Plastic, Elastic – Bouncing Back to Success

Emotional Resilience is closely linked to success. In fact, some argue that success is reliant on it, for example US psychologist Angela Duckworth believes that the prime gauge of achievement isn’t IQ or talent, but the possession of what she calls “grit”, aka resilience. But success is not the only benefit that resilience brings, research links it with mental health, physical health, ability to learn, to innovate, to deal with failure and to thrive in spite of tragedy or daily life stressors.

It’s not news that those who make it, those who win medals, entrepreneurs whose businesses succeed against the odds, all have resilience. When it comes to achieving despite the odds, the same famous role-models are quoted e.g.

  • J.K. Rowling who went from being a single parent battling depression, rejected by 12 publishers to the world’s best-selling children’s author.
  • Oprah Winfrey born into poverty and suffering many hardships as a child who has become one of the most influential women in the world.
  • Walt Disney among other trials was fired from a newspaper for “not being creative enough” and told Mickey Mouse would fail because the character would terrify women. He went on to be nominated for 59 Academy Awards, winning 32.

When we’re at our lowest point these inspirational examples are given in good faith and we’re told to ‘never give up, keep trying’. But if it was that easy wouldn’t we all just carry on regardless to fulfil our dreams? Wouldn’t we all be OK irrespective of what life throws at us?

So, what’s their magic?

Over the centuries many people have tried to figure out what distinguishes those who keep trying from those who give up. Churchill said “Success is not final; failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” And courage is one facet of personality that has been linked to resilience. However this belief reflects a more outdated understanding of resilience, as something you’re simply born with or not, something straight forward and one dimensional. More recent research has revealed that resilience is a complex and dynamic process of interacting systems involving our genes, personality, social support system and cultural background.

With an updated view, academics have proposed definitions of resilience such as ‘a process to harness resources to sustain well-being’. From an evolutionary perspective this makes sense. Thousands of years ago we lived in egalitarian tribes where we were dependent on one another to survive, the belief systems and group support systems were a necessary facet of staying alive. It wasn’t just the person with courage or individual with grit, but also the one who knew how to bring others together, to harness the power of the group and to get along with their fellow tribesmen and women who stayed alive. Today with the help of others and making use of the right resources we can not only survive but if we get it right, we can thrive. 

You can have the magic too…

 Taking the traditional meaning of emotional resilience some of us are left wanting – if we were not born with the personality to keep on getting up every time we fell whether through courage, determination or optimism it’s not something we can easily change. However, the most recent academic insights provide hope – while yes, some people are indeed born more resilient than others, research shows that we can all develop our emotional resilience regardless of where we start. How? By working on:

Social connections – nurturing relationships with family, friends and people more broadly is a critical contributor to resilience. Knowing or learning how to ask for and how to accept help is a sign of strength not weakness. Unfortunately, society often teaches us otherwise so this can feel counter intuitive. It is however the way we evolved to survive – going against it is literally going against nature and the way our brain works.

Reframing – our brains naturally kick up negative emotions – we can’t get rid of them but we can reframe them more positively as something we are in control of. This prevents negative thoughts creating a catastrophic story that leaves us feeling helpless. For example, if we failed an exam we could think:

 Negative approach –

Thought: “I failed my exams because I am not very bright.”

Outcome: out of your control and with negative meaning.

Positive reframing –

Thought: “I failed my exams because I didn’t work hard enough.”

Outcome: within your control “It was a good life lesson, because of it I have worked harder at things that matter to me ever since”—and with positive meaning

Research suggests that “framing” our life so that things have meaning and outcomes we are in control of is so powerful that it positively changes brain functioning.

(extract from Defining You)

Psychological flexibility Dr. Russ Harris defines this as the ability to adapt to a situation with awareness, openness, and focus and to take effective action guided by your values. It’s about being able to accept and regulate our emotions rather than letting them control us. Learning to be more accepting of situations and thoughts is an extremely powerful tool. Read “The Happiness Trap” for a very accessible and robustly researched account of how to do this. Also practicing mindfulness (suggested apps below) will help develop the skills needed to better regulate your emotions.

Learning and reflection through journaling –  writing things down can help to develop insights and find the patterns or traps that we may be being pulled into – creating a greater level of perspective. It also helps to create constructive meaning to events especially if our focus is on what we have learnt, what may have been gained from experiences and how we may like things to pan out in the future.

Self-awareness – working on our personal development helps us to understand the situations which drain us and those which energise us so that we are better able to regulate our emotional and physical well-being.

Ratio of 3:1 – research shows that people who have a ratio of 3 times as many experiences of positive emotions to 1 of negative emotions on a daily basis (3-to-1 ratio) are more likely to be resilient. You may not naturally have this but working on the factors relating to resilience (e.g. connections, reframing) will help you to create and sustain this ratio. Erstwhile if all else fails (and even if it doesn’t)…..

Keep on keeping on– at our most difficult times and lowest points, putting one foot in front of the other even when we don’t believe, is what we need to do to ultimately reach our intended goal. Our emotions ebb and flow, but if we can keep on ‘doing’ in spite of losing hope, we’ll still be on the right track once our hope has returned. Years ago a professional athlete said to me “The difference between those who win medals and those who don’t make it is comes down to who is prepared to go out and practice whatever the weather, however they feel, they just do it day after day”. This reflects what Duckworth believes – that the prime gauge of achievement isn’t IQ or talent, but the ability to keep on keeping on. If every day you do something to keep moving toward your goal, little by little you will gradually move away from where you are and toward where you want to be.

As with any of these things read more, explore and try things out to find what works best for you.


Defining You: Discover telling insights into your behaviour, motives and results to unlock your full potential by Fiona Murden will be out in April 2018 (UK) and July 2018 (USA, Canada, Australia and rest of the world). To pre-order a copy go to or Waterstones. It will also be available in WHSmith’s UK from April 2018.

The book gives you unique access to an online psychometric test providing a full personalised professional report.

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Mindfulness Apps & Reading

Duckworth, A (2016). GRIT: the power of passion and perseverance. Harper Collins

Harris, R. (2008). The Happiness Trap: How to stop struggling and start living. Boston, MA: Trumpeter.




Mindfulness Daily:

Smiling Mind:



Brown K.W.  & Ryan R.M. (2003) The benefits of being present: Mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 84(4): 822–48. C.R.

Cloninger (2006) The science of well-being: An integrated approach to mental health and its disorders, World Psychiatry 5(2): 71–6.

Duckworth, A (2016). GRIT: the power of passion and PERSEVERANCE. Harper Collins

Harris, R. (2008). The Happiness Trap: How to stop struggling and start living. Boston, MA: Trumpeter.

Giordano B. (1997) Resilience: a survival tool for the nineties. Association of Perioperative Registered Nurses Journal 65, 1032– 1036.

Meichenbaum, D. (2007). Important facts about resilience: A consideration of research findings about resilience and implications for assessment and treatment. Melissa Institute: Miami, FL, USA.

Murden, F (2018) Defining You: How to profile yourself and unlock your full potential. Hodder & Stoughton.

Southwick, S. M., Bonanno, G. A., Masten, A. S., Panter-Brick, C., & Yehuda, R. (2014). Resilience definitions, theory, and challenges: Interdisciplinary perspectives. European journal of psychotraumatology5(1), 25338.

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