The 3 Keys to Resilience

We’ve seen previously what resilience is and why it matters.

“The oak and the reed”
Resilience is like the reed: you bend and do not break!

You’ve assessed your own resilience thanks to the Al Siebert Test.

We’ve then outlined the risk and protective factors fostering resilience.

Today, we’re going to take a closer look at the 3 essential qualities to be resilient.
Resilience has been studied for more than 40 years starting with the pioneering studies of Norman Garmezy.
Since then, lots of theories have been developed.

Diane Coutu, in her article “How Resilience Works” for the Harvard Business Review book on “Building personal and organizational resilience” outlined 3 essential keys to resilience.

  1. The capacity to face down and accept reality

This is the starting point.
When Leila first came to France in the 60’s to live with her husband, she cried every day for one year. She had left the little villa of her parents in a suburb of Algiers. The house was very simple with its little balcony. There was not even a view on the sea. But she enjoyed the smell of the jasmine during the long and hot summer days, the sweet figs freshly picked from the tree close to the entrance door, the endless conversations at night with her sisters around a cup of mint tea. She had not made her decision lightly: it took her 2 years to think about leaving her family. But she finally decided she would go.
What a shock when she arrived in France!  She discovered the little apartment without any facility, the cold weather in the North of France, the endless hours spent alone without any friend or family around. She was only obsessed by one idea, day and night: going back.
After one year, her husband fed up with the tears told her: “Now, listen to me. I tell you once and for all: I take your passport and you have no chance to go back. Ever.”

She knew he meant it.

From that day, she stopped crying. She mentally “unpacked her bags”, settled in the place and faced down reality. She could start to move on in her life.

“Acceptance of one’s life has nothing to do with resignation; it does not mean running away from the struggle. On the contrary, it means accepting it as it comes, with all the handicaps of heredity, of suffering, of psychological complexes and injustices.”
Paul Tournier     Click to tweet

Once you’ve acknowledged the place where you are, physically and mentally, you have a stable foundation to build on. Whether you like it or not, you’re truly aware of the situation, without denial nor naive optimism.

Action for you now:
Take a piece of paper and write down your answers to the following questions. As an expatriate, what do you like in your current situation? What do you dislike in living abroad? Do you accept the situation? Do you regret the past?

  1. The skill to improvise for solving problems

In adversity, normality is the exception.              Click to tweet

The second building block to shape resilience is the ability to improvise. This notion is dear to my heart because it’s inspired by the French word “bricolage” used by French anthropologist, Claude Levi-Strauss, as described in his book “The savage mind”. It illustrates one’s ability to tinker, to find a solution with a limited amount of resources, the only ones present in the near environment.
And when travelling and living abroad, we are per definition out of our comfort zone. “Bricoler” is a skill which can save your life at times.
Have you ever experienced gastric problems in a foreign country? Whether it comes from drinking water or contaminated food.
Do you always have your favorite antimotility agent by the hand?
Chances are, you don’t. You’ll have to cope with local availabilities and people developed ingenuous solutions: a glass of Coca-Cola or rice water.

Action for you now:
How do you react when confronted to a new situation without the tools you’re accustomed to? Are you sitting down and complaining about it? Or do you view it as an exciting challenge?

  1. The ability to find meaning

What we’ve seen before were characteristics expressed towards very concrete facts. But our human nature needs more. In times of extreme hardship, finding meaning in the endured suffering can help overcome the present situation.

This is the theory developed by Viktor Frankl and called logotherapy: healing through meaning.
Frankl, a renown neurologist and psychiatrist, shaped his theory when he was prisoner during World War II in Auschwitz, the famous concentration camp.
He woke up one day, only obsessed by one thing: would he trade his latest cigarette against a bowl of soup? Suddenly, he realized how down-to-earth his life had become. He was disgusted. The situation was unbearable.
He managed to survive by searching for a purpose: why was this happening to him?
He could have emigrated to Australia with his sister. He could already have died from the cold, the privations, a disease.
He figured out that this prooftest was sent to him so that he could give a lecture years later, on the psychology of the concentration camps. He would help others to understand what he had been through.
This pivotal moment is described in his book “Man’s search for meaning”.

The basic assumptions of logotherapy are:
* life has meaning in all circumstances
* people are free to choose meaning in life

“Challenging the meaning of life is the truest expression of the state of being human.”
Viktor Frankl      Click to tweet

For an interesting and short video of Viktor Frankl about finding meaning in life, click here.

Coming back to us, expatriates, and in (hopefully) less tragic circumstances, don’t you think that this search for meaning is one of reasons why accompanying spouse start writing blogs about their experience abroad?

Action for you now:
What is the purpose of you living abroad now? Do you know why you’re experiencing this situation? Can you find meaning at this very moment?

And tell me: which of the 3 keys is the most difficult for you?

I’d like to help.

If you don’t want to miss out the next articles
  1. Creating a resilient family abroad
  2. Raising resilient children abroad
Get on the list!




  1. Thank you, good topic.


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