Get through the tough stuff

Why do some of us recover easily from life’s knockbacks, while others falter? Charlotte Blair finds out and asks, can we learn to be more resilient?


Get through the tough stuff

When I was a student at university, my then boyfriend ran a jazz club on London’s Fulham Road, where one of the waitresses made a huge impact on me. Not only was she arrestingly beautiful, but – at just 15 – she was living in a squat on the King’s Road. To my teenage mind, she seemed impossibly daring and cool.

Later, when I discovered the real reason for her precociously bohemian lifestyle, her set-up looked rather less enticing. Her parents had been in a car crash – her mother killed instantly, while her father remained in a coma – rendering her homeless and practically an orphan. Estranged from her remaining family and with the family business in receivership, she’d set up camp in an empty Chelsea flat and got on with the business of life. The ultimate survivor, she was always bright and cheerful, flitting from table to table with a sunny smile, picking up boyfriends and benefactors along the way.

To this day, I’ve wondered how it is that some people can suffer real knocks and never falter, while others crumple at the first hurdle. My friend, for example, could have reacted very differently. She could have sunk into a depression, ended up on the streets or worse.

We’ve all seen it – the divorcee who never loves again or the man who loses his job, but can’t face telling his wife. Yet, when the exact same thing happens to someone else, they somehow relish the challenge, embrace the change and make it meaningful.

Resilience – the capacity to cope with stress and catastrophe – is a hot topic in psychology right now. (And rightly so, since we could all do with a little help to get through these turbulent times.) It’s a subject explored in a new book, by business psychologist Jane Clarke and Dr John Nicholson, Resilience: Bounce Back From Whatever Life Throws At You. Clarke and her colleagues set out to discover not only which personality characteristics help people triumph, but also which life events might prepare them for future hardships. Most importantly, they looked at what the rest of us can learn from these Teflon-coated individuals.

‘Through our work in coaching in the City we were dealing with people facing big challenges,’ says Clarke. ‘We started to notice that some people remained confident no matter what. They found stress energising rather than debilitating and actually seemed to relish the change.’

Clarke and her colleagues conducted in-depth interviews with 26 super-resilient individuals (the R Team). These were people, like my friend, for whom it didn’t matter what life threw at them, they’d just pick themselves up and start over. They also sent questionnaires to a further 300 people, coining a new term – ‘Resilience Quotient’ – as a measure of your resilience level, just as EQ and IQ measure your emotional and intelligence levels.

Their research isolated five key factors that set the most resilient individuals apart: optimism, freedom from stress and anxiety, taking personal responsibility, openness and adaptability, and, finally, a positive and active approach to problem solving. The first surprise was that women scored consistently lower on resilience than men (in fact, two-thirds of the R Team were men). ‘We were surprised,’ says Clarke, ‘because we know that women cope better with pain and that they recover from relationship break-ups faster.’

When Clarke and her colleagues looked at the results more closely, however, they found that nearly all the difference between the sexes could be accounted for in terms of levels of optimism, with women being much less likely to agree with statements, such as ‘I’m good at seeing the silver lining’, or ‘I generally find that things turn out in an advantageous way for me’.

‘Optimism is imperative to resilience,’ says Clarke. ‘Because if you don’t believe things can improve, it’s very hard to carry on. You only have a finite amount of energy, and if you spend that worrying about all the things you can’t do, or can’t control, then you aren’t going to bounce back or see opportunities.’

But that’s not the whole story. Clarke and Nicholson believe much of the difference in the resilience ratings between the sexes comes down to the difference in how men and women estimate their abilities, as opposed to their actual abilities to cope. Put simply, men overestimate what they can do, while women put themselves down. ‘It’s a very consistent finding,’ says Nicholson, ‘and one that exists from the earliest age. Little boys exaggerate what they are capable of, while little girls do the opposite. So if you ask a three-year-old boy if he can pick up a big object he will say “yes”, whereas girls are more likely to say “no”, when, in fact, girls are actually just as strong at that age.’

It’s a finding that runs throughout education and carries on into adult life. Girls, for example, consistently underestimate their degree results, whereas boys think they’ll do better than they do. ‘Men always say they are brilliant, but it’s just bullshit, really,’ says Nicholson. ‘We call it the Great Pretender Syndrome. But to a certain extent it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Who do you give the job to? The man who says he can do it, or the woman who says she can’t?’

You might think there is no such thing as being too resilient. Not so, says Clarke. ‘The most resilient people in our survey were the kinds of people no one really likes very much, such as politicians, for example. People prefer a bit more vulnerability, particularly in women, which might account for some of the differences between the sexes.’

Surprisingly, many of Clarke’s most resilient subjects had had terrible childhoods. They had often coped with absent mothers – through bereavement, mental illness or alcoholism. Not that early tragedy will necessarily make you tougher. ‘The same experience can make you more or less resilient,’ says Clarke. ‘These individuals were often the eldest child who had taken on the job of looking after the younger siblings. Essentially, they learned that they could cope. The difference lies in taking control.’

In fact, an internal ‘locus of control’ was a quality shared by all members of the R Team, believing they could influence events, while those with what psychologists call ‘an external locus of control’ tended to feel helpless when things go wrong. Coping well in one area of your life doesn’t mean you’ll be equally resilient in all areas.

‘Big things, such as illness or bereavement, can be easier to cope with because they generally aren’t things we’ve chosen, so we just get on with it,’ explains Clarke. ‘But smaller knocks – if someone criticises our new haircut, for example – can leave us completely traumatised. Probably because we believe we’ve had a hand in our downfall.’ The good news is, regardless of childhood experiences, we can all learn to be more resilient. ‘You can train yourself,’ says Clarke. ‘Women especially need to stop beating themselves up and recognise how well they do actually cope. You can condition yourself to look on the bright side, be positive and influence things where you can.’

When things look bleak, Clarke suggests ‘reframing’ the situation. Clarke recalls one client, who was being bullied by her boss. ‘She would walk into her office thinking, “This is a nightmare”, and the more she allowed him to do it, the worse it got. So instead, she conditioned herself to think, “This is interesting, let me explore what he wants and why”. Instead of being backed into a corner, she was asking questions and being assertive. And instead of thinking, “I have no choice”, she started to realise she could say no to him. A lot of it is about not being a victim, and instead realising we can influence events.’ It’s like Mark Twain said, ‘Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you are probably right.’