have a sense of being effective in particular areas. The sense of self-efficacy in a particular area often takes sustained effort to develop. The martial arts teacher had become a master, was not born a master, nor instantaneously acquired masterfulness. In this quick fix world it is important to remember that true change and true mastery is achieved through hard work, consistent action, and patience.
And a fourth characteristic is Flexibility, which in the current context is a caution against perfectionism. We often try to become perfect in a particular area or skill, resulting in great disappointment or frustration. And we often expect the people around us to become perfect in a particular area or skill, with great disappointment and frustration when this fails to materialize. Flexible thinking is considering alternative ways of perceiving or understanding a situation. If the martial arts student had continued to strive for maintaining his balance, he could easily have felt himself a "failure". By considering other ways of understaning his goal - for example, that the marital arts moves he was learning could be acquired through regaining vs maintaining his balance, he could pursue a more realistic and therefore more fulfilling goal.
Balance is currently a popular concept, and I similarly see balance as critical in life. People with high levels of resilience have an understanding that balance is less a state to be achieved, but rather a goal for long-term striving.
Carolyn S. Tal, PhD
Psychologist and Consultant
Working with individuals and partners in
developing resilience and related issues