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Becoming More Resilient

| March 10, 2020

by Jim Bruce

[Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Jim Bruce, Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates. He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA. He may be reached at [email protected].]

Resilience1 is the psychological strength that allows people to be knocked down by life and come back at least as strong as before. It has been called a mental reservoir of strength that individuals can call on in times of difficulty to carry them forward without falling apart. After misfortune, resilient people are able to change course and move toward achieving their goals. It is believed that resilient individuals are better able to handle such adversity and rebuild their lives after a catastrophe.

And, let me be clear, catastrophes come in all sizes to all people. It may be the personal catastrophe of missing the anniversary of a significant event in a family member’s life, or not delivering a key project on time, or providing incorrect advice or information. Or, it could be your performance in a joint activity such as striking out every time you were at bat in a pick-up baseball game in your after-work summer league. Or, the way your major presentation at the company’s technical conference came across. Or, a major weather event. The list is endless with small and large, personal and work-related instances.

We all have experiences such as these. Because of what we have experienced, or seen others experience, we may often enter new experiences with a lot of anticipation, more focused on what could go wrong and how to avoid that, than on getting it right.

Yet, while some of us may come “un-glued” in the face of the possibility or the actuality of things-going-bad, others are able to remain calm and continue forward. These individuals who remain calm have what psychologists call resilience, the ability to cope with problems, setbacks, and failure. Kendra Cherry2 states it this way: “Resilient people are able to utilize their skills and strengths to cope and recover from problems and challenges.”

She continues, “Those who lack this resilience may instead become overwhelmed by such experiences. They may dwell on problems and use unhealthy coping mechanisms to deal with life’s challenges. Disappointment or failure might drive them to unhealthy, destructive, or even dangerous behaviors. These individuals are slower to recover from setbacks and many experience more psychological distress as a result.”2

The good news is that resilience can be cultivated. And, that is the subject of this essay. The Wikipedia essay on psychological resilience3 is a good place to begin. It points out that psychological resilience exists in people who develop psychological and behavioral capabilities that allow them to remain calm during times of all manner of chaos and crisis, and to move on from the incident without long-term negative consequences. So, how might we do that.

The American Psychological Association paper Building Your Resilience,4 suggests that we build our resilience by doing work-on-self in a number of areas:

  • Strengthening relationships. Relationships with understanding individuals, including your spouse or partner, can remind you that you are not alone in whatever difficulty you are experiencing at the moment. Such relationships will assist you in examining your feelings, evaluating their validity, and strengthening your resilience. Having strong relationships with people who truly care about you will reduce any tendency you might have to withdraw.
  • Join a group. In addition to having one-on-one relationships, most individuals will benefit from being involved with some, perhaps regular, group activities, such as a civic group, faith-based activities, an after-work sports team, etc. Being involved in such groups can help you regain hope and your sense of purpose when you need it.
  • Take care of your body.  The stress that you are experiencing is as much physical as it is emotional. So, it is crucial that you develop good nutrition, ample sleep, hydration and regular exercise practices. This will strengthen your body as it adapts to the stress you are experiencing and also help reduce the anxiety and depression you may be encountering.
  • Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness5 “means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of your thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and the surrounding environment, through a gentle, nurturing lens.” As you pay attention to your thoughts and feelings, you do it without judgment. Some find journaling, or spiritual practices such as prayer or meditation, etc., helpful in building connections and restoring hope. As you do this, it is helpful to focus on the positive things in your life and that which you are grateful for.
  • Avoid the negative. For some, it is tempting to turn to drugs and alcohol to help mask your pain. Focus instead on giving your body resources to manage the stress rather than trying to eliminate it temporarily.
  • Help others. By simply helping another person who is in need, you gain a sense of purpose, foster self-worth, connect with others, and deliver actual help, and you grow in resilience.
  • Be proactive. It is important that you acknowledge and accept the feelings and emotions you have. However, perhaps more important, you need to ask yourself what you can do about your problem. If the problem is too big to tackle all at once, break it into manageable pieces and address them one-by-one.
  • Move towards your goals. Develop realistic goals, create the necessary plans and deliberately move toward the things you want to accomplish.
  • Embrace healthy thoughts. Keep things in perspective; don’t wander off into the irrational. Accept change, even that which you cannot control. It’s a natural part of life. Be hopeful. Learn from your past.
  • Seek help. No one of us has all the answers. So, be open to asking for help. It’s always been a surprise to me to experience how willing others are to help me by sharing their time and their skills. All you need to do is ask.

We all can benefit from becoming more resilient. While this list of ten items to work on may (it actually will) seem daunting, I encourage you to make a plan to work on them, perhaps focusing on one each week over the coming weeks. And, I also want to urge you to make the necessary notes in your calendar now and to commit a small part of each week’s time to this important piece of your work on yourself.

I hope that you and your team will make your week a truly great one.

.   .  .  .  .  jim



1.   Psychology Today, What is Resilience?

2.   Kendra Cherry, The Importance of Resilience, verywellmind, November 2019.

3.   Wikipedia, Psychological Resilience.

4.   American Psychological Association, Building Your Resilience, February 2020.

5.   Greater Good Magazine, What Is Mindfulness?


Other Readings:

1.   Kira Newman, Five Science-Backed Strategies to Build Resilience, The Greater Good Magazine, University of California – Berkeley, November 2016.

2.   Mayo Clinic Staff, Resilience: Build skills to endure hardship – Mayo Clinic.