Building your resilience, or inner strength, is key to coping with life’s hardships. But if used in unhealthy ways, resilience can harm instead of help.
Resilience is an important life skill to learn, build, and use. It’s the inner strength that allows you to cope with stress and recover from setbacks or hardship.
When you’re resilient, you’re better able to carry on when life throws its inevitable curveballs your way. It helps you stay calm in tough situations so you can tap into your problem-solving skills. Resilience also helps you adapt to difficult changes and move forward. And it supports your overall mental health and well-being.
But sometimes, resilience can have a downside if it’s taken too far or not used in healthy ways. This can happen if you misinterpret resilience for something it’s not. For example, you might become obsessed or overly driven to achieve an unreachable goal, and then beat yourself up when you don’t achieve it. Or instead of coping with or trying to solve an intolerable situation, you might simply ignore or put up with it.
Resilience can also do more harm than good if it’s misinterpreted for perfectionism. This in turn may cause you to set unrealistic expectations of yourself or others when hardship hits. You might judge yourself or others as “weak” or “flawed” if you or they express strong emotions or don’t “bounce back” from a hardship quickly enough.
Misapplying resilience might also cause you to dismiss or trivialize someone else’s upset feelings. You might think they should simply “buck up” or “be able to handle any crisis.” Telling someone (or yourself) to “Look on the bright side,” or to “Just stay positive” when the person is reeling from an upsetting event is one way of misusing resilience and dismissing that person’s feelings.
The key is to learn to temper resilience with a balanced mix of realism, compassion, and empathy —both for yourself and for others. This can take a bit of practice. Learning to identify both the healthy and not-so-healthy ways to use resilience can help.
So, here are 4 situations in which resilience might go wrong…followed up with healthier alternate approaches:
1. Burying your feelings (or expecting others to bury their feelings)
Striving for a “positive mindset” in the face of a stressful event or hardship is, in fact, one way to improve resilience. But not if it’s taken too far.
There’s a difference between staying positive and completely sweeping your feelings under the rug. Say that you have just lost a beloved pet or have gone through a divorce or financial crisis. Holding your feelings inside during such hardships can harm your mental health. It may also lead you to ignore your problems. This in turn can cause chaos and may actually erode your resilience rather than build it.
A better approach: When stress or a hardship hits, it may be more helpful to experience, accept, and process any negative feelings that come up—at least initially—especially if you’re going through a particularly traumatic event.
Keep in mind that your emotions are not a bad thing. They are part of what makes you human. And they are valuable tools if managed and used in healthy ways.
The key is to not let negative emotions trigger unhelpful, knee-jerk reactions or behaviors. You also don’t want strong feelings to completely overwhelm you, shut you down, or linger for too long. Tapping your inner strength is about aiming for a calmer, more optimistic mindset while you experience and work through strong feelings. It’s not about avoiding, suppressing, or denying them.
When a stressful situation occurs, tune into any feelings that come up. Then take the time you need to gently shift to a calmer mindset. Take some deep breaths or go for a brisk walk. Then take some time to pinpoint your feelings.
Identifying and getting a handle on your feelings, rather than stuffing them or letting them control you, allows you to see solutions to the problem. You’ll still feel your emotions, but the goal is to continue to function as best you can while you do.
It may be helpful to practice this approach when minor upsets happen. This is an easy way to strengthen your resilience for more traumatic events that may arise in the future. So, the next time you lock your keys in the car or are running late and hit bad traffic—use it as an opportunity to tap your inner strength. Try to stay calm and put your problem-solving abilities in motion. Tell yourself everything will work out and that you can handle the problem.
There is another helpful way to use resilience to cope with strong feelings. Don’t be afraid or ashamed to seek support from others. You might talk through your feelings with family, friends, or a therapist. Asking for help is vital if your feelings start to overwhelm you or send you into a perpetual spiral of negative thinking. You may also find it helpful to process your feelings through journaling or expressive art therapy.
2. Beating yourself up for not being “stronger”
Kicking yourself or feeling guilty because you’re “not being strong enough” or for feeling anger, sadness, or other strong emotions, is somewhat akin to stuffing your emotions. But instead of denying your feelings, you punish yourself for having them.
This is not a healthy way to practice or build resilience. Thinking that something is “wrong” with you when you don’t feel like a pillar of strength in every situation can actually chip away at your resilience rather than build it.
A better approach: Recognize that you are human and cut yourself some slack. Cultivate self-talk that is encouraging rather than judgmental. Try to silence your inner critic and give voice to your compassionate inner coach, instead.
Here are a few examples of how you might reframe overly critical self-talk:
- “I’m so weak.” Try to replace this with, “I may feel a bit wobbly right now. But I have made it through rough patches before, and I have what it takes to get through this one, too.”
- “I feel so ashamed and can’t let anyone see how sad I feel.” Try to reframe this thought with, “My feelings of sadness are normal under the circumstances, and my friends and family understand, care, and want to help.”
- “Stop whining and pull it together!” Replace this with, “It’s OK that I feel upset right now. I won’t feel this way forever, and I can still find ways to solve this problem.”
3. Losing patience
Tapping into your inner strength and recovering from a setback can take a bit of time. Expecting you’ll bounce back right away is rarely realistic. Maybe you, or someone you know, is taking longer than you think “a resilient person should” to get over a divorce, a health crisis—or even just a crummy, stress-filled day.
A better approach: Adjust your expectations. Know that it takes time to build resilience and adapt to a difficult life change. Allow yourself, and others, to have that time.
Learning to be patient and compassionate with yourself (and others) while you get your emotional feet back under you is a healthy way to build and use resilience.
4. Expecting things to get back to “normal”
Changes—both good and bad—are a constant over the course of every person’s lifetime. Expecting to get back to the way things were after a big life change is not always possible.
A health crisis, the loss of a loved one, a move, or other life changes may call for you to you adapt to a “new normal.” Grasping too strongly to an idea of “how things should (or used to) be” may cause frustration or even a feeling of failure. And it can blind you to other avenues for adapting to change.
A better approach: Accepting change and the new realities that come with it may bring you a greater sense of peace. It may also open your mind to finding new options for adjusting to changes. And it’s a good way to build resilience.
Say that you’ve been an avid runner for many years, but severe arthritis in your knee has sidelined you. Your doctor advises you to stop running and take up some kind of low-impact exercise, instead.
You feel resistant to this idea. You love running and don’t want to give it up. You tell yourself you’re “strong enough” and can find a way back to it. So, instead of heeding your doctor’s advice, you decide you “just need to push yourself a little harder” in your physical therapy sessions. You figure you can “step up to the plate” and do extra sets of exercises at home and get back to running.
But when you do, your knee flares up and it becomes even more painful. It hurts to even walk or bear weight on that leg. This is an example—even if hypothetical—of using resilience to push yourself harder than is safe, healthy, or realistic.
A more resilient strategy in this situation might be to aim for acceptance. Giving up running is a loss, to be sure. So, let yourself experience the feelings that come up. Try to be compassionate and patient with yourself.
Soon, you start to pinpoint what you can and can’t control in this situation. You tell yourself you can explore new ways to safely work out that might bring you as much joy and fitness as your running routine did.
You start to feel excited about exploring new workout routines. You imagine what it might be like to find something you’ll love as much as running.
You try bicycling, rowing, swimming, aquatic dance classes, or body surfing. You find these new types of exercise give you just as hard and fun a workout as running did—without the knee pain.
You choose a mix of these new workouts to recreate your fitness routine. You start to feel a renewed sense of gratitude for discovering new ways to stay fit. You feel more optimistic about adapting to other hurdles in life that may come your way. And your confidence in your own inner strength goes up a notch.
This is just one example of using and building your resilience in a supportive way—one that not only allows you to cope with a loss, but helps you grow stronger because of it.
Keep in mind that resilience is not a trait you are born with. It’s one that you can learn and develop—at any age. Resilience is also not about being perfect. It’s about learning to cope with, accept, and even embrace life’s lows as well as highs. That’s because it is life’s lows that help us learn, grow, and cultivate our inner strength.
If the world’s woes have you feeling down, here are some mental health tips to lift you back up.
This information is not intended to take the place of regular medical care or advice. Please check with your doctor before using this information or beginning any self-care program. Images used for this article do not depict any members of the Silver&Fit Program.
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This article was written by Gail Olson, edited by Kimberley Reynolds, and clinically reviewed by Elizabeth Thompson, MPH, RDN