The 3 Traits of Highly Resilient People

Acceptance, purpose, & flexibility.

Nick Wignall
Nov 19, 2019 · 6 min read
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For most of us, the idea of resilience conjures up stories of profound heroism in the face of grave injustice — Viktor Frankl surviving the concentration camps or Rosa Parks sitting wherever she damn well pleased.

But resilience isn’t always epic. Sometimes it’s quite ordinary—taking criticism well from our spouse instead of getting defensive, or processing grief in a healthy way instead of running to escape it.

Research shows that highly resilient people tend to possess three common traits: acceptance, purpose, and flexibility. Importantly, we know that these are not simply genetic gifts some lucky few are born with — they’re skills all of us can learn to build.

Whether you’d like to handle relationship conflict more confidently, bounce back a little quicker from setbacks at work, or cope with anxiety and stress a little better, you can learn a lot from the 3 traits of highly resilient people.

Acceptance: Learn to See Reality For What It Is

Resilience does not mean naive optimism.

Highly resilient people are clear-eyed about the nature of the challenges they face — neither overly optimistic or pessimistic. This acceptance of the way things really are allows them to be more effective at designing strategies to navigate their challenges productively.

For example: suppose you’ve just given a presentation to your boss at work. You believe strongly that your idea is a good one, and you feel like the presentation itself went fairly well. But to your shock, the first words out of your boss’ mouth are to criticize a key component of your idea. You feel the hurt and anger quickly rising up.

You could continue down this path of defensiveness that your mind has started you on. And while you feel justified in this, you suspect that the end result may not be so good — your boss could scrap the idea entirely, for example.

On the other hand, you can acknowledge feeling hurt but try to better understand what your boss’ criticism is getting at and whether, in the long run, it could lead to an even better idea.

While it’s natural to feel angry and upset in response to criticism — and to interpret that criticism as unfair — this default response is not always in line with reality. Did your boss literally do something wrong by pointing out what she saw as a weakness in your idea? Is she actually always negative? Does she really not know what she’s talking about?

A more realistic assessment of things might be: ‘She was a little blunt with her criticism — which hurt — but that’s not a bad point.’ Or ‘True, she doesn’t have as much technical expertise in this area as I do, but an outsider’s perspective could be really helpful.’

Get in the habit of checking your initial interpretations of things, and then align our thoughts more closely with reality. Not only will you feel better in the moment, but you’ll be far more effective in moving forward.

Purpose: The Power of Clarifying Your Highest Values

Purpose doesn’t have to be something grandiose or spiritual.

Having a sense of purpose can simply mean that you have positive things in your life that you are excited about, curious about, look forward to, and that you consider valuable. The more of these intrinsic values we have, the stronger our sense of purpose and therefore the more motivation we have to persevere through difficulties.

Here’s an example:

I had a client once named Amelia who lost her mother to cancer suddenly and at a young age. She was devastated. For the first few weeks after her mother’s death, Amelia hardly left the house, barely ate, and was almost totally disconnected from her family and friends. She felt bad about this, but as she explained to me, she was “just too overwhelmed with the grief.”

After a couple of unsuccessful attempts on my part as her therapist to help, we stumbled onto something that was just what she needed by taking a look at this idea of purpose.

One of the things Amelia was most distraught about was that her own young daughter was never going to have any experiences with her grandmother. I recognized that right there was a value, something personally important to her. And while we couldn’t literally give her daughter experiences with her now-deceased grandmother, maybe we could get close.

Amelia and I began to explore what aspects of her mother she most valued and wished her daughter could experience. She recalled favourite memories with her mom, favourite qualities in her, and even some of her favourite meals that her mom used to cook for her. Amelia brightened visibly as she talked through these parts of her mom that she valued.

Then I suggested that even though her daughter would not be able to experience her grandmother as my client had, she could still come to know her grandmother in powerful ways through stories that my client could tell about her. And at that moment, things really clicked for Amelia.

By clarifying a value she held dear (her daughter getting to experience her grandmother) we were able to generate a sense of purpose (telling her daughter stories about her grandmother) that allowed Amelia to process her grief in a healthier way and move forward with her life.

To find the strength to persevere, start by exploring and clarifying your values — the things that matter most to you.

Flexibility: Cultivate Strong Beliefs Loosely Held

Resilient people have an uncanny ability to be flexible when circumstances change.

Rather than becoming paralyzed or resorting to wishing and complaining that things were different, they set about to change the one thing they actually have control over — themselves.

Put another way, resilient people have a knack for being creative and inventive in the face of stress. This allows them to adapt to their difficulties rather than crumble.

One of the best examples of this came from another client of mine, Sharron, and how she learned to communicate better with her husband.

By nature, Sharron had a very direct, matter-of-fact style of communicating. As soon as she recognized something was wrong, she wanted to bring it up and “process” it immediately. That’s what worked for her.

For a long time, that’s how Sharron approached difficulties in her marriage — she would try to get her husband to talk about things immediately, even though he was resistant to this and found it difficult.

What Sharron discovered, though, was that her husband simply preferred to think things through slowly and on his own before talking about them together. That’s how he liked to “process” things. But from his perspective, he never got a chance to do that because she was always “forcing” him to process things right away and on the spot.

When Sharron realized what was going on, she made a conscious effort to be patient with her desire to “talk it out” immediately, and instead, give her husband some space and time. Because she was flexible, they were able to find a better compromise for how they handle relationship stressors.

When things are tough, try experimenting with your thinking. Test out new lines of thought. Modify your initial assumptions and beliefs. Be flexible and watch as solutions open up.

All You Need to Know

Highly resilient people share 3 common traits: acceptance of reality, a sense of purpose, and flexible thinking. While resilience is crucial for people undergoing extreme suffering and trauma, it’s also a trait we can all benefit from in small but important ways in everyday life.

  • Check your default reactions to make sure they reflect reality, not an unrealistic wish or unfounded fear.
  • Clarify your values as a way to build motivation and perseverance.
  • Flex your thinking in order to arrive at new insights and creative solutions to problems.

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