What makes someone resilient?

We were late for my daughter’s soccer practice. She was putting on her cleats in the car as I parked. She grabbed her bag and ran across the field to her team. I followed at a slower pace. The chemo had taken a lot out of me, but it was nice to be out in the fresh air and sun.

I had gotten used to the looks. After I lost my hair, I refused to wear a wig. I had a small collection of pretty head scarves that were my head covering of choice. Sometimes, I even forgot that there was anything different.

I saw another woman I knew standing with a friend. I smiled and the woman, alarmed, said, “What are you doing here?”

At first, I thought I made a mistake. Was I there on the wrong day?

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“You should be home resting!”

Ah. Home resting. I had cancer and was undergoing chemo. I got that a lot from well-meaning friends, acquaintances, family members, and colleagues. People thought I should take to my bed.

That wasn’t possible. I often can’t stay in bed for the whole night, let alone days on end. I worked during chemo. I was so grateful to have projects that allowed me to migrate from the computer to the couch as I needed to rest. It made me feel normal and kept my mind off of being a cancer patient.

Six sources of resilience

Around that time, became fascinated with the subject of resilience. What is it that makes some people able to withstand life’s body blows, while others fold up their tents and go home? Why do some people find a way to pivot and move on while others stay mired in their obstacles and failures?
A few years after I finished treatments (successfully, so far), I wrote a story for Fast Company about what makes some people more resilient. Some are wired that way. But there are also specific areas that can help make some people more resilient. My reporting identified six traits that reinforce resilience. Resilient people: 

  1. Build strong, healthy relationships
  2. Reframe actions and situations in a reasonable manner
  3. Draw their self-worth from multiple sources
  4. Accept some failure as part of life
  5. Forgive
  6. Have a sense of purpose

Each of these traits needs context, of course. For example, extreme reframing is unhealthy. And you don’t want to accept all failure as inevitable or you’ll never challenge yourself. But these are also elements that are critical to healthy resilience. The best news? You can develop them. I’ll do a deeper dive into these six components of resilience in other posts.

The caveat

For some, being resilient isn’t a choice. It’s the only way to survive. And there are times when the playing field just isn’t equal. While I do believe that we can all make our lives better in some way, there is a matter of fairness that comes into play, as well. Some people deal with circumstances beyond their control. Illnesses and disabilities create additional challenges. Systemic issues like racism and income inequality do, too. There is no intent to make light of these real and significant issues in this work. And, where possible and with deference to people who have experienced them first-hand, the work here will address those issues.

Resilience is at the core of changing our lives. It’s not the only factor, and change rarely comes easily. But I know through both research and experience that we can build the attributes that help us bounce back better.

Gwen Moran

Gwen Moran is a writer, author, and speaker who wants to help people cultivate more joy and fulfillment in their lives. She is the creator of Bloom Anywhere.