Resilience For Dummies
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What is resilience? To understand what resilience is, first you must understand what resilience is not. When you take responsibility for your behavior and learn to overcome feelings of victimization, helplessness, low self-worth, or hopelessness, you’re truly on the path to resilience.

That doesn't mean that you don’t experience periods of fear, worry, or upset. Of course you do! You’re human. The key is that you don’t stay in these negative states for too long because you’re able to shift your perspective and use the situation to learn and grow.

hopelessness concept © GoodIdeas /

The victim mindset

Life can be hard, and when it knocks you down, it’s normal to fall and even to cry. Staying in a state of pity for too long, though, can lead to a victim mindset, where you feel you’re powerless to effect change and that life is totally out of your control.

When you have a victim mentality, you believe that life is happening to you rather than for you or with you. It’s a mindset that usually develops over time, after experiencing multiple setbacks or hurts or the loss of love and support. Eventually, you decide that you have no control over life and that you’re helpless to change it. As a result, you may avoid taking responsibility for yourself or your life and avoid taking risks, embracing change, improving yourself, or making hard decisions. Instead, you may live in fear, complain a lot, and tempt other people to feel sorry for you. This list describes some of the signs that indicate you’re on the verge of having a victim mentality:

  • You feel powerless. When bad things happen to you, you believe that you have no control over the situation and that you’re helpless to effect change. You believe you have no power and are therefore a victim of life’s circumstances. Powerlessness can manifest as a lack of self-esteem, feelings of failure and incompetence, and low motivation.

If you find that you’re feeling helpless or powerless, ask yourself, “What is it that I do have control over? Is the belief that I am powerless true?”

  • You put yourself down. Feeling powerless often goes hand in hand with negative self-talk and self-doubt. You question your abilities, feel you aren’t worthy of success, believe you’re incapable of succeeding, and often end up self-sabotaging your efforts. You regularly put yourself down and, in so doing, paint yourself as a victim.

If you find that you’re putting yourself down, ask yourself, “Am I really that terrible? Is this belief even true? Can I think of times when I was successful?”

  • You overgeneralize the negative. When a negative event happens, you overgeneralize and view it as part of a continued pattern of negativity and ignore evidence to the contrary — that many aspects of your life, and even similar situations, have been positive. You may use the words never, always, all, every, none, no one, nobody, or everyone to support your belief that you don’t, and never will, have or be enough or that a situation will forever be bad. Examples of statements you might make are “I can never win,” “I am always the last to know,” and “You never listen to me.”

If you make these kinds of statements, ask yourself, “Are there times when this doesn’t happen?” and “Is this statement really true?”

  • You catastrophize. When you exaggerate the importance of a problem, making it bigger than it necessarily is, you’re catastrophizing. For instance, you might tell yourself that you absolutely cannot handle a given situation when the reality is that it’s just inconvenient. In other words, you believe that even the smallest inconveniences are the end of the world. A tendency to make such problems important can indicate your underlying fears of being inadequate, unimportant, or dispensable.

If you find that you catastrophize and make mountains out of a molehill, ask yourself, “What is the worst thing that could happen? Is this statement really true?”

  • You feel paranoid. You regularly feel that the world is out to get you and inflict misery on you. You believe that no matter what you do, life will be miserable and always unfair and you can’t count on anything, least of all other people. Life is not only happening to you but also against you.
If you find yourself feeling like life is against you, ask yourself, “Are there times when things went my way? Is this belief really true?”

Learned helplessness

Most people vacillate between feeling optimistic and feeling victimized, depending on what is happening in their lives and how they’re feeling about themselves at that particular juncture. Though people don’t start out feeling victimized as children for the most part, they can eventually learn to feel this way as they incur hardships, traumas, or other difficult life events that may cause them to feel more helpless about affecting change in their lives. For some people, as they face continuous negative and uncontrollable hardships, and their efforts fail at effecting change, they eventually stop trying and give up believing that they have any power to improve their circumstance.

Is there something in your life you have tried to do and regularly failed, so you gave up trying? How did that failure make you feel?

The term learned helplessness was coined by the psychologists Martin Seligman and Steven Maier in 1967 when they were studying how dogs behaved when experiencing electric shocks. Seligman and Maier discovered that dogs who realized that they couldn’t escape the shocks eventually stopped trying, even when it was possible for them to avoid the shock by jumping over a barrier. In later experiments, Seligman studied human subjects and their response to loud and unpleasant noises. Subjects had the option to use a lever to stop the noise. Subjects whose lever was ineffective at stopping the noise gave up trying after one round.

Learned helplessness can show up in all aspects of your life. You can see it all around you if you look. People are discouraged about politics and decide not to vote, or they’re discouraged about losing weight because nothing has worked, or their best friend won’t leave a bad relationship because they believe that no one better is out there, or their child has decided not to study because they believe that they will fail anyway. You or someone you know might be depressed, emotionally unpredictable, unmotivated, and unwilling to change healthy habits. When you learn over time that you have little to no control over your life and life circumstances, no matter what you do, you give up hope and give up trying. It may keep you in an abusive relationship or a stressful job or keep you physically ill, even though you have options available to you to get out and change.

Here are some common signs of learned helplessness:

  • Mental health problems, such as anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Inability to ask for help
  • Easy frustration and willingness to give up
  • Lack of motivation and desire to put in effort
  • Low self-esteem and self-belief in success
  • Passivity in the face of stress
  • Procrastination


When you feel hopeless, you lack hope in the possibility of a better future. This belief negatively affects how you see the world, yourself, and other people. It can lead to feeling depressed, as though darkness has descended on your life and there’s no point in doing anything. You’re devoid of inspiration and you have no interest in going out, seeing people, working, or engaging in normal activities. The scarcity of social connection and poor motivation to seek help then adds to feelings of isolation or abandonment, exacerbating the feeling of hopelessness.

Hopelessness is often associated with mental health issues like anxiety, depression, substance dependency, suicidal ideation, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress, and bipolar disorder. It can also show up intermittently during periods of difficulty and eventually pass when life lets up a bit. The problem is that when you fall into hopelessness, it can feel like a trap so that you lose the motivation to find help and get out, even though you have plenty of pathways to do so.

I have worked with many people who have complained of depression and described feeling this way. I personally have faced “the darkness of my soul” at critical junctures in my life, after experiencing one traumatic event after another. For my clients as well as myself, feeling hopeless was a symptom of feeling defeated, dissatisfied, and beat up by life events and feeling too exhausted to gather the energy to fight back. With time, love, and support, and reappraising my core beliefs and improving self-care, hopelessness was eventually turned back into hope.

Here are some signs that you’re starting to feel hopeless:

  • Your situation will never improve.
  • It’s too late for you to change.
  • No one can help you.
  • You will never be happy again.
  • You will never find love.
  • You have no future.
  • Success isn’t possible.
If you’re having difficulty getting out of the trap, I cannot stress enough how important it is to seek help from a therapist, counselor, or trusted friend. You aren’t on this journey alone, and you have available options to feel better, as both I and my clients discovered.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book author:

Eva Selhub, MD is a physician and resilience expert. She taught for 20 years as an instructor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, and served as the medical director of the Benson Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at the Massachusetts General Hospital for six years.

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