The importance of being resilient

Benjamin Franklin stated there are two certainties in life: death and taxes. However, the fact ‘disappointment’ doesn’t feature on this list is a bit of an oversight – especially given that this Founding Father was self-employed for much of his career.

We’re all forced to navigate setbacks at various stages in our lives but, for independent professionals, these knocks tend to occur at a higher-than-average-rate. Indeed, rejection, unstable pay, competition, wavering confidence and feelings of isolation are just a few challenges faced weekly. But this is where resilience comes in – and this life skill should be woven deep into our armour.

working from home at table

‘The word “resilience” comes from the Latin “resilio”, which means to bounce back,’ explains Dr Susan Kahn, Business Psychologist and Programme Director for Coaching at Birkbeck, University of London. Essentially, ‘[it] is the ability to adapt and change to circumstances as they confront you, and get back on track.’ This is of particular importance to the self-employed, because we’re not afforded the luxury of having time to wallow before dusting ourselves off and continuing on.

But, as Dr Rachel Lewis, Registered Occupational Psychologist and Director at Affinity Health At Work explains, resilience has other purposes, too. ‘[It’s] been shown to be related to a number of outcomes – from individual productivity, like innovation and creativity, to individual wellbeing, such as preventing stress and mental health issues.’

While resilience can hugely benefit your professional life, it also supports overall mental wellbeing – which is arguably as important. ‘Often, resilience is used in place of stress management interventions, [but] we should be becoming more resilient before we get ill,’ states Dr Lewis. ‘It’s about stopping ourselves from going over the top of the curve.’

Making positive changes

Taking the leap into self-employment means you’re likely more resilient than you realise – but your level can always be improved. ‘Being resilient isn’t something you do or don’t have,’ notes Dr Kahn. ‘For most of us, we need to build up a degree of strength for working in different ways, or for different people or situations we might not have anticipated.’ And while innate traits can contribute to resilience levels, they’re not a defining factor, reveals Dr Lewis. ‘If your personality is generally more optimistic or open-minded, you’re likely to be more resilient. However, research shows resilience is malleable and dynamic, and we can develop it at any time.’

Fortunately, the actions that help build our defences are easily achievable – and even small steps can make a big difference. ‘The lovely thing about it is that there’s lots of ways we can address resilience, but no one way is better than another,’ Dr Lewis reflects. ‘Choose a way that works for you and can see positive growth from.’ Here, she and Dr Kahn reveal six key steps for aiding improvement.

Create a community

Working away from an office means you get to avoid tricky politics and regulations, but it can also be very isolating. As such, aim to ‘develop and enhance your social network and connectedness,’ states Dr Lewis. ‘The support you’ll get, and the sense of being a part of something bigger, is really good for resilience.’

Having others to turn to will make you feel less alone, allow successes to be celebrated, and open up different perspectives. Creating WhatsApp groups with peers, joining local business networks, attending events and taking part in webinars are all good starting points.

Recognise strengths

‘It can be hard to remind yourself of your skills and strengths – and [easy to] feel it’s your fault if you haven’t got work,’ Dr Kahn shares. However, acknowledging what you have to offer – from writing or consulting to communication or time management – will support your confidence when it receives a knock, and provide a boost when pitching for work.

Learning new skills will also enhance your resilience, explains Dr Lewis. ‘If we build up...the number of things we can do and feel competent in, then we build our confidence and see ourselves as more resilient.’ Some of these may not even be ones you’d use every day – but taking a course on taxes and expenses might make you feel more in control of your finances, while learning a computer programme could open up new avenues.

Develop coping mechanisms

Compiling a to-do list comes with greater benefits than you may think. ‘When we’re in situations that require resilience, things like routines, planning our days, scheduling and having a set of goals to work towards are really important in keeping us anchored,’ Dr Lewis says. If you’re overwhelmed by work, elements of organisation offer a sense of control – in turn, helping you feel more able to succeed.

Switch your perspective

Cup half-empty? Now’s the time to make it half-full. ‘If you have a sense of resilience, rather than viewing every failure as something which destroys you, you’ll view it as something [to] gain from,’ states Dr Kahn. If you make a mistake, for example, chances are you’ll feel angry or disappointed. A resilient response, however, would involve considering what could have been done differently and things that can be learnt – and making this mental switch can have a huge impact.

‘Change perspective to look at what’s good, rather than bad,’ Dr Lewis concurs, ‘and use active coping skills to focus on solutions, rather than issues.’ And, for those whose thoughts have a tendency to spin off into ‘what-if’ scenarios, ‘mindfulness and gratitude exercises are useful in building our ability to emotionally regulate and focus on the now,’ she adds.

Adopt a mantra

Having a bad day? Take a moment to pause, breathe, and relay an affirming message. Remind yourself ‘this too shall pass, and things will move on’, suggests Dr Kahn, and that ‘you’re stronger than you think.’

Practice self-care

It may sound gimmicky, but ‘taking care of yourself is vital,’ Dr Kahn states. ‘Making sure you’ve got enough sleep, you’re hydrated, doing exercise and eating sensibly…can have a profound effect. If we’re strong physically, this can have an enormous impact on our emotional wellbeing and resilience.’

The journey of self-employment is an ever-changing rollercoaster of ups and downs – but, hopefully, with improved resilience and morale-boosting tactics firmly in place, the positive days will far outnumber the negative.

Meet the author

Chantelle Pattemore

Chantelle Pattemore is a freelance journalist and editor, with a predominant focus on wellbeing, health, fitness and culture. She has written for Women's Health, Stylist, Shondaland, Greatist, Men's Fitness, Top Sante and Reader's Digest, among others – and can be found occasionally musing over life on Twitter @journochantelle