“How can I learn to become more resilient?”

Clients often ask this in their first therapy session. They tell me that they find it hard to cope with setbacks and they set ‘achieving’ resilience as their ‘goal’ for therapy. It’s one of those buzz words like mindfulness that has been floating around for the past few years and many organisations and businesses have also cottoned on to this trend, offering training on how their staff can become more resilient.

But what does it actually mean to be resilient?

The dictionary describes it as ‘the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness’ or ‘the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity’. This doesn’t sit right with me for a few reasons:

First, I think that applying the ‘bouncing back’ idea to humans and their pain (as I think many people do) is a mistake. I don’t think we do ‘bounce back’ to what we were after we go though suffering. It’s inevitable that we are changed by painful events. This is a good thing as our scars help us to develop more empathy and compassion for others when they suffer and we’re inclined to be less judgmental as a result of our own pain.

Second, the idea of resilience as meaning ‘toughness’ suggests being somehow immune or impervious to pain. Often, the people I see in the therapy room are on the more sensitive side. They encounter people in their lives who appear not to be buffeted around by the difficulties of life the way the rest of us mere mortals are and who seem not to feel pain to the same extent. Clients equate that persona with resilience and decide that that’s what they want to be like. Again, I think this is a mistake. Who knows what goes on behind closed doors for these seemingly thick-skinned types – the reality could be quite different to what we see and sometimes these people may be repressing their feelings or be emotionally avoidant. Regardless, when an emotionally open and demonstrative client tells me they want to embody that idea of what resilience looks like, it’s because they feel it’s shameful to be the person they are. They beat themselves up for ‘not being able to cope’ with life’s difficulties in a more socially acceptable way (i.e. behind closed doors). They tell me they want to become “less emotional” and “more self-contained”. This is basically just a way of denying who they are and trying to become someone else.

asphalt road between trees
Photo by Craig Adderley on Pexels.com

Third, because of these out-dated ideas of resilience, the well-intentioned initiatives introduced by organisations aimed at ‘improving’ the resilience of the employees are apt for misinterpretation. These programmes can be seen by employees as an attempt to foist the ‘blame’ for any issues in the organisation onto them. The message they take is that it’s about their ‘problem’ and that they needed to learn to be ‘better’ rather than about the organisation addressing its wider structural issues.

A new dawn – Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)

I think that more modern ideas about resilience have a lot to teach us. These new concepts focus on harnessing the power of being sensitive and ‘emotional’, rather than on repressing or denying such qualities.

ACT is a branch of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy that focuses, broadly speaking, on accepting difficult feelings (rather than trying to avoid or distract yourself from them), and continuing to move in the direction of your values anyway.

ACT defines resilience as:

‘coping with challenges or setbacks in a way that allows you to remain committed to living in accord with your own values’[1].

The difference between this definition and the old-school ideas is there’s no requirement that the person themselves ‘be’ a certain way i.e. that they be ‘unemotional’ during the process nor ‘bounce back’ to what they used to be, in order to be considered resilient.

There’s no rulebook as to how you have to be; it’s purely about plugging away at trying to live in line with your values, regardless of the (inevitable) setbacks along the way.


So how are we supposed to know what our values are? And what’s the difference between values and goals? It’s a surprisingly tricky question to answer. Donald Robertson’s brilliant book ‘Building Resilience’ suggests various ways of getting to the heart of what your values actually are, including the following:

  • Think in terms of qualities you show in your behaviour, rather than goalsg. to act with integrity, to behave in an honest manner etc.
  • Think about the various roles you have in your life and how you’d like to fulfil those roles in order to be doing them well e.g. to be a mum with strong boundaries but also compassion, to be a lawyer who is thorough in your work but without castigating yourself for mistakes.
  • Think about any intrinsically valuable activities you have in your life and what they show you about what you value. An extrinsically valuable activity would be playing a particular sport because of a goal e.g. to become a professional sportsperson. Intrinsically valuable activities are those we do just because we enjoy them – if I enjoy cookery, is it because I value peace and quiet and alone time, the art of creating something, entertaining and providing for others? These activities can give us clues about ourselves.
  • Envisage your own funeral (morbid I know) and what you’d like people to say about you and remember you for.

My experience is that the new ideas around resilience and the gentler, more accepting approach is actually more likely to stimulate more long-lasting change. The traditional CBT approach of directly challenging our thinking and working towards defined goals can be great but it can feel like walking a tightrope, where one false step in either direction could mean falling off the wagon and going right back to square one. For example, if someone is struggling with overeating, often they set their goal to lose a certain amount of weight and/or only eat certain ‘good’ foods. Then, if they don’t live up to the requirements they’ve set themselves, they feel demoralised and ashamed, sometimes leading them to abandon their goal entirely.

The new approach to building resilience is two pronged: 1) to work on accepting our current state and 2) continuing to move in the direction of our values (despite the inevitable setbacks along the way). I believe that, in doing so, we create the right conditions for a more gradual change with longevity rather than a ‘boom and bust’ approach.

It would be great if we could stop using terms like resilience as a way of haranguing ourselves for not being the person we thought we would be. What ACT shows us is that the way forward is about inclusivity and acceptance, rather than shaping ourselves to fit into old ideas about what stoicism is and should look like.

Strength and vulnerability are not mutually exclusive concepts and, if we can keep working towards self-acceptance alongside our other goals then, ironically, these are the conditions within which we are able to grow and change in a healthy way.

[1] Donald Robertson ‘Build Your Resilience’ 2012 pg 4

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