Are You an Orchid? Or a Dandelion?
Do you ever wonder why some people bounce back quickly from anything life throws at them, while others struggle mightily to get back to baseline, even after minor setbacks? The difference is resilience, a trait that every counselor or life coach knows can make a major difference in the trajectory of your life.
Resilient people have strong internal systems for managing stress. They experience as much hardship as anyone else, but they can remain fundamentally okay in spite of it. When they go through something painful, like a breakup or divorce, a job loss, or the death of a loved one, resilient people can find meaning in their struggles and translate their experiences into personal growth. In the words of Chumbawamba, they get knocked down, but they get up again.
So, why are some people more resilient than others? The answer is complicated. Resilience is influenced by your personality, your relationships, the skills you’ve had a chance to develop, your style of thinking, and your approach to problem solving, to name just a few factors. It’s also heavily influenced by your genes. One theory we’ll explore places people into two categories — sensitive orchids and hardy dandelions — based on the neurochemical reactions that happen inside their bodies in response to stress. Dandelions will usually do pretty well, no matter what their environment is like. Orchids, on the other hand, need the right conditions to thrive.
No matter what your genetic predisposition is, there are many steps you can take to cultivate greater resilience in your life. In this article, we’ll explore what you can do to improve your ability to recover from setbacks and adapt to change, so you can thrive no matter what. Whether or not you’re currently going through one of life’s rough patches, these are vital skills to learn — because you will need them, at some point.
Why Are Some People More Resilient? Orchids and Dandelions
Stress is a subjective experience that everyone feels differently.
But it’s more than a feeling. Stress is also a physiological reaction that happens inside of our bodies. When we’re under stress, our hearts beat faster, our breathing speeds up, and the levels of adrenaline and cortisol in our bloodstreams rise. Some people show these measurable changes much more strongly than others, and child development researcher Dr. Thomas Boyce says this is a clue to understanding why resilience varies so much from person to person.
Boyce studied the physiological responses that children showed when they were exposed to minor stressors. He found that about 20 percent of children were much more sensitive to stress than others, and exhibited bigger changes in their stress hormones, heart rate, and other factors. The remaining 80 percent of kids showed less physiological reactivity when they were exposed to stress.
Boyce found that there was a connection between these differences and how the children were developing. Among the roughly 20 percent of kids who were more reactive to stress, only the ones from healthy, stable homes in safe, supportive communities were doing well from a medical standpoint. Those from dysfunctional family systems or unsafe neighborhoods were getting sick more often and missing developmental milestones. Like delicate orchids, the more sensitive kids seemed to need ideal conditions to thrive.
Meanwhile, the hardier children who Boyce described as dandelions seemed to do pretty well in just about any circumstances. Even those from tough backgrounds were, on average, healthy, strong, and happy. It seemed that their mild response to stress offered these dandelion children some protection from less-than-perfect environments.
Interestingly, the “orchid” kids who had healthy relationships with nurturing family members seemed to be doing even better than their dandelion peers. Their greater sensitivity to their environments meant that they could absorb even more love and support.
So, what does all of this mean for you? If you struggle to manage stress and recover when things go wrong, you might be an orchid. But that doesn’t mean your personal resilience is set in stone. It just means that it will be even more important for you to figure out what you need to be your happiest and healthiest, and then to cultivate that kind of environment with intention.
And, whether you’re an orchid or a dandelion, there are a number of skills you can learn that will make you more resilient.
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Skills to Be More Resilient
Resilient people have some traits in common. Working on any of these areas can help you manage your stress and respond to setbacks:
- An Internal Locus of Control
Resilient people know how to harness the power of believing in themselves. They tend to have an “internal locus of control,” which is fancy psychology speak for feeling self-empowered to shape the outcomes that you experience in life. Having an internal locus of control helps you hold onto hope when times are tough, and stay motivated to work toward your goals, even when things don’t go as planned.
The opposite of an internal locus of control is an external locus of control, or a sense of helplessness or powerlessness. If you have a self-limiting belief that your outcomes in life are shaped by your circumstances, or by the actions of other people, it can feel like there’s no point in getting back up when life knocks you down.
Having a kind, loving, supportive internal voice makes everything easier. When you have healthy self-esteem, you can persevere through adversity, because you are able to give yourself the self-love and nurturance that you need to recover and move forward. Healthy self-esteem also helps you build healthy relationships with others, so you’re more likely to have a strong circle of support when life gets hard.
In contrast, if you struggle with low-self esteem, it can be hard to function even when life is going pretty well. You may have a nasty inner critic and spend a lot of time beating yourself up whenever you fall short of perfection. Besides making you feel awful, this is a huge waste of your energy that you could be using to take positive steps toward creating the life you deserve. Building your self-esteem makes it easier to learn from mistakes and grow from difficult experiences.
- Emotional Intelligence
People who have high emotional intelligence are aware of their own feelings, able to manage them effectively, and able to understand other people’s feelings and respond to them in ways that strengthen relationships.
Being able to manage your feelings is crucial to performing well under stress. But emotional intelligence also helps you form a good support system of positive, supportive relationships to help you through hard times.
- Psychological Flexibility
Another trait of resilient people is psychological flexibility. Being able to see every situation from multiple perspectives, and find creative, outside-the-box solutions to problems is a huge asset. People who are more psychologically rigid can have trouble changing their minds, adapting to change, or remaining open to new ideas. They can also experience a lot of stress around uncertainty, and can be prone to black-and-white thinking.
- A Growth Mindset
Having a growth mindset helps you turn life’s challenges into opportunities. When you have a growth mindset, you interpret your experiences as a chance to learn more about the world, yourself, and what’s working for you (or isn’t). When something bad happens, someone with a growth mindset may still feel hurt or disappointed, but they’ll reliably be able to find the lessons in their hardship and begin putting them into action.
Someone with a fixed mindset, on the other hand, believes that bad things that happen in life are a reflection of who they are and what they’re capable of, an orientation that can be pretty demoralizing. If this sounds like you, then changing your mindset to one of continuous growth can help you become more resilient.
Some people have a great talent for maintaining a hopeful mindset, no matter what. People who are higher in optimism can deal with difficult emotions more easily, because they believe things will get ultimately better. They also tend to set goals for the future, always giving themselves something to continue striving towards.
- A Sense of Meaning and Purpose
The ability to make meaning out of your experiences, especially your most difficult experiences, is a vital life skill. Some people find meaning in caring for others, or in developing into the best version of themselves, or in creating works of art that touch and inspire others. Wherever you find it, having a sense of meaning makes it easier to persist.
Finally, resilient people know the secret to success: grit.
“Gritty” people are simply able to keep working toward the things they want in life, even when it doesn’t feel good. They can tolerate unpleasant emotions — like anxiety, frustration, and uncertainty — which helps them stick with their long-term goals rather than giving up. People with grit aren’t just tough, they know when to push themselves and when to give themselves a break, how to respond to setbacks, and how to manage their time and their willpower to accomplish goals that take months or years of work.
Support for Increasing Your Resilience
Many people get into therapy when they experience a crisis, like a devastating breakup, job loss, or a scary diagnosis. But you don’t have to wait until something bad happens to begin thinking about your vulnerabilities and your resilience skills, and managing them with intention.
And you shouldn’t wait! We’ll all need to draw upon our personal resilience eventually. It’s not a matter of if you’ll need these skills, it’s a matter of when.
Working with an experienced therapist who understands psychological resilience can be especially important for the “orchids” among us, who need to construct their lives with intention and care. If you’re interested in doing this work with an expert on our team, I invite you to schedule a free consultation.
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby
P.S. — For more tips on becoming more resilient, check out our “emotional wellness” collection of articles and podcasts.
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Music in this episode is by Death with their song “Keep on Knocking.” You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: https://deathfromdetroit.bandcamp.com/. Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self. She is a licensed psychologist, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and a board-certified coach, as well as the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.
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