Embracing Resilience: 5 Ways to Turn Adversity into Success

Last Updated:Monday, January 29, 2024

While facing challenges and going through adverse situations are common human experiences, the ability of some people to survive, even thrive despite adversity is impressive. Individuals considered as “resilient” manage to react in a positive and harmonious manner when difficulties arise, and adopt behaviors that enable them to reframe setbacks as opportunities for growth.


The use of the term “resilience” has a long history replete with diverse meanings. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape ” or “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties.”

The term has its origin in the Latin word “resilio ”, which means to return, to bounce back. It was traditionally used in the field of physics and referred to the ability of a substance or object to return to its original shape after having suffered some deformation produced by a force exerted on it.

In the 1950s, the concept was adapted to social sciences to characterize individuals who, in spite of going through adverse situations, live well and develop in a positive way. The emergence of the concept in psychology began in the early 1970s with research on children who had been abused or had grown up alongside domestic violence.

Today, resilience is commonly understood as a psychological concept that refers to the capacity to recover from difficult experiences and move forward.

The American Psychological Association defines it as “ the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress — such as family and relationships problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors. ”

There has been a growing swirl of interest around resilience in recent years, and the use of the term has become increasingly popular and widespread. Contemporary society tends to gravitate around the bounce back narrative, often promoted in the stories shared on social media.

There seems to be something about championing other people's struggles that resonates deeply within many of us.

The concept of resilience is now used in multiple contexts to describe a person's ability to bounce back and apply patience and tenacity toward achieving their goals. As such, it is often cited as a key characteristic of success.

Resilient people are able to use their skills to cope with challenges and crises. These difficulties may include illness, job loss, medical emergencies, natural disasters, divorce, an accident or the death of a loved one. Instead of falling into despair when problems arise, resilient individuals almost instantly try to develop effective coping strategies.

This does not mean that they experience less anxiety and grief than others. The path toward resilience can actually involve significant emotional distress, and it is often these negative feelings that foster strength and growth. In many cases, people emerge from hard situations stronger than they were before.

While resilience is commonly associated with traumatic or life-changing events, people also have to be resilient to face day-to-day adversities, like financial troubles, relationship conflicts and workplace issues.

Clinical psychologist Meg Jay, who shares important lessons about adversity and resilience in her latest book Supernormal, explains that people are often ashamed of what makes them anxious.“A lot of people say, 'Well, I wasn't in a war...' They have to learn what the most common adversities are and see those as being legitimate chronic stressors, ” she says.

According to her, the first step toward better resilience is to recognize that your struggle is valid.


The way people handle difficulties, regardless of how serious they are, can play a significant role in the outcome as well as in the long-term psychological consequences.

5 Ways to Build Resilience

There is still controversy about the extent to which resilience is innate or learned, but most scientists agree that humans can develop thoughts, actions and behaviors that will make them more resilient.  

Five behaviors are most frequently cited by psychologists as effective ways to increase one's ability to bounce back from adversity.

1. Maintaining Positive Relationships

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The quality of your relationships with other people influences how resilient you can be when facing a crisis. Those who care about you will help you during though times.  

A 2013 study conducted by psychiatrists at the University of Michigan found that positive social connections were closely linked to psychological well-being, and that overall poor quality in relationships was a significant predictor of depression.

Harvard University's Center on the Developing Child has conducted many studies on resilience in children. Researchers have found that kids' ability to respond and adapt to adversity depends on supportive and responsive relationships. The more interactions a child has with a caring adult, the more the child will develop and be able to adapt to various situations.

When we are suffering, friends and family members help us feel better. Having quality social support will give you more confidence in your abilities, making it easier for you to overcome adversity.

2. Accepting Change

When certain goals are no longer attainable as a result of adverse situations, you need to accept the reality of what has happened, and accept the fact that this is not something you can go back and change. Reliving past events and wallowing in regret, disappointment, anger or guilt can be an extremely unhealthy process.

You should never deny the reality of what has happened or the emotions it has stirred. However, if you continuously worry about what you could have done differently, you may end up living in a state of paralysis. Accepting circumstances that cannot be changed can help you focus on what you can alter to move forward.

3. Knowing you Can Control Your Fate

It is human nature to feel like a victim in front of adversity. Many people will unconsciously find someone to blame when difficulties strike, and seek comfort in the notion of their own misfortune or innocence.

While a problematic situation may be something you could never have prevented, you can take responsibility of the way you respond to it. Once you realize you can control the way in which you handle negative experiences, you will most likely feel empowered to find positive ways to move along. 

In 1955, developmental psychologist Emmy Werner began a study that would last over 40 years. She started to follow 700 children born that year on the Hawaiian island of Kauai.

In the 1950s, Kauai was not a privileged place. Most kids lived in poverty and were exposed to parental mental illness, alcoholism and chronic family discord. The study supported the conventional belief that a poor developmental outcome is inevitable if a child is exposed to such environmental risk factors.

However, despite their problematic development histories, over 30% of the group had stable lives, steady jobs, and had never been in trouble with the law by the age of 40. Their accomplishments surpassed those of several people who had grown up in more privileged environments.

You cannot change highly stressful events or living conditions, but you can decide how you interpret and respond to these situations.

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4. Setting Realistic Goals

One of the biggest contributor to resilience is moving forward toward goals. Making progress increases confidence and ability to handle life's challenges. Because resilience is fueled by the sense of achievement, goals must be realistic.

A common characteristic of the resilient adults in the Kauai study was that they had set realistic educational and career goals.

By developing realistic goals, you give yourself positive focus. That makes you more resilient by giving you something to look forward to. When problems arise, the positive thought of working toward a goal gives you strength to address them.  

5. Recognizing how Adversity Made you Strong

Once you have accepted the unpleasant situations you have endured and have taken responsibility for the way you reacted to it, it is important to stop and reflect on how that experience has affected you.

After going through hard times, we tend to focus on how we are broken rather than how we are stronger. However, by learning to cope with such experiences, we gain confidence and become better prepared to face life's challenges than the average person.

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Because you have already gone through so much, you will maybe be able to pass on the insights you have gained to other people.

Resilience Models

Some individuals who have gone through challenging experiences adopted these behaviors and managed to turn adversity into success.

James Dimon

One of the biggest challenges for business leaders is recovering from a career setback. The case of James Dimon, who was fired as president of Citigroup but is now CEO of JPMorgan Chase, illustrates how people can respond to defeat with greater determination and vigor.

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After beginning his finance career at American Express, Dimon followed his mentor Sandy Weill and helped him build multinational bank Citigroup.

Shortly after its foundation in 1998, Citigroup became the biggest bank holding company in the world. However, false rumors began to spread that Dimon was taking too much media attention away from Weill, and that the two men had a disagreement about promoting Weill's daughter.

In reality, Dimon wanted to be in charge of a division but Weill and Citigroup CEO John Reed felt he was not ready and that it would be better if he ran the division along with two others. Dimon refused the offer, and left Citigroup later in 1998 after Weill asked him to resign. It was later confirmed that Weill had actually fired him.

Dimon decided that he would never work for anyone else again, and took his time to find a job that would be right for him. Knowing that his passion and talent lay in banking, he became CEO of Bank One in 2000. At the time, Bank One was among the largest financial institutions in the country, but was struggling.

Four months after Dimon became CEO, the bank started looking attractive to investors again. In 2004, Bank One was purchased by JPMorgan Chase, creating the second biggest bank in America.

Dimon started at JPMorgan Chase as President, but quickly climbed the rungs of the corporate ladder to become CEO in 2005 and chairman in 2006. The company's shares have increased by 66% since Dimon became CEO. JPMorgan Chase is currently the largest bank in the United States in terms of assets.

In a 2014 interview, Sally Weill said that ending his partnership with Dimon was one of his greatest mistakes.

Susanna Kaysen

American author Susanna Kaysen bounced back from challenging times she experienced in the late 1960s by sharing her story.

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At the age of 18, after a session with a psychiatrist she had never seen before, she was sent to McLean psychiatric hospital to be treated for borderline personality disorder. She thought she would stay there only a few days, but she ended up spending nearly two years on the ward for teenagers.

Her life at the renowned hospital featured room checks, monitored phone calls, monitored meals and barred windows that could be opened only by nurses. Patients had to conform to a complex system of rewards and punishments ranging from the privilege of walking around the grounds of the hospital to the penalty of being locked in a seclusion room.

Under constant supervision, she spent her days sitting in her bedroom or in a living room where she had to mix with patients who had serious mental illnesses like schizophrenia and who sometimes engaged in dangerous behaviors.

Once she was released, she had no job, no money and stayed with her parents. That is when she started writing.

She revealed the story of her 18 months in McLean to the world in the 1993 bestseller Girl, Interrupted. Critics praised the disarming honesty of the book, and it was made into a movie that won Angelina Jolie an Oscar in 1999.

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At first, Kaysen felt like that experience had broken her. “We'd reached the end of the line,” she writes of herself and other patients. “We had nothing more to lose. Our privacy, our liberty, our dignity: all of this was gone and we were stripped down to the bare bones of ourselves.”

However, she quickly realized that it had been an important formative experience that changed her understanding of life. Instead of letting shame and anger bring her down, she used that tough experience to inspire others and bring awareness to important issues about mental illness and hospital practices.

With five published books, she is now a successful writer, and an icon for mental health advocates. She is considered as a major contributor in the fight against mental illness stigma.

A Timeless Concern

Even though the concept of resilience was officially defined by science in the second half of the 20th century, earlier literature shows that the ability to cope with change and challenges has preoccupied human beings for a long time.

Greek philosopher Epictetus (circa 55 ─135 AD) wrote about human perception of life's challenges, and stated that human beings can control the way in which they handle negative experiences. His famous quote “Make the best use of what is in your power and take the rest as it happens” clearly illustrates the principle of responsibility toward one's own fate that characterizes resilience.

In 1603, Shakespeare described the same idea in Hamlet, writing that “There is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

References to resilience can also be found in classic American literature. In F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, published in 1925, the narrator alludes to the concept several times as he describes how the characters continually move in the face of change and adversity like boats battling the tide.

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The famous line “so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past” illustrates the struggle of human beings to achieve their goals by both transcending and recreating the past.  

The fundamental incapacity of humans to move beyond important events from their past is represented by the tide drawing them backward. They constantly have to fight against the might of the ocean to move forward, the same way people need to overcome adversity in order to move on.

An Ongoing Process

While contemporary society often depicts resilience as a highly valuable skill or personality trait, this human capacity to keep moving forward in spite of challenges is a continual process that requires time and effort.

The pathway to resilience engages people in adopting behaviors that will make them stronger and more prepared to face adversity. This journey can lead to success by enabling people to consider unexpected difficulties as opportunities to make something better.