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How to Build Resilience by Fiona Buckland

By Fiona Buckland

The analogy of a pearl is a good way to think about resilience and how it strengthens and develops us. The pearl is a reminder that precious things can grow out of difficult situations. Rather than sink under life’s inevitable mishaps and setbacks, or cope with a stiff upper lip, resilient people are able to turn adversity into a growth experience, and to leverage it into new experiences and ways of working, loving and living.

The good news is resilience can be learned. No matter what kind of start we had in life or where we find ourselves today, there are tools, techniques and ways of thinking that can foster resilience.

1. Accept the Inevitability of Disappointment

Life isn’t fair. In fact, it’s inherently unfair. We can labour under the misconception that if we work hard, meet our responsibilities at home and at work and lead decent and honest lives, nothing bad will happen. But this isn’t the case. Adversity can strike at any moment, to any one of us.

At times we need to accept that things won’t work out. You didn’t get the job you wanted. Your pitch wasn’t accepted. The creative director throws out that brilliant treatment you stayed up for the last 3 weekends to work on.

We cannot change the things that happen to us, but we can change our responses. What we need is an approach that involves both acceptance of the things we can’t control and action to change the things we can. By presenting problems of life, work, and love as standard some of the heat is taken out of the situation.

2.  Develop a Growth Mind

A “growth mindset” is the belief that you have, or can gain, the tools to support you and help you move forward, even in those times when you have no control over events.

This way of thinking can be cultivated. This contrasts with a widespread idea that we are, at least by adulthood, pretty set in our ways, or what she calls possessed of a “fixed mindset”. It’s not true.

The fixed mindset is essentially anxious, pessimistic and fatalist. It sees the world in terms of “always” and “never”, and “life is like that”. But it is important to remember that it is just a mindset, not a fixed trait, and we can all move along a spectrum towards the growth mindset.

So for instance:

“I’m useless at talking with my boss”/”I can learn to control my anxiety so I listen to what she is actually saying and speak more confidently.”

“I can’t ask for feedback”/”I’m going to use feedback to grow.”

“Success to me is earning £100k a year”/”Success for me is being my best and getting better every year.”

“I can’t do that so I’m not even going to try”/”I’m going to do my best and give it a go and even if it doesn’t work out I will learn valuable lessons.”

3. Cultivate Optimism 

A growth mindset fuels confidence, happiness and optimism. It builds resilience. With a growth mindset you recognise that you get where you want to go with effort, persistence and asking for extra help. Mistakes and setbacks become opportunities for learning, rather than sources of embarrassment or shame. It starts with how you talk to yourself. Nothing wrong with being or feeling pessimistic at times, but it will de-energise you whereas optimism will energise you.

Psychologist Martin Seligman says there are three ways in which an optimist’s and a pessimist’s explanatory stylediffer. These have great relevance for building resilience:

Permanent vs temporary

Pessimists see setbacks as permanent; optimists as temporary:

I always mess up when talking to my boss” vs ”I messed up on Thursday.”

Pervasive vs specific

Pessimists see setbacks as universal judgments on themselves; optimists as one-off blips:

“I am hopeless at parties” vs ”I found that party off-putting because I was surprised that none of my friends were there.”

Internal blame vs internal/external responsibility

Who was at fault? Pessimists blame themselves, optimists assign responsibility both in themselves and externally

[After a presentation that went wrong] “It’s all my (or your) fault” vs “I should have prepared more but it was also after lunch and the group was tired.


4. Use Pessimism Helpfully

Pessimism can actually be helpful – if we know how to use it well. If we are blindly optimistic, expecting everything is always going to be great, then we’re going to be thrown when they don’t go our way. Here’s an exercise that may help. Think of applying for your dream job. But something is stopping you: you’re paralysed by fear, fear that if you don’t get it, your life will be over. That rejection will be a placard you’ll wear around your neck for ever, no-one will ever hire you, you are un-employable and actually completely worthless.

Now, face your fear. Take a piece of paper and write along the top what you fear might happen (see above!); then write down how likely this is to happen and what actually might happen. Then write down ways that you can move on from that if you don’t get the job.


5.  Learn to Thrive After a Setback

Seligman noticed that after a setback, it was usual for nearly everyone to experience an episode of disappointment, even depression and anxiety. It was what happened next that was interesting: only a very few people spiraled down, some recovered to the previous level of functioning, but others—and he was very interested in these—showed growth. That is the same depression and anxiety after adversity, but followed by increases in strengths (higher than those who had not experienced adversity).

Seligman and others have observed five conditions under which this is likely to happen:

  • Understand that emotions are normal and it’s OK to feel upset.
  • Reduce anxiety by healthy self-care
  • Share with supportive people.
  • See the setback as a fork in the road. 
  • See the bigger picture and get perspective.


6. Move Forward with Confidence

To be resilient, we need to feel confident in our ability to learn, grow and thrive in order to live life fully. This means being aware of the tools that you have at your disposal, from personal strengths to your relationships with others, and feeling confident in your ability to use them. It means remembering always that we are not stuck, even if we feel like it—that our minds and our options are always open to change.

Edith Grotberg is a professor in Developmental Psychology at the American University in Washington DC. Dr. Grotberg has done groundbreaking research in teaching vulnerable children to become more resilient – evidence that resilience can be learned.

To overcome adversities we can draw from three sources of resilience labelled:


The I HAVE factors are the external supports of resilience: e.g. trusting relationships, support system, access to health care, a job, a home.

The I AM factors are the internal personal strengths, feelings, attitudes and beliefs: e.g. loveable, capable, optimistic, trusting, hopeful, generous, caring.

The I CAN factors are the actions that enable us to move forward: e.g. talk, work, manage, find, do, fight, show.


7. Tell a Story of Your Resilience

What is important is the story we tell ourselves about our ability to cope or even to grow after a setback, or when the odds seemed insurmountable. When we know that we are capable of resilience, we will feel more confident about facing the challenges today.

Think of a difficult situation that you’ve bounced back from. What happened? What did you do? What were your

  •  Strengths (inner resources you drew on)
  • Strategies (what did you do, your actions)
  • Resources (where did you find support and help?)
  • Learnings (what did you learn? How are you different today because of how you dealt with this experience?)

About the Writer

Fiona Buckland is a Professional Co-Active Life Coach trained by the internationally recognised Coaches Training Institute and is a Member of the International Coach Federation.  She is also an experienced workshop facilitator, writer, writing coach, and member of the Faculty of The School of Life. Her professional experience flows from her passion in engaging people in ways we can live richer, fuller lives.

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