Becoming More Resilient

By Jean G. Larned, Ph.D.
Stock image of a person sitting on the ground watching a sunset. ©

Can we learn to be more resilient? Could sensitive or less resilient individuals become hardier? In this modern age of hypersensitivity, when even the simplest of issues becomes major or easy tasks become insurmountable, people have learned to give up instead of plowing on through the problem.

The answer to the first question is a resounding yes. Remember your years in school? You probably had physical training or played sports, and the coach would push you past your comfort level to achieve greater results. As you found, you could endure. Or, do you recall, perhaps, growing up with just the basic necessities, playing outside, having no fast food or television, walking to and from school, and working in your yard because you were told to do so? This was the beginning of resilience.

Granted, when a person faces a problem, it often seems big to them at that moment. For some of us looking at the same issue, we cannot imagine why the individual sees it as so large. And, there’s the rub—we differ in how we cope with stressful situations. Resilience comes from understanding yourself and how you react to your environment. It can change how you handle setbacks. Being more resilient can affect how enthusiastically you approach challenges. It can improve how you think during conflicts or stressful periods. Resilience can help you learn from past difficulties and derive knowledge and meaning from those setbacks and failures. Responding effectively to adversity, overcoming obstacles, getting through normal daily hassles, and dealing with life-altering events form the cornerstone of resilience.

Proactive use of resilience allows you the ability to seek out new experiences that will enrich your life. With this said, you need to understand yourself first. How? Introspection is the first step in understanding what you can or cannot do and your level of endurance at a mental, personal, and emotional level. 

Areas of Focus

Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence is a form of social intelligence that employs the skill of awareness, or being “clued in,” to monitor one’s own and others’ emotions, discriminate among them, and, in the end, use the information to guide one’s own thinking and actions.1 Several subcategories relating to both intrapersonal and interpersonal skills are important in understanding how it works.2

Self-awareness involves observing yourself and recognizing a feeling as it happens. Self-regulation entails handling feelings appropriately; realizing what is behind a feeling; and finding ways to address fear, anxiety, anger, and sadness. Motivation includes channeling emotions in the service of a goal, controlling emotions, delaying gratification, and stifling impulses. Empathy involves remaining sensitive to others’ feelings and concerns, taking their perspective, and appreciating the differences in how people feel about things. Social skills include managing emotions in others, embodying social competence, and handling relationships.

Special Agent Lamed
Special Agent Lamed serves in the Behavioral Science Unit at the FBI Academy.

Skills in Building Team Synergy

  • Calming influence on other people
  • Having the ability to often improve the moods of others
  • Maintaining effectiveness in motivating people to achieve their personal goals
  • Responding appropriately to others’ moods, motivations, and desires
  • Having a locus of control based around self-esteem (individuals who have experienced repeated failures often will develop a learned response, becoming helpless and hopeless and lacking a sense of who or what is in control of their life)
  • Maintaining an internal (I control my actions) versus external (outside forces control my life) perspective
  • Recognizing that mental health encompasses more than the absence of mental illness—it should resemble a vibrant and fit mind and spirit6
  • Understanding the factors that make people feel fulfilled, engaged, and meaningfully happy
Source: Daniel P. Goleman, Emotional Intelligence (New York, NY: Bantam Books, 1995).


  • Emotional awareness: recognizing emotions and their effects
  • Accurate self-assessment: knowing personal strengths and limits
  • Self-confidence: having a strong sense of self-worth and capabilities, a basic belief in the ability to do what is needed to produce a desired outcome


  • Self-control: keeping disruptive emotions and impulses in check
  • Trustworthiness: maintaining standards of honesty and integrity
  • Conscientiousness: taking responsibility for personal performance
  • Adaptability: learning to be flexible in handling change
  • Innovation: being comfortable with novel ideas, approaches, and new information


  • Achievement drive: striving to improve or meet a standard of excellence
  • Commitment: aligning with the goals of the group or organization
  • Initiative: becoming ready to act on opportunities
  • Optimism: maintaining persistence in pursuing goals despite obstacles and setbacks and aligning with hope—a predictor of success (e.g., I am able to motivate myself to try and try again in the face of setbacks. I like to push the limits of my ability. Under pressure, I rarely feel helpless. I easily can set negative feelings aside when called on to perform.)


  • Understanding others: sensing other people’s feelings and perspectives and taking an active interest in their concerns
  • Developing others: detecting other individuals’ development needs and bolstering their abilities
  • Leveraging diversity: cultivating opportunities through different kinds of people
  • Maintaining political awareness: reading a group’s emotional currents and power relationships (e.g., I am effective at listening to other people’s problems. I rarely get angry at people who come around and bother me with foolish questions. I am adept at reading people’s feelings by their facial expressions. I easily can “put myself into other people’s shoes.”)

Social Skills

  • Influence: wielding effective tactics for persuasion
  • Communication: listening openly and sending convincing messages
  • Leadership: inspiring and guiding individuals and groups
  • Change catalyst: initiating or managing change
  • Building bonds: nurturing instrumental relationships
  • Collaboration and cooperation: working with others toward shared goals
  • Team capabilities: creating group synergy in pursuing collective goals

Your emotional resilience can improve and strengthen through understanding yourself better and improving your emotional intelligence. We all are born with different coping mechanisms; in fact, some of us have none. Emotional intelligence gives us the ability to, finally, become a more resilient person.


Think about becoming mentally and emotionally tougher. Look to other people for examples of mental and emotional toughness. For instance, when I was a boy, I admired John Wayne and wanted to emulate his confidence, strength, and fortitude. Although he was an actor, the character traits he exuded made me want to be strong like him. The point? Seeing is believing; start acting like a more resilient person, and, eventually, you also will start to believe it. According to one expert, “It’s not that less resilient people are lacking some kind of ‘coping gene’ or anything like that. Indeed, they have the power within to become just as resilient as their more intuitively resilient counterparts simply by training their minds to think more positively and then learning how to change their behaviors to reflect their new, more positive attitudes.”3 You need to make a personal paradigm shift from being hopeless, hapless, and helpless to becoming stronger, tougher, and hardier.

Positive Psychology

Your mental outlook or mood affects how you behave and interact with the world. Start seeing the good in things, the brighter side of life and the little enjoyments along the way that cheer you up. To this end, positive psychology—the study of the human condition and how people live and interact with their environment—focuses on cultivating personality strengths and honing an optimistic approach to life, rather than on cataloging human frailty and disease, which has served too long as the focus of psychology.4 Traditional psychology focused on atypical or dysfunctional people with mental illness, emotional problems, personality disorders, or other psychological issues and, in the end, how to treat them. By contrast, positive psychology, a relatively new field, examines how ordinary people can become happier and more fulfilled.

Cognitive Restructuring

Another way to become a more resilient person is through a process called cognitive restructuring—in short, changing a perception from a negative interpretation to a neutral or positive one and, in turn, making it less stressful. Cognitive restructuring also is known as reappraisal, relabeling, and reframing. Individuals acquire irrational or illogical cognitive interpretations or beliefs about themselves or their environment. The extent to which these beliefs are irrational is important and equals the amount of emotional distress experienced by the person.

10 Steps to Becoming More Resilient

1) Make connections: Valuable relationships with close family members, friends, or others are important. Accepting help and support from those who care about and will listen to you strengthens resilience. Some people find that participating in civic groups, faith-based organizations, or other local organizations provides social support and can help with reclaiming hope. Assisting others in their time of need also can benefit the helper.

2) Avoid seeing crises as insurmountable problems: You cannot change the fact that highly stressful events happen, but you can change how you interpret and respond to these events. Try looking beyond the present to how future circumstances may be a little better. Note any subtle ways in which you might already feel somewhat better as you deal with difficult situations.

3) Accept that change is a part of living: As a result of adverse situations, certain goals no longer may be attainable. Accepting circumstances that cannot be changed can help you focus on circumstances that you can alter.

4) Move toward your goals: Develop some realistic goals. Do something regularly, even if it seems like a small accomplishment, that enables you to move toward your goals. Instead of focusing on tasks that seem unachievable, ask yourself, What is one thing I know I can accomplish today that helps me move in the direction I want to go?

5) Take decisive action: Act on adverse situations as much as you can. Take decisive actions, rather than detaching completely from problems and stresses and wishing they would just go away.

6) Look for opportunities for self-discovery: Often, people learn something about themselves and may find that they have grown in some respect as a result of their struggle with loss. Many people who have experienced tragedies and hardships have reported better relationships, a greater sense of strength even while feeling vulnerable, an increased sense of self-worth, a more developed spirituality, and a heightened appreciation for life.

7) Nurture a positive view of yourself: Developing confidence in your ability to solve problems and trusting your instincts helps build resilience.

8) Keep things in perspective: Even when facing painful events, try to consider the stressful situation in a broader context and keep a long-term perspective. Avoid blowing the event out of proportion.

9) Maintain a hopeful outlook: An optimistic outlook enables you to expect that good things will happen in your life. Try visualizing what you want, rather than worrying about what you fear.

10) Take care of yourself: Pay attention to your own needs and feelings. Engage in activities that you enjoy and find relaxing. Exercise regularly. Taking care of yourself helps to keep your mind and body primed to deal with situations that require resilience.

Source: American Psychological Association, “10 Tips for Building Resilience in Children and Teens,”

From a visual model, cognitive restructuring entails 1) an activating adverse event or stressor (e.g., traffic jam) that triggers negative feelings; 2) beliefs, distortions, and inner dialogue about the problem (e.g., increased adrenalin, feelings of anxiety); and 3) behavioral and emotional consequences (e.g., stress of target organs, increase of heart rate and blood pressure). You can avoid all of this if, for instance, you tell yourself that you cannot do anything about the traffic, sit back and enjoy music, bide your time, and recognize that you, eventually, will get through it.

Living an Enriched and Fulfilled Life

  • Count your blessings.
  • Practice acts of kindness.
  • Savor life’s joys.
  • Thank a mentor.
  • Learn to forgive.
  • Invest time and energy in friends and family.
  • Take care of your body.
  • Develop strategies for coping with stress and hardships.
Source: S. Lyubomirsky, The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want (New York, NY: Penguin Press, 2008).

Another facet of cognitive restructuring is known as cognitive distortions. This encompasses behaviors that prove troublesome for persons who react (expressive) first and think (cognitive) second.5

  • All-or-nothing (dichotomous) thinking: “It’s my way or the highway”-type thinking that leads to extreme actions, like leaving a partnership, quitting a job, or acting in other impulsive ways; mood swings; and interpersonal problems
  • Overgeneralizing: making an inaccurate blanket statement (e.g., All people from the South are less intelligent than the rest of the country.)
  • Labeling: defining or describing someone in terms of their appearance or behavior (e.g., identifying an overweight individual as lazy)
  • Filtering: distorting what someone says into something different from what was communicated, perhaps, to fit one’s own preconceptions or ideas
  • Disqualifying the positive: continually downplaying positive experiences for useless reasons, often reveling in the negative
  • Jumping to conclusions: Drawing inferences (usually negative) from little (if any) evidence
    Telescoping: perceiving recent events as distant and distant events as recent
  • Emotional reasoning: assuming that reality is in line with one’s current emotions (e.g., I am sad; therefore, everything around me is melancholy.)
  • Making a habit of “should” statements: having patterns of thought that imply the way things “ought” to be, rather than embracing the actual situation or having rigid rules that “always apply” regardless of the circumstances
  • Personalizing events: taking personal responsibility for something that you had no control over

Pursuit of Hope

Try to find the good in a bad situation, shift your focus to problem solving, keep the stressor in perspective, control your inner dialogue, stop negative self-talk, and, most important, avoid the blame game. How do you control these irrational beliefs? First, identify the irrational belief that you need to control. Believe it or not, some people cannot even identify what is bothering them. Second, can this perception be rationally supported? Third, what evidence exists for its falseness? Fourth, does any evidence exist for its truthfulness? Fifth, what is the worst thing that actually can happen? Sixth, what good can you derive from this experience?

In the end, everyone needs guidance, instruction, or a learning tool to go by from time to time. Having some beacon of light to guide you when everything seems dark, foreboding, and ominous just might make all the difference. That could come from reading an article or book, hearing an inspirational message, commiserating with friends, receiving a compliment, appreciating the laughter in children, or enjoying the warmth of a pet. Make a list of things you want or need to complete. A list is a great way of getting organized and feeling a sense of accomplishment.


Only you know what makes you tick or which methods work for you to become more resilient or hardy. Whatever allows you to deal with adversity, harness and use it, and always remember that no problem will last forever. Look back to a perceived problem you had 1, 5, or 10 years ago, and you probably will think, Wow, I was concerned about that! So, remember that same insight works going forward if you think of it in that context. Just live every day and make it to that future moment, and all will be different from today.

I guarantee you this much: There is one constant in life—everything changes. Resilience encompasses a mix of inner strength, hope, steadfastness, attitude, and living in the present. Approach your troubles as challenges that you can overcome. Only worry about the things you can change; let everything else take care of itself. Be persistent in overcoming obstacles, pushing through no matter what, and, above all, remain optimistic and have hope. Do not live in the past or be too hard on yourself for past actions or situations. Live for today, and have a positive attitude.


Daniel P. Goleman, Emotional Intelligence (New York, NY: Bantam Books, 1995).


Rachel Baldino, “Mind Over Matter: Can You Learn to Become More Emotionally Resilient?” (accessed October 31, 2011).

Martin Seligman, Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2002).

David Burns, The Feeling Good Handbook (New York, NY: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1989).

Martin Seligman, Authentic Happiness.

Additional Resources

American Psychological Association, “10 Tips for Building Resilience in Children and Teens,”

Rachel Baldino, “Mind Over Matter: Can You Learn How To Become More Emotionally Resilient?”

David Burns, The Feeling Good Handbook (New York, NY: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1989).

Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence (New York, NY: Bantam Books, 1995).

S. Lyubomirsky, The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want (New York, NY: Penguin Press, 2008).

Martin Seligman, Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2002).