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Survival of the Resilient: Skills for Handling Life’s Inevitable Disappointments

Sometimes life can feel like the reality television show, Survivor. Especially if you are a teen or young adult, life can feel like a high stakes game where there is every chance you’ll be eliminated in the next round. The reason it’s so scary is that it’s often true. Very few people get a consistent “winning streak”. Most of us win some and lose some. Sometimes we even lose a lot. One of the most important skills that a young person can learn is how to roll with, even learn from, set-backs.

Maybe you’ve been told that you came in second for several jobs you really thought were going to be yours. It’s nice to know that you came in second but the bottom line is that the other guy got the job and you didn’t. Maybe you found the perfect house or apartment, only to be told that 10 minutes ago, someone else took it. Maybe you’ve had the experience of gearing up the courage to ask someone out only to be told, “Gee, I wish you’d asked sooner. I’ve already made plans.”

Disappointments like these are common but that doesn’t make them any less frustrating or painful. Especially after a series of near-misses, it’s easy to get depressed or anxious; to wonder if things are ever going to work out right; and to want to give up. As tempting as it may be to crawl under the covers and suck your thumb, don’t. To give in or to back away from challenges is to set yourself up for more defeats.

Instead, remind yourself that set backs are inevitable if you are ever going to advance yourself. To go for what you want is to come up against risk and even hardship. The alternative to doing so is to settle for a lesser job, the crummy apartment, or a lonely Saturday night. You really can do better than that.

Researchers have named the ability to bounce back from disappointments and even tragedy “resilience.” Some people have more of it than others by nature or temperament, it’s true. But the good news is that those same researchers didn’t stop with naming the ability to cope. They also isolated the skills that increase the odds for making a come-back and going for the goal again.

The emphasis is on being active. Resilience is not simply a personality characteristic. It’s an active, problem-solving approach to life. When resilient people experience a set-back, they don’t give up. Instead, they get busy and try to find another way to solve the problem, maybe several ways to solve the problem. Resilient people are involved – with other people; with the development of their own character and skills; with problems; in short, with life. In this sense, it is closely related to self-esteem. If positive self-esteem in more areas of life is the goal, resilience is the means.

Want to improve your shot at success in life? Work on building the following resiliency skills:

1. Learn how to put things in perspective.
Resilient people know the difference between a disappointment and a tragedy. They let mole hills be mole hills and save their energy for the mountains. This is easier said than done. A disappointment, especially a big disappointment can loom large at the time. Resilient people learn to ask themselves “What’s the worst thing that will happen now?” Short of death, very few things are so important that there can’t be a recovery. Loss of the job? So? There are other jobs. Loss of a girlfriend or boyfriend? Yes, it hurts. But heartbreak isn’t a heart attack. People can and do recover from the loss of romance and go on to find someone new. A big misunderstanding with a good friend? Yeah. That hurts too. But if the friendship is worth anything, the willingness to have a frank and calm talk will usually get you through. Over-run your credit? It’s a problem, sure. But it’s a problem that can usually be solved with some discipline and hard work.

2. Build and maintain a network of caring people.
These are the people you will be able to reach for when you need support. Work to include older, wiser people in your life who act as role models. Getting close to people doesn’t happen by accident. Unlike those who promptly forget people they’ve met, resilient people make the effort to stay connected and to be on the giving as well as receiving end of the relationship. Resilient people honor and respect what older people they encounter have to offer. They are the kind of people who put others in touch with each other, who call when they know about something that would be of interest to someone, who write quick emails and rarely forget to send a birthday card or a thank you note. They find a way to do an errand for someone who is sick and attend their friends’ events. They are the people who manage to have breakfast now and then with a friend or bring muffins for everyone in the office. This isn’t about kissing up. This is about being a good friend. Good friends help each other through. You can’t have enough of them.

Survival of the Resilient: Skills for Handling Life’s Inevitable Disappointments

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Marie Hartwell-WalkerDr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart.

Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2020). Survival of the Resilient: Skills for Handling Life’s Inevitable Disappointments. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 28, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 14 Jan 2020 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 14 Jan 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.