What is Resilience?

People often seek therapy of one sort or another when they are experiencing a problem, usually connected in some way to anxiety or stress. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. However, if there’s one thing we know about life, it’s that it’s never easy. Our daily existence throws up any number of challenges (stressors). This being the case, might it be prudent to ask how we can better prepare for these inevitable tests?

Resilience is preventative rather than remedial. Donald Robertson defines it as:

‘…[the ability to] remain committed to following your personal values despite facing adversities, including unpleasant experiences such as pain and anxiety, and to regain your commitment whenever it falters.’[1]

It’s not the ability to avoid adversity that makes us resilient, but how we respond to it. It’s about developing the mental flexibility to accommodate shifting circumstances, allied with cultivating the pragmatism to set about solving problems constructively.

Values vs Goals

Ask people what they want from life, and they will often say they want to be happy, or they want to be rich, or have a family, or their own business. There’s nothing wrong with these answers, of course – they’re all perfectly valid goals. The problem with goals is that they are endpoints, and usually externally measured.

Many factors can affect the outcome of a goal, many of which are beyond your control – the mistake of a team-mate, a natural disaster, a change in fashion/taste/political climate. Over-reliance on outcomes that are beyond your control can lead to a rather brittle psychological state, bound up in ideas of success and failure.

So for resilient living, we talk more in terms of values. These are the personal standards by which we measure our own actions. They are internal and ongoing in nature – for example, being creative, or compassionate, or a good parent. These are not things we decide to be for a limited and period and then give up on – they are the foundations upon which we construct our identity.

Shifting from a goal-based outlook to a value-based outlook means we focus more on process than outcome. Process we can control, outcome we can’t.

The Next Step

So, we want to become more resilient. How do we go about this? It all begins by asking yourself the right questions.

  1. Identify your stressors

    What are the things in life that make you anxious? Is it work-related issues? An irritating colleague, or a series of deadlines? Perhaps the problems are at home – with your relationship or your children?

  2. Identify your valuesDefining what you feel is important in life, as described above, provides the framework for approaching how you deal with stressors. If we don’t take the time to identify our values, then it becomes more difficult to know which solutions will truly benefit us in the long term.
  3. Identify your coping strategiesHow do you deal with stress? Do you turn to friends for support? Do you have a drink to relax? Do you (like many of us) simply try and avoid the problem, or just put up with it, in the hope that it will go away?
  4. Identify what you might changeAsk yourself this simple question about how you cope with stress: how’s that working out for you? Is it sustainable in the long run? Is it in accordance with my values? If the answer to any of these questions is no, then now might be a good time to put healthier long term strategies in place, so that when times get tough, you are in a good position to deal with whatever is thrown your way.For example, if one of your values is living healthily, but you’re drinking half a bottle of wine each night to unwind after work, perhaps you might look to relax differently. If you value fairness but you’re being walked over by a boss or a co-worker, you might need a little assertiveness training to stand up for your rights.

There are as many different solutions as there are problems. Building resilience is a process of allowing us to identify which solution will work best for us. Few of us would expect to succeed as something for which we hadn’t prepared – strangely enough, many of us seem to think that doesn’t apply to handling stress.

[1] Roberston, D., 2012, Build Your Resilience, London, Hodder.

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