Resilience Is Adapting Successfully to Adversity, Hardship, and Tragedy
Updated: Aug 24
“The oak fought the wind and was broken, the willow bent when it must and survived.” -Robert Jordan, The Fires of Heaven
Looking Back at 2020
As 2020 comes to an end and as we reflect back on this year, humanity has gone through one of its most trying ordeals—the COVID-19 pandemic—since, perhaps, the Spanish flu of 1918. The words “resilient” and “resilience” have been used often to characterize our ability to continue to press onward despite the severe ramifications the coronavirus has caused.
To everyone who has been impacted by tragedy, trauma, hardship, adversity, disaster or other significant life stressors, this post is for you. Whether it’s losing a loved one, losing a job, losing your home, or way of life, few of us have been spared. But know this: Human beings are incredibly resilient creatures. For centuries, we, individually and collectively, have overcome unbearable misfortunes and defied impossible odds to push on. And, despite the adversities, hardships, and tragedies, we have learned and continue to learn to adjust, adapt, and even thrive to our new circumstances.
Resilience Isn’t “Bouncing Back”
A very common description of resilience is that it’s “bouncing back” from adversities or difficulties. However, this “denies the reality of working through difficulties. Anyone who has faced a major obstacle in life will have been changed by it. They move forward with a different perspective, with changed values, and with hard-won learning. The word ‘bounceback’ does not reflect how tough that process can be” (Pemberton, 2015, p. 2-3).
Resilience Is Coming Back Rather than Bouncing Back
In his book, Developing Resilience: A Cognitive-Behavioural Approach, Michael Neenan explains how resilience isn’t about bouncing back, but rather coming back:
“Coping with hard times usually involves pain and struggle as you push forward to find a brighter future. As part of the self-righting process, you need time to adapt to the new realities in your life and to process your feelings about the changes and losses you’re experiencing. This process of adjusting to new conditions suggests that coming back, as opposed to bouncing back, from adversity is the more realistic response. Bouncing back presents a picture of a rapid, pain-free, almost effortless return from adversity. Also, if you pride yourself on being the bouncing back type, you’re more likely to put yourself down if your latest ‘bounce’ doesn’t take off. For example, faced with an unfamiliar situation where your usual problem-solving skills are proving ineffective, you conclude that you’re not making progress because you’re weak or incompetent and feel ashamed that your failings have been exposed for all to see” (Neenan, 2018, p. 175).
Definitions of Resilience
“Resilience is the human ability to adapt in the face of tragedy, trauma, adversity, hardship, and ongoing significant life stressors” (Newman, 2005, p. 227).
“Resilience comprises those inner strengths of mind and character—both inborn and developed—that enable one to respond well to adversity, including the capacities to prevent stress-related conditions, such as depression or anxiety, or their recurrence; recover faster and more completely from stress and stress-related conditions; and optimize mental fitness and functioning in the various areas of life” (Schiraldi, 2017, p. 2).
The Key To Resilience Is Hardiness
Dr. Salvatore R. Maddi and his team of researchers at the University of Chicago worked with 450 employees at Illinois Bell Telephone (IBT) before, during, and after the greatest divestiture in history. By the end of 1982, IBT had downsized from 26,000 to 14,000 employees. About two-thirds of the employees in the study suffered significant performance, leadership and health declines due to the extreme stress. However, the other one-third actually thrived during the upheaval despite experiencing the same amount of disruption and stressful events as their co-workers. They remained healthy and vigorous by seeing the workplace changes as opportunities rather than disaster. They performed better than their less hardy coworkers and found creative ways to professionally advance, despite ongoing workplace changes. Those who thrived had three key attitudes (the 3Cs) of commitment, control, and challenge that Maddi and colleagues came to call hardiness (Maddi & Khoshaba, 2005).
“Hardiness is a pattern of attitudes and skills that provides the courage and strategies to turn stressful circumstances from potential disasters into growth opportunities instead” (Maddi, 2007, p. 61).
Three Resilient Attitudes
Resilient people have the hardy attitudes of the 3Cs: commitment, control, and challenge (Maddi & Khoshaba, 2005).
1. COMMITMENT. People who are strong in the commitment attitude get involved with (instead of withdraw from) what’s happening, despite how stressful it may be, seeing this as the best way to learn from their experiences (Maddi, Khoshaba, Harvey, Fazel, & Resurreccion, 2011). They view their work as important and worthwhile enough to warrant their full attention, imagination, and effort. They stay involved with the events and people around them even when the going gets rough (Maddi & Khoshaba, 2005).
Strategies to Develop Commitment in Yourself (HRG, 2019):
Establish a support system that will help you to prevail
Commit to yourself
Quiet your mind and focus
Recognize and appreciate that this process is going to be a challenge & stay the course
Leader Actions to Foster Commitment in Others (HRG, 2019):
Give recognition, awards, praise for accomplishments
Be visible; spend time with team and peers
Support individual professional development (education, learning opportunities)
2. CONTROL. People who are strong in the control attitude believe that making an effort to influence outcomes by the decisions they make is more likely to lead to meaningful outcomes (Maddi, Khoshaba, Harvey, Fazel, & Resurreccion, 2011). Instead of allowing themselves to sink into passivity and powerlessness in the face of stresses, they do their best to find solutions to problems. When considering where to apply their efforts, they recognize the situational features that are open to change and accept those outside of their control (Maddi & Khoshaba, 2005).
Strategies to Develop Control in Yourself (HRG, 2019):
Don’t entertain more negativity
Develop coping mechanisms
Break tasks down into manageable chunks
Recognize (what is creating the anxiety)
Create healthy boundaries
Increase your release of endorphins get physically active
Leader Actions to Foster Control in Others (HRG, 2019):
Provide tasks that are challenging but within employees’ capabilities to achieve
Provide resources and time needed to accomplish goals
3. CHALLENGE. “People who are strong in the challenge attitude believe that stress is normal and that fulfillment is not to be found in easy comfort, security, and routine but rather in the continual growth in wisdom through what is learned from the negative and positive experiences of an active, changing life” (Maddi, Khoshaba, Harvey, Fazel, & Resurreccion, 2011, p. 370). They confront stressful changes, try to understand them, learn from them, and solve them. They embrace life’s challenges, not deny and avoid them. (Maddi & Khoshaba, 2005).
Strategies to Develop Challenge in Yourself (HRG, 2019):
Become an expert
Actively seek feedback
Be open to continuous learning
Try new things
Recognize lessons in failures
Leader Actions to Foster Challenge in Others (HRG, 2019):
Always emphasize value of change for learning
Model enjoyment, fun in variety
Treat failures as chance to learn
Viktor Frankl: Purpose and Meaning
“People who sense that their lives have meaning and purpose are generally happier and more resilient” (Schiraldi, 2017, p. 155).
Viktor Frankl (the Austrian psychiatrist, author, and Holocaust survivor), in his books Man’s Search for Meaning and Recollections: An Autobiography, reminds us that we can learn to deal with anything in life if we can find meaning in it.
“Even though conditions such as lack of sleep, insufficient food and various mental stresses may suggest that the inmates were bound to react in certain ways, in the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone. Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him – mentally and spiritually. He may retain his human dignity even in a concentration camp. Dostoevsky said once, ‘There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.’ These words frequently came to my mind after I became acquainted with those martyrs whose behavior in camp, whose suffering and death, bore witness to the fact that the last inner freedom cannot be lost. It can be said that they were worthy of their sufferings; the way they bore their suffering was a genuine inner achievement. It is this spiritual freedom – which can not be taken away – that makes life meaningful and purposeful” (Frankl, 1984, p. 87).
“But there is also purpose in that life which is almost barren of both creation and enjoyment and which admits of but one possibility of high moral behavior: namely, in man’s attitude to his existence, an existence restricted by external forces. A creative life and a life of enjoyment are banned to him. But not only creativeness and enjoyment are meaningful. If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete. The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity – even under the most difficult circumstances – to add a deeper meaning to his life” (Frankl, 1984, p. 88).
“There is nothing in the world, I venture to say, that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions as the knowledge that there is a meaning in one’s life. There is much wisdom in the words of Nietzsche: ‘He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how'” (Frankl, 1984, p. 126).
“I am convinced that, in the final analysis, there is no situation that does not contain within it the seed of a meaning” (Frankl, 2000, p. 53).
“By knowing we have choices in life, have a purpose, and can execute those choices, we become stronger, more resilient—hardier in our lives. This hardiness gives us added strength when we encounter our next life challenge” (Stein & Bartone, 2020, p. 22).
Never forget: “Humans are remarkably resilient in the face of crises, traumas, disabilities, attachment losses, and ongoing adversities. In fact, resilience to stress and trauma may be the norm rather than the exception” (Southwick, Litz, Charney, & Friedman, 2011, p. xi).
“What you’ve been through will help somebody else get through it.” -Joel Osteen
“One day you will tell your story of how you’ve overcome what you’re going through now, and it will become part of someone else’s survival guide.” -Unknown
Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D. Organizational & Leadership Development Leader
Frankl, V. E. (1984). Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy. Washington Square Press. (Original work published 1959)
Frankl, V. E. (2000). Recollections: An Autobiography. Basic Books.
Hardiness Resilience Gauge (HRG). (2019). Hardiness Resilience Development Debrief. Multi-Health Systems Inc.
Maddi, S. R. (2007). Relevance of Hardiness Assessment and Training to the Military Context. Military Psychology, 19(1), 61-70.
Maddi, S. R., & Khoshaba, D. M. (2005). Resilience at Work: How to Succeed No Matter What Life Throws at You. AMACOM.
Maddi, S. R., Khoshaba, D. M., Harvey, R. H., Fazel, M., & Resurreccion, N. (2011). The Personality Construct of Hardiness, V: Relationships With the Construction of Existential Meaning in Life. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 51(3), 369-388.
Neenan, M. (2018). Developing Resilience: A Cognitive-Behavioural Approach (2nd ed.). Routledge.
Newman, R. (2005). APA’s Resilience Initiative. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 36(3), 227-229.
Pemberton, C. (2015). Resilience: A Practical Guide for Coaches. McGraw Hill.
Schiraldi, G. R. (2017). The Resilience Workbook: Essential Skills to Recover from Stress, Trauma, and Adversity. New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Southwick, S. M., Litz, B. T., Charney, D., & Friedman, M.J. (2011). In S.M. Southwick, B.T. Litz, D. Charney, & M.J. Friedman (Eds.), Resilience and Mental Health: Challenges Across the Lifespan (pp. xi-xv). Cambridge University Press.
Stein, S. J., & Bartone, P. T. (2020). Hardiness: Making Stress Work for You to Achieve Your Life Goals. John Wiley & Sons.