Adversity Doesn't Always Make You More Resilient

Not everyone who goes through a difficult experience comes out stronger and wiser. Many people get stuck and suffer for a long time. Resilience doesn't just happen, you have to know how to develop it.
Adversity Doesn't Always Make You More Resilient
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 15 November, 2021

Adversity doesn’t always make you more resilient. Resilience has become kind of a buzzword, to the point that our understanding of how it works is pretty far from the truth. Not everyone who goes through a difficult time becomes more competent as a result. More often than not, those tough times weigh you down and prevent you from feeling happy and fulfilled.

We’re living in an age of transformation, in every sense of the word. Perhaps that’s why optimism and positivity aren’t working as well as they used to for many people. The classic “Always look on the bright side of life” that the characters in  The Life of Brian sang sounds a bit hollow these days.

Right now you have to deal with the problems and risks you’re facing today. You can’t turn away, and thinking “Everything is going to be fine, this will make me stronger” just isn’t enough. It’s time to make room for other possibilities, to learn to process adversity, negative emotions, and the less kind side of life.

Resilience exists but you don’t automatically acquire itIt doesn’t activate on its own and it doesn’t always show up when you need it most. That’s why it’s important to understand how this valuable psychological resource works.

A woman outside.

Adversity doesn’t always make you more resilient but you can learn from it

We’ve become accustomed to labeling experiences (and emotions) as “good” or “bad”. As a result, many people have become intolerant of anything that falls into the latter category. It’s easy to understand why. After all, people prefer stability, complacence, harmony, pleasure, and balance.

However, when unexpected things come up, the cacophony of problems and difficult situations in any form often leads to a mental block. You’re left gasping for air, without the psychological tools to get through the storm.

Adversity doesn’t always make you more resilient because not everyone knows how to activate it. In addition, you’re sometimes dealing with an extremely difficult situation that you might not be able to overcome. Let’s delve a little deeper.

Resilience doesn’t mean coping with adversity, it means navigating it

People often use a lighthouse metaphor to talk about resilience. Imagine a lighthouse on the edge of a stormy sea, the waves slamming against its side. The lighthouse doesn’t budge. It doesn’t matter how windy it gets or how fierce the storms are, the lighthouse endures.

This is a nice metaphor, but it’s wrong. A much more helpful – albeit less poetic and inspiring- metaphor involves a buoy. It goes something like this:

  • Instead of fighting the waves (which represent adversity), you have to move with them like buoys floating on the surface.
  • Your mental clarity and temperance keeps you afloat and able to weather the storm.
  • The key is having something that anchors you to the bottom.
  • This internal anchor is made up of your thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors. They help you stay put when life is doing its best to toss you out to sea.

Adversity doesn’t always make you more resilient, these processes take time

Adversity doesn’t always make you more resilient. Sometimes, hard days are just hard days. They knock you down for a while and then they’re over, without having taught you any particular lesson. Other times, you can’t activate your resilience because you don’t have the right coping mechanisms.

  • Sometimes, you feel lost when you’re in an adverse situation. That’s more normal than you think.
  • If that weren’t the case, we wouldn’t need psychologists, psychiatrists, and mental health specialists. However, you’re not a superhero or a lighthouse, impervious to even the worst of storms. You’re human and humans fall down.
  • Needing the support of experts who provide tools to help you cope with your problems is perfectly normal.
A man by the sea.

Some people shoulder every burden and make the most of challenges and others simply survive

Adversity won’t automatically make you more resilient, that much is clear. The outcome also depends heavily on the person in question. Some people are naturally skilled at dealing with difficult circumstances. Not only do they cope well but they manage to turn their problems into opportunitiesOther people who face adversity manage to survive but that’s about it. They stay afloat and stay on course but don’t “make the most of it”.

Let’s be clear, both of these responses are equally valid and admirable. After all, when you’re dealing with difficult moments in your life, the goal is to come out on the other side with your physical and mental health intact. If you manage that, you’ve been successful.

Some people will cross that threshold with new tools and lessons learned. Others will simply feel relieved that they’ve left the darkness and can start anew. 

You should feel good about your efforts, whichever camp you happen to fall into. The most important thing is to keep charting new waters, moving forward to that hopeful horizon.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.