Reframing Resilience: It’s More Than Optimism (Psychology)

Is the glass half-empty or half-full?

The pessimist would point out the glass is half-empty because they tend to see the negative side of things. Meanwhile, the optimist would say that the glass is half-full, opting to look at the positives.

Many, who have a glass-half-full approach to life, tell others and themselves to look on the bright side of things, to think positively, and to embrace good hopes for the future. While a die-hard optimistic outlook can make you feel better about the world, it also pushes you to ignore, and even avoid, the negative and distressing parts of life.

However, these challenges are critical—some would argue, even necessary—for building resilience.

An unrelenting glass-half-full attitude can lead to toxic positivity, which encourages you to ignore negative emotions and act as if everything is fine. In certain situations, this can even leave you less prepared for life’s twists and turns, crush your spirit completely, and whittle away any resilience you had in the first place.

What Is Resilience?

Resilience is our ability to withstand adversities, recover from harsh life events, and then even grow in the face of suffering. Resilience is not the same as mental toughness, which means staying unperturbed through difficult times. Showing resilience means working through emotional pain and mental anguish.

Unlike positivity, resilience is far more than meets the eye. Instead of sugar-coating things or forcing yourself to look on the bright side, it teaches you to accept the situation as it is and feel whatever emotions or thoughts come up.

In this safe space, you can allow yourself to feel sadness or anger. You then wisely choose how to respond to the tough situation.

Those who see the glass half-full may respond positively at first. However, when their idealist beliefs don’t play out in the real world, they fall into stress, anxiety, and grief. Then they get paralyzed by inaction.

Even then, their escapist approach doesn’t allow them to feel or express their emotions, which only trains them to respond similarly in the future. Thus, the cycle of toxic positivity and disappointment continues.

However, if you take a resilient approach, you learn to bounce back and act rather than freeze or react from a place of fear and uncertainty. Instead of falling into despair, avoiding future challenges, or turning to unhealthy coping mechanisms, resilient people address problems head-on.

Resilient people don’t wallow in self-pity or go it alone. Instead, they always make it a point to draw on their strengths and tap into their social support to work through and overcome their obstacles.

In many cases, resilient people emerge even stronger than they were before the traumatic event. Thus, resilience is more important than optimism and positivity, in more ways than one.

Reframing Resilience Psychology

Reframing Resilience

Many believe resilience is a fixed character trait, something one is born with and destined to depend upon. They think resilient people can confront any challenge because they have the elasticity and know they can always bounce back to normal.

Others believe the word is synonymous with grit, tenacity, or determination, and people who possess resilience are uniquely inspiring, impressive, and even superhuman.

However, resilience is surprisingly ubiquitous, not just as a concept, but as an ability. Indeed, researchers assure us that all of us possess resilience in small or large quantities.

Resilience is a universal capacity.

Over the last few decades of resilience study, one astonishing finding has repeatedly emerged: most children and teens, even those from very stressed households and poor communities, eventually manage to make decent lives for themselves.

Even in the worst-case scenario, when children face multiple and persistent risks, half of them overcome adversity and attain positive developmental outcomes (Rutter, 1987, 2000).

More importantly, the researchers tell us resilience is a learnable skill, and those with low resilience can learn how to develop it.

Do you succumb to, or surmount, life’s many hardships? If the first, then here are some ways to reframe your resilience:

1. Living Through Adversity and Trauma

Despite years of promising resilience research, widespread myths about early adversity persist. Whether you’re resilient or not largely depends on how you respond to how your life unfolds.

If you never experience any adversity, you’ll likely never develop resilience. It’s only when you’re faced with obstacles, stress, anxiety, and environmental challenges, that you discover how resilient you can be, and you are. Adversity and trauma are integral to finding and developing resilience and flexibility.

Adversity and trauma come in various guises. Some may be the result of low economic status, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or challenging home conditions. Often, such environmental threats are chronic and can even make you more susceptible to developing post-traumatic stress disorder.

Others are acute. Maybe you were a victim of rape or neglect as a child, or perhaps you witnessed abuse within the home. These experiences are short-term, high-intensity stressors that will shape your future, for better or worse. It all depends on how you perceive them.

Adversity and potentially traumatic events do not have predictive power over one’s life outcome, in and of themselves. Ultimately, it’s how you frame and respond to these chronic and acute stressors that shape your future.

2. Maintaining The Internal Locus of Control

What determines your reaction to environmental threats and stressors? Why do some people see the glass half empty while others see it half-full?

Developmental psychologist Emmy Werner discovered that several elements determine these outcomes, the most important of which are psychological.

In her studies, young children she labeled resilient tended to meet the world on their own terms. They were naturally independent and autonomous and viewed challenges as opportunities, so they’d frequently seek new experiences.

Even kids who encountered poverty, maternal stress in utero, family problems, and other hardships tended to use whatever skills they had to achieve success and happiness.

Perhaps most notably, she discovered that these kids had an internal locus of control. They believed that they — not their circumstances — affected their achievements. They saw themselves as the orchestrators of their own fates, so they took life by the reins and made the best of their situations.

3. Trusting For An Element of Luck

Werner also found that a fair bit of luck can help people adopt a more resilient approach to life.

In the case of the resilient kids, some had fortuitously found people to bond with — teachers, caregivers, and parents. These mentor-like figures offered support and guidance that encouraged these children to keep learning and growing in the face of adversity.

Others weren’t so lucky.

In her study, Werner observed many resilient kids experience multiple strong stressors at vulnerable times, and their resilience disintegrated. Eventually, they reached a breaking point, and no amount of luck or internal locus of control could save them from succumbing to hardships.

4. Practicing Resilience As A Skill

On the flip side, some people who weren’t resilient when they were children exhibited characteristics of resilience as adults. These research participants somehow learned the required skills, proving that it is, in fact, possible to develop this ability and overcome adversity in the future. This may explain why some are better than others at handling adversity.

How does one learn resilience? First, by switching their perception.

Changing perspective also applies to shifting the locus of control. Switching the locus from external (like seeing things as difficult circumstances) to internal (like reshaping mental strength and re-strategizing) helps reduce stress and boost work performance.

Instead of viewing your past hardships as trauma that you can’t let go of, choose to see them as times when you were put to test. Rethink them as opportunities for personal growth and self-exploration.

You can also develop a more resilient mindset through emotional regulation. Emotion regulation, as is well known, plays a central role in mood and disruptive problems in children.

If your initial response is mostly instinctive or negative, then practice reframing the stimuli in a calm and positive light.

With practice, you can train yourself to respond to environmental stressors after engaging your higher thinking. It helps you evaluate your progress and momentum realistically, which is far superior to a reactive, albeit positive, bravado.

5. Imagining Bad Times Before They Happen

Rather than avoiding them, as the glass-half-full approach suggests, developing resilience as a skill requires facing troubles and hardships. The way you handle your negative emotions in response to adversity determines your future resilience.

However, if you want to prepare yourself for the more distressing periods of life—the ones you don’t want to face at all—you can employ what the Stoics called Premeditatio Malorum (“premeditation of evils”).

This concept involves negative thinking and a “what if” approach to life that makes you consider the worst possible outcome. While the anticipation of downturns doesn’t make things easier, it can help you face them with more courage and an internal locus.

For instance, if you meditate on losing the things you cherish most, you’ll have already been acquainted yourself with the accompanying feelings of despair and grief if such misfortune does befall you.

Won’t the visualizing of failures and other evils breed in you a dark pessimism? No, not necessarily. While it’s common for some cultures to assume this outcome, others believe otherwise.

Tragedies marred the golden days of Ancient Greece and Rome, when some of the best philosophers walked this Earth. Nonetheless, they were also the times infused with productivity, artistic creativity, and lust for life.

Following in their footsteps, it seems that becoming more aware of the darker side of things might lead to a greater appreciation for what you have. More importantly, the practice helps you strengthen your resilience, allowing you to see a future of possibilities.

Final Words

Thanks to decades of research, the scientific community can finally share with us the psychology of resilience. We can now understand and how anyone can come to possess it or lose it, and why being resilient is more crucial than being positive and optimistic.

It’s time we embrace the knowledge and show others how to build resilience. The first step is to see things as they truly are. Then start putting to practice the principles of resilience-building.

10 Tips To Build Resilience In Life

You are the gatekeeper of your own destiny, the orchestrator of your fate. Will you crumble under pressure or use it to turn coal into diamonds?

Trouble and calamity will certainly befall you. Such is life. However, if you’re resilient, you can overcome those hard times. More importantly, you can bounce back even stronger than you were before and become a testament to what resilience can do.

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Author Bio: Ginger Abbot is learning, education, and career writer, as well as the founder of Read more of her work on her website and follow her on Twitter. Edited, reviewed, and revised by Sandip Roy—a medical doctor, psychology writer, and happiness researcher. Founder and Chief Editor of The Happiness Blog. Writes popular science articles on happiness, positive psychology, and related topics.

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