Resilience is mental toughness. It’s the ability to adapt, recover from, or bounce back from setbacks, failures and disappointments. We have all heard tales of bravery and resilience from people who were able to overcome difficult circumstances or events and turn their lives around for the better. What is their secret? Is it something we can all learn?

According psychologist, Susan Kobasa, there are three elements that are essential to building resilience:

  1. Challenge – Resilient people view difficult situations and setbacks as challenges; not as paralyzing events. They accept that change is part of life, and they approach their problems with an open mind and a willingness to learn from failures. Instead of obstacles, setbacks then become opportunities for personal growth.
  2. Commitment – Resilient people possess a strong sense of commitment. They have a compelling reason to get out of bed in the morning. Commitment isn’t just restricted to work. Resilient people have deep and meaningful relationships with others and causes that they passionately care about. These commitments and causes they care for, give them a reason to keep fighting, and to not give up when faced with adversity.
  3. Personal Control – Resilient people spend their time and energy focusing on situations and events that they have control over. They do not spend time worrying about things that they cannot change or control. Because they put their efforts where they can have the most impact, they end up feeling empowered and confident. In Covey’s words, they spend time expanding their circle of influence, instead of becoming trapped in their circle of concern.

So, the question is, how do you effectively incorporate the three C’s of resilience into your life?

We teach ourselves to view problems and setbacks as challenges, rather than insurmountable obstacles, by adopting a learning or growth mindset; instead of a performance or scarcity mindset. When we focus on performance, we focus on winning or getting it right, and on presenting ourselves in the most favourable light. We spend most of our time and energy on developing our perception self; which is the outer-most layer of the constructed self. The perception self, is volatile, because it depends on others’ feedback and it increases our ego concerns and gets us stuck. It also makes us feel like we must compete with others, and thus makes us look at the world through a scarcity lens that leads us to believe that there aren’t enough resources and opportunities for everyone. Thus, if someone else succeeds, we see their success as a threat to our own success, because they are taking all the resources.

The only way to become unstuck and to truly grow, is to embrace a learning mindset, and to focus on discovering and developing the deeper authentic self. When we cultivate a desire to learn and grow, we also give ourselves permission to fail, because failing is learning. The goal then becomes learning for our own personal growth, and not perfection for prestige or praise; which in turn means we no longer feel threatened by others’ successes. We look at the world from an abundance lens, where we can see the many opportunities that are available and where we can truly rejoice in someone else’s success, because it doesn’t detract from our journey. This is a much better space to be in, because it allows us to compete with ourselves instead of others, leading us to true authentic self-leadership; which is the desire to become our best selves.

In a previous blog post, I discussed the importance of cultivating meaning. To build resilience, requires building commitment to a cause outside ourselves. This could be work, a project, something we want to create or do, or it could be commitment to those we love. Deep, meaningful and sustainable relationships are the bridges that help us rebuild when life deals us a bad hand. The love we receive in healthy relationships with others, can be a strong source of meaning in our lives. Research seems to support this, with married people living longer than single people and with terminally ill patients overcoming their illnesses or surviving for longer if they have the loving support of friends and family who come to visit them in hospital compared to those who receive no visitors in hospital. Often our ability to bounce back from failure, comes from knowing that we have friends and family who care for us and who depend on us.

The last way to build resilience is through a process called cognitive restructuring, which is basically, a way to reframe our thinking about negative events and adopt a more hopeful outlook. Part of the process of cognitive restructuring, is critically reviewing the events in your life and asking yourself three questions:

The first question you should ask yourself is this: “Is this problem something I have direct control over? In other words, can I change it?” If you can change it, then take the necessary steps to do so. Sometimes, the change is simple. Sometimes the change is slow and requires time, energy and commitment to a process of self-discovery and personal growth. However, if the problem is caused by something in your attitude, personality, communication ability, or your level of emotional intelligence, then you owe it to yourself to address it, because it is something that only you can change.

The second question you should ask yourself is: “Is this problem something that I did not cause, but that I could influence in some way?” So, if the problem is caused by your boss, or your spouse or your colleague, then of course, you cannot change how that person reacts or behaves, but you still have control over how you choose to respond. You can choose to diffuse their anger or to see the humour in the situation, thus influencing the outcome.

The third question you should ask yourself is: “Is this problem a force majeure – in other words, a force of nature or something that is completely out of my control?” If we were to take stock of the things we stress about, we will discover that most of the time, we worry about things that we cannot control. We have no control over the weather, fluctuations in the economy, the traffic etc., and yet we obsess over these things and waste valuable energy that could be spent figuring out how to spend more time on the things we can control. So, what do you do when you discover that the things you are worried about are not in your control? You accept that change, upset and difficulty are part of life and that your current situation will also change eventually. When you are faced with a situation that is not in your control, adapt as best you can so that you are able to spend your time and energy on your commitments and on learning as much about this challenge as you can.

*Bonus feature: According to Elizabeth Scott, resilience is a mix of inborn traits and skills that can be practiced and developed. If you want to do a quick check to find out how resilient you are, take her quiz: How resilient are you?


  1. Covey, S. R. (2004). The seven habits of highly effective people. London: Simon & Schuster.
  2. Diamandis, P. & Kotler, S. (2012). Abundance: The future is better than you think. USA: Free Press.
  3. Kobasa, S. C. (1979). Stressful life events, personality, and health: An inquiry into hardiness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37(1), 1-11.

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