The word resilience comes from the Latin resilio, defined as “to bounce back” or “retaliate.” Emotional resilience refers to the ability to successfully adapt to stressors, maintaining psychological well-being in the face of adversity and the ability to navigate challenging experiences and recover quickly. Resilience is not a trait that people either have or don’t have – we are all born with it to some degree. Resilient behaviors, thoughts and actions can be learned and developed over time, even for those who do not find it to be second nature.

Family lawyers are barraged daily by angry and anxious clients, litigious opposing counsel, unfavorable rulings, demanding schedules and constant deadlines. A game changer for managing these and other life stressors can be developing greater emotional resilience.

Characteristics of Emotional Resilience

Steven Southwick and Dennis Charney, experts in post-traumatic stress, have studied resilient people for over 20 years. They’ve interviewed prisoners of war, survivors of extreme natural disasters, people who have suffered debilitating diseases or the tragic loss of a loved one, abuse victims and others who have dealt with terrible life experiences.

A TIME magazine Live Well article¹ recaps 10 things resilient people have in common, as featured in Southwick and Charney’s book, Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges. Following are aspects of some of the characteristics that are particularly relevant to divorce attorneys and their clients:

Be Optimistic – The authors explain that both pessimists and optimists hone in on negative information that is relevant to the problems they face. However, unlike pessimists who get stuck in the rut of the problem, optimists move past the negative and focus instead on problems they believe they can solve. In other words, emotionally resilient people quickly recognize when to cut their losses and shift their energy into problem-solving surmountable challenges.

Have A Moral Compass – The emotionally resilient people studied shared a strong sense of right and wrong. Even when their lives were threatened, they put others equal or above their own needs and concerns. “Altruism – selflessness, concern for the welfare of others, and giving to others with no expectation of benefit to the self – often stood as a pillar of their (the study participants) value system, of their ‘moral compass.’”

Be Cognitively Flexible – When confronted with challenging situations, many people have only one modus operandi for dealing with stress. Unhealthy emotional reactions may manifest as anger, denial, catastrophizing, self-isolating or overcompensating. What sets emotionally resilient people apart is their cognitive flexibility – their ability to use a number of healthy ways to deal with and manage stressful situations. A healthy toolbox of cognitive flexibility reactions include a willingness to compromise, showing empathy or sympathy, being an active listener, asking thoughtful questions and taking a break when tensions run too high. These high functioning emotionally resilient people are able to shift from one coping strategy to another depending on the circumstances.

Have Resilient Role Models – Southwick and Charney found that resilient individuals they interviewed had role models whose beliefs, attitudes and behaviors inspired them. Surprisingly, they also found that bad or negative role models also served as inspiration, as these people embodied traits emotionally resilient people emphatically did not want to have.

Emotionally resilient role models can be mentors, bosses, coaches, teachers and friends, relatives or neighbors who have faced great adversity in their life and came out on top. Examples of public figures who have relied on their emotional resilience to achieve greatness include²:

Michael Jordan: Despite being dropped from his high school basketball team because his coaches thought he was a “slacker,” Jordan practiced harder and harder until he made it onto the Tar Heels team at the University of North Carolina and famously went on to the Chicago Bulls, establishing himself as one of the greatest players to ever take to the court. Jordan is quoted as saying, “Always turn a negative situation into a positive situation,” and “If you quit once, it becomes a habit. Never quit!”³

Nelson Mandela: During the 27 years the renowned South African leader was jailed due to political persecution, Mandela’s determination to end apartheid never faltered. While imprisoned, Mandela was known to always have a note on him with lines from William Ernest Henley’s poem Invictus, which read, “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.”

Oprah Winfrey: Winfrey grew up poor and mistreated in the inner city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. After enduring sexual abuse by a relative, she became pregnant and miscarried at the age of 14. Instead of letting this tragedy destroy her life, Winfrey embarked on a journey of self-discovery and empowerment, overcoming numerous obstacles for a woman, especially one of color. The beloved and celebrated star is quoted as saying, “Challenges are gifts that force us to search for a new center of gravity. Don’t fight them. Just find a new way to stand,” and “The greatest discovery of all time is that a person can change his future by merely changing his attitude.”⁴

Developing Emotional Resilience

A litmus test for emotional resilience is to evaluate one’s emotional awareness by asking, do I understand what I’m feeling and why, in any number of situations, both positive and negative? If the answer is yes, you are likely higher on the emotional resilience scale and in a better position to regulate yourself and cope with difficult emotions. If the answer is no, not only is your emotional stability challenged and likely erratic, but your ability to respond appropriately to others may be diminished. Keep in mind, everyone has the capacity to become more emotionally resilient.

Getting in touch with stressors and healthy, productive reactions often benefits from taking a 10,000 foot view of the past and envisioning various plans, strategies and outcomes in the future. This shift in perspective opens the door to new points of view and new approaches for problem solving and ultimately solutions. Highly emotional resilient people don’t feel helpless or hopeless when they are facing a challenge. They are more likely to work harder toward a goal when they are faced with an obstacle. If you believe you, rather than outside forces, are in control of your emotional resilience, your decision-making and problem-solving abilities will thrive.

Emotional Resilience for Your Clients

The extraordinary stress most couples experience during the divorce process can diminish even the most optimistic, moral and cognitively flexible individual’s ability to remain emotionally resilient. During these times, I encourage clients to practice self-care by exercising, meditating, maintaining a healthy diet, surrounding themselves with loved ones and seeking professional mental health services when needed. I also remind them of the positive power of having a sense of purpose, a sense of humor, a sense of gratitude and a sense of optimism.

Following my 18-year career in litigation and nine years exclusively practicing family mediations – as I help individuals tailor resolutions to address their specific needs – attorneys and clients can count on my emotional resilience. I bring creative solutions to the table that lead to agreeable outcomes for both parties.


¹Time magazine

²Role Models

³Michael Jordan

Oprah Winfrey