How to Bounce Back – Build resilience in yourself and others
Learn practical tips to strengthen your resilience, and how to instill resilience in others
Why do some people spring back from hardship while others struggle? Experts agree that resilience is a function of several elements, including genetics, trauma, and personal development, not necessarily in that order. Each of us is genetically hardwired to recover after a failure — some more quickly than others. And, to an extent, our resilience is informed by our experiences. A young person who is abused, neglected, or abandoned is less likely to develop the resilience of one who was nurtured and supported. But most important, whatever degree of resilience we possess, we can always work to increase it. Resilience gets projects accomplished and polio eradicated. It beats the odds, turning losses into wins. Which leads to the question: What, exactly, is resilience?
According to George Everly Jr., professor of psychology and public health at Johns Hopkins University and co-author of Stronger: Develop the Resilience You Need to Succeed, resilience is a matter of both attitude and actions. Tenacity is an action. “People won’t be tenacious if they assume they are going to fail,” he says. “A resilient attitude is optimistic; it’s the belief in a self-fulfilling prophecy.” If you expect to be resilient, you will become resilient. “But the attitude is impotent without subsequent action,” Everly adds. “This ain’t rocket science. We tend to couch it in psychobabble and the ethereal, and it is not.”
Here’s how to learn the art of bouncing back.
Don’t let your genes rule you
Kenneth Ginsburg, an adolescent medicine specialist, professor at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, and author of the book Building Resilience in Children and Teens, came up with the term “7 C’s” (see sidebar). “I drew on concepts from the leading thinkers,” he says. “It’s about raising youth to be resilient.” The model, however, applies to adults as well.
While Ginsburg acknowledges a hereditary component to resilience, he is reluctant to bring up that fact in early visits with patients. “If you put genetics first, people feel disempowered. It may be true that certain things are genetically predicted, such as intelligence and anxiety, but really more than anything else it’s that people around you support your growth and recovery.”
Let kids solve problems
Jenny Stotts, a social worker who is a member of the Rotary Club of Athens Sunrise, Ohio, and District 6690 membership chair, says we can build resilience in young people by simply supporting them. “Maybe they are having a conflict with a peer,” she says. “Instead of swooping in and fixing it, look for opportunities for them to problem-solve. That is a resilience-building activity.”
Think yourself positive
As trite as this may sound, the key to resilience is maintaining a positive attitude. The good news is that if you don’t feel positive, you can still build resilience by acting positive. Fake it till you make it, says Everly. Act as though you are tenacious and bound to win. “Even if you don’t believe it, just adopt a positive attitude that views the future as bright and failures as steppingstones to success.” He points out that the silent movie star Mary Pickford once said, “This thing we call ‘failure’ is not the falling down, but the staying down.”
A resilient attitude is optimistic; it’s the belief in a self-fulfilling prophecy.
George Everly Jr., professor of psychology and public health at Johns Hopkins University
Everly says that when we accustom ourselves to acting as though we will succeed, our perspective changes. That shift allows us to begin to see life as a journey, not a destination.
According to Stotts, “One cool thing about personal resilience is that what you are born with doesn’t necessarily remain static.” As a social worker, speaker, and trainer who specializes in resilience, leadership, and organizational change, Stotts says there are many ways to increase resilience. “People prosper from success and learn from others,” she says. “If we break down resilience, it is the space between a stimulus and a reaction to the stimulus. In that space are your coping skills.” Trauma, a lack of security, and disruptions can erode those coping skills and diminish our resilience.
Building resilience, she says, is a function of increasing that space between the stimulus and the reaction. With more space — more time to consider, to take a breath, to reframe the world — we learn to get back up.
One way to open up that space is to challenge your perspective. Say you’re at an airport and see a flamboyantly dressed woman walking toward you. “I’ve been socialized to draw conclusions about her,” Stotts says. “But I can challenge my own perspective.” Instead of asking why she would dress that way at an airport, “I might wonder if she is an artist.”
Stotts recommends getting into the habit of developing alternative hypotheses when we encounter a stimulus. “Then, when you are under stress you are more likely to do it,” she says.
Share of Generation Z respondents (ages 13 to 27) who say they have no friends. This is a worrisome number, according to professor of psychology and public health George Everly Jr.; a key element of resilience is our relationships with other people.
Source: 2019 YouGov poll
Focus on process
In her workshops, Stotts helps expand the space between stimulus and response by treating failure from a different perspective. Focus on “process, not results,” she says.
Say an organization wants to increase its volunteer ranks. Instead of looking only at the number of volunteers, look at the recruitment process. “Is it easy to volunteer?” Stotts asks. “Are there barriers we don’t know about?”
Also, all too often, she says, we look at failure and ask what we did wrong and what we should do differently. “But we should unpack our successes and learn from those processes too. That is building a culture of constructive positivity.”
Practice kind listening
If you are talking with a seventh grader who scored a winning goal in a soccer match, here’s a good question to ask, says Stotts:
“If you were giving advice to a first grader about how to score a goal, what would you tell them?” That builds confidence, and resilience too.
Or say an adult brought in a project on-time and under budget. Stotts recommends saying something like, “You really pulled this off well. Let’s unpack it. What lessons apply to other things we do?” Again, this drives connection, competence, and confidence — and helps build resilience.
Everywhere, including in Rotary, “we hear the message to talk and speak and act with kindness,” Stotts notes. “But we don’t hear as much about listening with kindness.”
The 7 C’s of Resilience
Connection: Human connection is one of the most important elements supporting resilience. Find meaningful opportunities to connect with friends, family, colleagues, and your community.
Competence: Knowing how to handle stressful situations and face challenges will make us more resilient. Stress reduction is a skill that can be learned, practiced, and improved to increase our social skills and build resilience.
Confidence: When we’re confident, we know that falling down isn't a failure — but not getting back up is. Adopting a positive attitude will change our perspective on failure.
Character: Always showing integrity, ethical conduct, and personal accountability will increase our self-confidence and our resilience.
Contribution: When we contribute to our communities, our neighborhoods, and our families, the appreciation we receive drives our self-confidence and boosts our resilience.
Coping: Strong social skills and the know-how to reduce stress prepare us to tackle life’s challenges. These skills can be taught to children, teens, and adults.
Control: When we take responsibility for our decisions and actions, we begin to make choices that enable us to feel like we’re in control of our lives and able to overcome challenges.
Source: Kenneth Ginsburg
Visit Rotary's Learning Center and take these Resiliency courses. Develop resiliency by learning how to handle difficult situations, understanding the effects of psycho-social trauma, and exploring proven self-care techniques.
• This story originally appeared in the February 2022 issue of Rotary magazine.