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The Secrets to Resilience

Have you noticed that certain people bend but don’t break, even in the face of great adversity? Here’s how they bounce back.
Vase of sunflowers

The taxi driver deposited my bags and boxes on the sidewalk in front of my new building, slammed the trunk and drove off into the autumn night. I watched the cab disappear down the street, relief washing over me. Whew! I’d finally gotten all my things out of my old place across town. It wasn’t until I lugged the last box upstairs to my new apartment that I realized what was missing. My laptop.

That spring I’d left my full-time job to work on an idea I had for a book. I’d taken odd jobs and part-time gigs to support myself while the proposal took shape. At last I was ready to send it off to publishers. But all my research, my working notes, my drafts—everything I’d sweated over for the past six months was on that computer! I hadn’t backed anything up on disk. Panicky phone calls to the taxi bureau got me nowhere. My laptop—and my incredibly labor-intensive book proposal—were gone.

It’s in circumstances like this that we discover what we’re made of. Do you have what it takes to rebound from adversity—whether it’s a relatively minor setback like mine (of course, it didn’t seem that way at the time) or a major tragedy like Hurricane Katrina, which left thousands of people with their entire lives upended? Are you resilient?

Call it grit, hardiness, fortitude or inner strength. By whatever name, it isn’t so much your experience or training, it’s your level of resilience in the face of stress that determines whether you succeed or fail, according to a recent issue of the Harvard Business Review. Or as psychologist Al Siebert, Ph.D., author of The Resiliency Advantage: Master Change, Thrive Under Pressure and Bounce Back from Setbacks, puts it, “Resilient people decide that somehow, some way, they will do the very best they can to survive, cope and make things turn out well. They expect to bounce back. They have a knack for creating good luck out of circumstances that many others see as bad luck.”

You read that right. Resilience is a choice. Researchers have done more than 600 studies on the topic, and there’s a general consensus: The ability to bounce back from hardship isn’t a trait that a person is either born with or not. Resilience is a set of skills that anyone can learn and build on at any point in her life. Anyone!

Ask for help.
I’d thought I was a pretty resilient person, but my reaction to losing my book proposal didn’t show it. “I guess it wasn’t meant to be,” I moaned. My friend Patrick wouldn’t let me wallow in self-pity. “Your work was on that laptop, but the idea for your book is still in your head,” he said. “It’s a great idea, too! You can’t just abandon it because of one unfortunate incident.” With Patrick cheering me on, I started over. Within a year, I’d rewritten my proposal, sent it out…and landed a contract with a major publisher!

Wouldn’t it be nice if every time life knocked you for a loop you had someone like Patrick standing there to lift you back up? But your friends and family are busy with their own lives, and you can’t expect them to read your mind and automatically sense when you’re feeling down. One of the conclusions experts have come to about what it takes to be a survivor and thriver: Resilient people know they need support, and they’re humble enough to ask for it.

Take octogenarian Grace Kanner of Queensbury, New York. Several years ago, she slipped on a patch of ice and broke her hip. This active and independent senior citizen had spent her youth dancing on the stages of New York City. “I had never fallen down before, not once,” Kanner says. The idea of asking for help didn’t come easy, but during her recovery, she leaned on her family both physically and emotionally. Without them, she says, she might not be walking on the treadmill and going about town like she does today. “But in the end,” Kanner points out, “you have to make the effort yourself” to get up and go on after any kind of tumble.

A big part of that effort, researchers agree, is mental.

Expect good things.
While resilience itself isn’t hard-wired, we do pick up certain beliefs from our parents that can affect our level of it. “From birth, we are actively processing our environment and forming our beliefs,” says Andrew Shatte, Ph.D., coauthor with Karen Reivich of The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles. “Research shows that our beliefs largely reflect those of our parents.”

Kanner is a case in point. “My mother was a strong woman who always looked on the bright side,” she says. “If she wanted to accomplish something, she sat down and thought about it in a positive way. And nine times out of ten, it came to fruition.”

What if your mom and dad don’t happen to be of the glass-is-half-full variety? You can work around that and learn to see life your own way. “If you grew up believing that good things aren’t supposed to happen to you,” says Shatte, “it’s time to begin challenging that notion.” (Hey, good things are supposed to happen to all of us!) Not only will you pump up your resilience, you’ll also find “it is empowering to realize you are capable of changing your old ways of thinking.” Shatte breaks it down into A, B, C. “When Adversity comes up, it doesn’t lead directly to a Consequence. In between is your Belief,” he says. “We teach people that what they believe affects what they do, which leads to the final outcome.” Change your thinking about a setback—view it as an opportunity, for instance—and you can change its consequences.

Plan for bumps in the road.
Having an optimistic outlook doesn’t mean living in a dream world. “People tend to think they are entitled to an easy life and continual comfort, but that’s not realistic,” says Salvatore Maddi, Ph.D., author of Resilience at Work: How to Succeed No Matter What Life Throws at You. And realism, he notes, is a key ingredient in the resilient mindset.

Siebert concurs: “People who are good at resilience have trained their brain to be in the habit of looking quickly and accurately at a situation. They go into a state of rapid reality-reading and can respond effectively.”

Like my dad, Steve Rovito. He’s in sales, and in his late fifties, the company he’d worked at for nearly 10 years started layoffs. The lowest sellers went first, then the new hires. Soon not even the top sellers were safe. “I didn’t think negatively but I did try to anticipate what could go wrong,” he says. “And then I got prepared.” He developed a plan to live frugally and enjoy an early retirement. He didn’t have to use it because he was offered a job with a competitor not long after being laid off, but he was ready for that bump in the road.

Still, hitting the bump can be jarring. Don’t worry if you can’t immediately pick yourself up and march on. Take time to process the situation. “Instead of wallowing, go into problem-solving mode,” says Shatte. That works for my dad. “When things don’t go my way, I go in my cave and pout,” he says. “But I also use that time to write an action plan. It might have two steps, it might have 10. But if I write it down, there’s a much better chance that I’ll stick with it.” (That’s one thing that runs in the family. My dad recently came across one of my old notebooks. Inside was a list of my goals. On it: “Write a book.”)

Practice making lemonade out of lemons.
To Maddi, writing down an action plan shows two hallmarks of resilience: You’re committed to making lemonade out of the lemons life dumps in your lap and you view the juicing process as a challenge you’re well-equipped to take on. “If you’re strong in commitment, you believe that no matter how bad things get, it is best to stick with it until the end, rather than avoiding the problem or running away,” he says. “And if you’re strong in the challenge area, you are able to see stress and change as a normal part of life. You use it as an opportunity to grow and develop.”

Joanne K. Hill of South Bend, Indiana, has had to deal with more lemons than most. In a four-year span, she lost a dozen family members, beginning with her husband and ending with her son. “A lot of people say to me, ‘You have such a positive attitude.’ I tell them, ‘It’s a process; you can learn it too.’ If you do it, and do it enough, you will always be able to do it—in the best and worst of times.” She believes so strongly that you can learn to cope positively with crisis, she wrote a book about it, Rainbow Remedies for Life’s Stormy Times.

This goes back to what researchers have found: Anyone can develop resilience, with time and practice. And the willingness to work hard at it. Leslee Spencer of Desert Hot Springs, California, knows that from fighting and beating cancer. “I didn’t let myself fall apart at the idea that I had cancer. I went into resourceful mode: What can I do? What’s my next step?” Treatment sapped her strength, and she couldn’t return to her job as a massage therapist. Spencer took a skills test, found she had an aptitude for math and now has another job she really enjoys, tutoring high school students. She and Hill are great examples of what expert Al Siebert has noticed: “Resilient people allow themselves to feel grief, anger, loss and confusion, but they don’t let it become a permanent state. They expect to rebuild their disrupted lives in a new way that works for them, and the struggle to overcome adversity develops new strengths in them.”

Choose to change the things you can.
Siebert has seen time and time again that “faith has a place in resiliency.” One man he knew successfully battled skin cancer only to be diagnosed with leukemia soon afterward. “I asked him how he was handling it all, and he replied, ‘I do what I can with the things I can control: I get a lot of rest and keep my health up. Then I accept that there are other things that are out of my hands. After that, I have faith.”

Echoes of The Serenity Prayer? It’s part of Andrew Shatte’s resiliency training program for corporate clients. He uses the famous 12-step prayer to empower people and remind them they “can develop the courage to go after those things that they can change.”

And the grit. Grace Kanner’s broken hip cut her muscles and the hospital had her in physical therapy from 9 am to 4 pm every day. A grueling regimen. When she faltered, she’d repeat something a young therapist told her—”Grace, you’re in charge. Not the muscle.”—and push on toward her goal of being active again.

“Some people remain resilient because they hold to the firm belief that they are indeed capable of influencing things for the better,” Siebert says. Joanne Hill, for whom faith is a powerful weapon against adversity, adds that knowing you’re not alone in your struggles can give you the strength to persevere, as can believing that your setbacks are part of a greater plan. “There is a blessing in everything that happens to you,” she says. “You need to make the decision to find it.” Now that is choosing resilience!

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