Toughen Up!

Two women who do similar work are laid off from their jobs. Their industry has been hit hard by economic troubles, and their prospects for finding new positions are few. They have comparable educations, career histories and job experience. You might think they'd have about the same chance of landing on their feet, but they don't: A year later, one is unemployed, broke and angry, while the other has branched out in an entirely new direction. It hasn't been easy, and she's not earning as much as she did at her old job. But she is excited and optimistic and looks back at her layoff as an unexpected opportunity to follow a new path in life.

We've all seen it: When adversity strikes, some people flourish, while others fall apart. What sets the survivors apart is their resilience -- the ability to endure and even thrive under stressful conditions. "Some people are able to rise to the occasion," says Roberta R. Greene, Ph.D., a professor of social work at the University of Texas at Austin and editor of Resiliency: An Integrated Approach to Practice, Policy, and Research (National Association of Social Workers, 2002). "When a crisis emerges, they start moving in the direction of solving it."

Resilience is well worth cultivating. Instead of being overwhelmed by tough breaks, resilient people make the best of them. Instead of being crushed, they prosper. "Resilience helps you transform stressful circumstances from potential disasters into opportunities," says Salvatore R. Maddi, Ph.D., a founder of the Hardiness Institute Inc. in Newport Beach, Calif. Resilient people improve their lives because they take control and work to positively influence what happens to them. They choose action rather than passivity, and empowerment over powerlessness.

How resilient are you? In a blackout, would you be outside, complaining good-naturedly with your neighbors, or would you be sitting in the house moaning about how bad things always seem to happen to you? If you're the moaner, you should know that resilience can be learned. Sure, some people are born with an ability to bounce back, but experts promise that those of us who weren't can build the skills that carry resilient people through the toughest of times.

Ask yourself the following questions; the more "yes" answers you have, the more resilient you are. "No" answers indicate areas you may want to work on. Then follow our action plans to build your resilience.

1. Did you grow up in a supportive family?

"Resilient people have parents, role models and mentors who encouraged them to believe they can do well," Maddi says. He and his colleagues discovered that many people who are high in resilience (or hardiness, as Maddi calls it) grew up with parents and other adults who taught them coping skills and emphasized that they possessed the power to transcend life's difficulties. Less-hardy adults grew up with similar stresses but much less support.

Plan of action You can't change your childhood, but you can surround yourself with the right kind of "family" now. Seek out supportive friends, relatives, neighbors and co-workers, and avoid people who treat you badly. Reach out to your support team, offering them assistance and encouragement on a regular basis. Then, when difficulty strikes in your life, they will likely return the favor.

2. Do you embrace change?

Whether it's losing a job, going through a breakup or moving to a new city, the most difficult situations in life involve significant change. While less-resilient people tend to be upset and threatened by change, those who are highly resilient are more likely to embrace it and feel excited by and curious about new situations. They know -- and accept -- that change is a normal part of life, and they look for creative ways to adapt to it.

"Everyone I see who is resilient never stops being a playfully curious child," says Al Siebert, Ph.D., director of The Resiliency Center in Portland, Ore., and author of The Survivor Personality: Why Some People Are Stronger, Smarter, and More Skillful at Handling Life's Difficulties ... and How You Can Be, Too (Berkley Publishing Group, 1996). "When something new comes along, their brain opens outward."

Plan of action Try to be more curious and open to change in small ways so that when major changes come along, or you choose to make them, you will have built up some positive experiences. "Highly resilient people ask lots of questions, want to know how things work," Siebert says. "They wonder about things, experiment, make mistakes, get hurt, laugh."

After a breakup, for example, they take a long-planned vacation rather than staying home and wishing the relationship hadn't ended. If you are playful and curious, you're more likely to react to an unwanted situation by asking yourself, "What do I need to do to fix this? How can I use what happened to my advantage?"

3. Do you learn from past experiences?

When he staffs a suicide hotline, Robert Blundo, Ph.D., a licensed social worker and an associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, asks troubled callers to reflect on how they've survived past crises. By thinking about and learning from your past successes, he says, you can pinpoint the skills and strategies that will help you endure new crises. The same is true with failure: By considering your past mistakes, you can learn to avoid making the same ones again. "People who are high in hardiness learn very well from failure," Maddi says.

Plan of action When difficult situations arise, ask yourself what skills and coping mechanisms you used to survive tough times in the past. What supported you? Was it asking a spiritual advisor for help? What made it possible for you to cope? Taking long bike rides? Writing in your journal? Getting help from a therapist? And after you do weather a storm, analyze what brought it on. Say you were fired from your job. "Ask yourself, 'What is the lesson here? What early clues did I ignore?'" Siebert advises. Then, figure out how you might have handled the situation better. Perhaps you could have asked your boss for better training or paid more attention to a poor performance review. Hindsight is 20/20: Use it!

4. Do you take responsibility for your troubles?

People who lack resilience tend to pin their problems on other people or outside events. They blame their spouse for a bad marriage, their boss for a crummy job, their genes for a health problem. Certainly, if someone does something terrible to you, he or she is at fault. But resilient people try to separate themselves from the person or event that hurt them and make an effort to move on. "It's not the situation but how you respond to it that matters," Siebert says. If you tie your well-being to another person, then the only way you'll feel better is if the person who hurts you apologizes, and in many cases, that's not likely. "A victim blames the situation," Siebert says. "A resilient person takes responsibility and says, 'How I respond to this is what counts.'"

Plan of action Instead of thinking about how you can get back at someone for hurting you, ask yourself: "How can I make things better for myself?" If the promotion you desperately wanted goes to someone else, don't sit home blaming your boss, watching TV and fantasizing about quitting. Instead, focus on finding a new job or transferring to another position in your company. Work toward letting go of your anger; that will free you to move on.

5. Are you actively committed to being more resilient?

Resilient people are steadfast in their dedication to bouncing back. "There has to be some sense that if you don't have resilience, you'll look for it, and that if you do have it, you'll develop more," Greene says. In other words, some people are more resilient simply because they decide to be, and because they recognize that no matter what the situation, they alone can decide whether to meet a challenge head-on or cave in to it.

Plan of action Talk to friends who are good at recovering quickly from adversity to find out what works for them, read books about surviving difficulties and think ahead about how you might respond resiliently in certain situations. When trying events do arise, slow down and ask yourself how a resilient person would respond. If you need help shoring up your resilience, consider seeing a therapist or social worker.

Most of all, be confident that you can change. "Sometimes it feels like it's the end of the world," Blundo says. "But if you can step outside the situation and see that it's not, you can survive. Remember that you always have choices."

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