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Resilience // Part I - Adapting well in the Face of Hardship

This is the first blogpost out of three in my series on RESILIENCE What does resilience, a concept that seems to be on everybody’s lips nowadays, actually mean? I’d like to start with a short personal story. I became very aware myself of the importance of resilience in 2015. I had graduated my social science masters, just returned from a wonderful long travel through South America I had saved for all my study time, being ready to start the “real work life”. I certainly had already made some work experience, having worked all the years besides my studies, often in fields that could fit well to the areas I was aspiring to work in, now at full time. At least that’s what I thought, full of confidence. It should come different – wanting to enter the social impact area, I was facing highly competitive selection processes, with more often than not up to several hundreds of applicants for a single position. Over the course of one year, I sent more than 100 hand-tailored applications, taking part in 16 interviews, becoming more and more desperate and frustrated. I had thought in the beginning that I was “good enough”, but if no one gave me a chance, maybe it was actually out of my reach? This experience was really shaking my confidence and my self-image, making me feel I failed. Everyone knows these situations, pushing us out of our comfort zones in an often disruptive way, might they be everyday adversity situations like stress and relationship problems, or, on the other hand, tragedy, trauma, health problems, financial or workplace hardships. With the concept of (psychological) resilience being coined already in the early 1970s by several social and psychological studies, it is indeed a very holistic idea, involving individual behavior, actions, thoughts, and feelings.


Generally speaking, resilience means the ability of adapting well in the face of hardship and difficult circumstances. It involves “bouncing back”, which as a result can lead you to feel more empowered and personally grown (source of the definition: American Psychological Association). Don’t get me wrong here – it doesn’t mean to never experience difficulties and negative emotions. It means to, despite these challenges, being able to recognize the parts of your life you can control, modify and shape. It also means: The greater your exposure to risk factors is, the more important does it become to be able to access, strengthen and create a variety of individual protecting factors. There are several theories on the nature of protecting factors in terms of resilience. I want to give you an introduction into two of them: --> (1) Aaron Antonovsky published in 1979 his study with which he coined the term Salutogenesis. He has worked with Holocaust survivors, trying to find out what makes some of them cope better than others with the horrific experiences they had made. His core findings said that the source of resilience lays in a feeling of being coherent with your environment. This coherence-feeling consists of three aspects: a) sense of comprehensibility = I assess the cognitive abilities to understand what happens around me and why (reasons and causes, stimulus and effect). I don’t just see myself as helpless, being at the mercy of a chaotic, arbitrary environment. b) sense of manageability = I am optimistic and trust in my abilities and resources to cope with my everyday life tasks (precondition for this is to avoid a chronic over- or underchallenge). c) sense of meaningfulness = I experience life as meaningful, thanks to my experience that I can shape situations with my actions. I do feel some kind of basic trust and experience an emotionally funded, intrinsic motivation.


--> (2) Dr. Martin Seligman developed in 2011 the PERMA model, with the intention to create a shift in psychological treatment methods from the “problem” to the resources and the “things that are good” in the clients’ life (so-called 'Positive Psychology'). The PERMA model says that in order to flourish or “flow”, we can aim to shoulder our life on the support of five columns:


That means, we should aspire to create our own spiral of positive emotions, instead of negative ones: developing a positive mindset, focusing on your resources and gaining strength out of your experiences. “I am feeling good despite my problems, and that’s also how I can solve them better.” Engagement: If we start moving, and actually do something, come into actions and try something new, this might broaden our horizon also in difficult times. Do or find out what you truly love to do, and spend time in nature. Our relationships are of course an invaluable source of strength. So, you can work on deepen the relationships you already have, and/or try to make new connections, for example through new hobbies (see: Engagement). Meaning: Find out which causes or topics really matter to you and engage in them. This might be through your profession, a social or political cause, a creative endeavor or community activities. Another way to build personal meaning is to spend quality time with people you care about. Last but not least, it is beneficial for your resilience to build a sense of accomplishment. You can reach this confidence of being able to work towards, and reach your own goals through, for example, learning to set SMART goals (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound). Reflecting on past successes and finding ways to celebrate your achievements is also strengthening this column of the PERMA model on resilience.

The good news is: Even though some people might have an inherently good resilience “by nature”, that certainly doesn’t mean it’s just a “given or not” personal trait! In fact, strengthen your resilience can be better understood like building a muscle – with awareness, training, and dedication, everyone can strengthen their own resilience ability, since the seeds for it lay in each and every one of us! So, to come back to my story – it was clearly not an easy time for me, filled with self-doubt and some kind of helplessness. It felt to a certain percentage out of my hands if I would get a job offer or not. But – speaking with friends and experts in the area of work I was aspiring to enter, I found that I did have what it takes. So I jumped over my own shadow and went to networking events, speaking directly with people in charge. Like this, I was able to get more work experience in the field throughout the year in form of internships and time-limited projects. In the end, I did get a job – not yet my dream job, but a solid entry into the social impact area. And, believe me or not, this experience even served me as an example to state my persistence and commitment in a job interview at the beginning of 2019, when I got a position offered to the application I sent first. The job resulting from this interview actually got me a big step closer to what I really want to do. See here my second blogpost, with some hands-on steps to strengthen your own resilience

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