What Helps Us Bounce Back from Adversity – Confidence? Grit? Self-Compassion? Hope? - Todd Kashdan
9 min read

What Helps Us Bounce Back from Adversity – Confidence? Grit? Self-Compassion? Hope?

Resilience is a process. It requires hard work. Certain psychological ingredients increase the likelihood of bouncing back from mistakes, failures, and the strain of setbacks.  Scientists discovered psychological strengths that best predict who functions well in the aftermath. Learn about a deep investigation into the hard times faced by elite athletes and how they coped.

After exploring the Shenandoah Mountains in Virginia, my partner asked how many steps we completed. I had no idea. I was relishing deep breaths of fresh air while searching for little critters in their natural landscape. I was searching for fallen logs that I could climb on to cross streams. Unbeknownst to me, my IPhone Health app offered insight into how much I moved during the 4-hour trip (14,823 steps — I resisted walking in circles around the parking lot to cross the pseudo-magical 15,000 mark). That was three weeks ago. I never opened the app again. I hike because it’s fun. I compete to get scientific articles published. I compete in corn hole tournaments. I compete to eat astronomical amounts of salmon sashimi in all-you-can eat sushi restaurants. I don’t compete for the most steps when hiking in the mountains.

I know people who no longer bike outside, extracting Vitamin D from the sun while bantering with fellow bikers. Instead, they descend into the catacombs of a windowless basement. Turn on the computer monitor attached to a stationary bike. Just a few button clicks and they pretend to soar through scenic roads in Acadia National Park, Big Sur, or Hana Highway. They join an online competitor board, peddling like a squirrel on amphetamines to outlast strangers. A continuous leaderboard captures their ranking against others online: Are they keeping up with the pack, falling behind, or movin’ on up? If the competition with others is uninteresting, no worries. A wide range of flashing physiological metrics adorns the dashboard. Heart rate. Blood pressure. With a tube-like attachment, discover whether your urine has a darkened yellow hue with an alert to drink water. Great for biohacking optimizers. Great for people who thrive on competition. Great for people carving time for a workout during a busy day. Great for people who prefer solitude. A potential problem is the harsh attitude toward the self.

Many of us have an unhealthy relationship with feedback. I’m not referring to how well we digest feedback sandwiches during an annual work performance evaluations. I’m thinking of the nearly subliminal feedback we receive every day by comparing ourselves unfavorably to others (e.g., via social media) or to our better/faster/stronger former selves. With the advent of technology, it is easy to gauge how we fare in most life domains with a quick glance at a rectangular screen within arm’s length. Take notes on what mood is felt and compare it to yesterday. Take notes of today’s task list and notice how much remains. Pop onto social media for access to the positive events others are bragging about, and photographs of how much fun they are having compared to you. There is plenty of research showing that the more we value happiness, check in to see whether we are happy, the less happy we feel. The never-ending stream of checking in, peering at what others are doing, prevents us from losing ourselves in the moment to strive toward meaningful goals, investing the effort to feel good and do good.

Bouncing Back Following Mistakes and Poor Performances

It is hard to be kind to ourselves in a performance-obsessed culture. Few of us experienced non-contingent kindness growing up, much less training on how to treat ourselves with warmth and understanding when difficulties arise.

When I think of how hard it is to be kind to the self, I think of athletes. Athletes are routinely on the judgment block. If you are a baseball player who fails to get on base 65% of the time when up against a pitcher, you are not only good, keep this up for twenty years and you will be anointed as one of the greatest hitters of all time in the Hall of Fame. It’s a simple formula but try to imagine how hard it is to stay optimistic and in good spirits when the vast majority of the time you fail at a personally important task.

Often the coach is not the primary progenitor of criticism. Nor teammates. Nor fans. Nor sports writers. Athletes do fine on their own, denigrating themselves after unsatisfactory performances. The mind is quite creative at devising ruthless judgments about not living up to high standards. This has led psychologists to ask the question: what psychological mechanisms can help people bounce back in difficult times? There are a number of candidates. Self-confidence? Grit? Hope? Self-compassion?

The Case for Confidence

Self-confidence may be an occasionally helpful but precarious resource for optimal performance. Confidence tends to originate from prior accomplishments, encouragement from important people, and a calibration that a task is manageable with pre-existing strengths and capabilities. To maintain consistently high levels of confidence, one must continue to rack up accomplishments and/or ignore failings, maintain a greater influx of positive to negative reinforcement from others and weight the positive feedback stronger than the negative feedback, and sustain beliefs that mastery is possible and likely. Self-confidence seems to be a quality that wavers with adversity as opposed to being a source of fortitude.

The Case for Grit

Grit reflects persistence and passion for long-term goals and is associated with a wide range of achievement outcomes. Gritty individuals are more engaged in school, perform better on tests and in classes, are more likely to find academic activities to be meaningful, hold a growth mindset, stay in college, graduate, and develop leadership skills. Research suggest that grittier athletes accumulate more practice and performance time, have better sport-specific cognitive perceptual skills, and use motivational feedback more effectively than less gritty athletes. Some research suggests the enduring effort toward goals or the perseverance dimension of grit produces consistently high performance. Other work suggests it is the combination of perseverance toward goals that harmoniously fit with the rest of a person’s life that contribute to superior outcomes. When grit as framed as the presence of harmonious pursuits that a person is passionate about and motivated to pursue despite pain and effort, this strength intuitively seems to be a useful aid in bouncing back from adversity.

The Case for Hope

Hope is defined as the belief that one can effectively and energetically pursue desired goals (i.e., agency) and be able to generate multiple routes toward goals if obstructions arise (i.e., pathways). While hope is not a standard target of sport psychology interventions, research suggests that hope is associated with athletic achievement among college athletes beyond training, mood, confidence, and self-esteem. Hope is also associated with less burnout, suggesting more hopeful athletes may be skilled at regulating negative emotions and persevering when they fail to meet their goals. In a study of 10 U S. Olympic gold medalists (winners of 32 Olympic gold medals combined), hope emerged as one of the key qualities possessed by athletes. Like grit, being the type of person who has agency and pathways in abundance seems to be ideal to bouncing back from adversity.

The Case for Self-Compassion

Self-compassion offers a stable way of relating to oneself compared with self-confidence, especially when undesirable, unwanted events occur. There are three parts to self-compassion. First, treating oneself with kindness instead of criticism. Second, holding a non-judgmental stance about feelings, thoughts, and physical sensations that arise such that openness prevails over defensiveness. This mindfulness dimension extends to holding thoughts about the self loosely instead of overly identifying with traits, group memberships, successes, and failures. Third, there is a sense of common humanity with acknowledgment that all humans are imperfect and others have suffered as much or more than what is being felt now. Several studies with college students, athletes, and community adults find that self-compassion, compared to self-esteem, predicted strong, stable self-worth, more approach oriented and less avoidance oriented coping, and less defensiveness and fewer social comparisons.

Comparing and Combining Psychological Strengths

These four strengths of confidence, grit, hope, and self-compassion offer a desirable psychological profile. But which are best for overcoming adversity? Dr. James Doorley, who I once mentored as a graduate student, found that over the course of 14 consecutive days, Division I college athletes experience a large number of moments when they view their performance harshly. In practice, athletes judge themselves negatively for insufficient effort, insufficient growth, a failure to execute desired plans, and an overall feeling that they let themselves down. Three questions gnawed at us: Do psychological strengths only matter on days when athletes perform poorly or also when they do well on a given day? Which strengths are most relevant in the aftermath of poor performances? How do strengths offer aid during good and bad times?

You wouldn’t expect the power of grit, self-compassion, or self-confidence to enter the equation when athletes perform well on a given day. When athletes performed at or above what is average to them, self-confidence had no impact on their psychology or performance the next day. Neither did grit, hope, or self-compassion. Now when athletes perform below their typical performance on a given day, self-confidence did not help them in bouncing back the next day. Being gritty, in contrast, led to a 10.9% increase in performance the next day. Being highly self-compassionate led to an 8.9% increase in performance the next day. Being hopeful led to a 7.9% increase in performance the next day.

Three strengths benefitted athletes with a quick turnaround in performance after a problematic day (in their mind’s eye). As for why, what we found is that athletes who were highly self-compassionate or hopeful relied more often on cognitive reframing of events. Viewing difficulties as learning opportunities. Viewing anger as a tool to harness as energy to perform better in the future. Noticing signs of progress even if they put up unimpressive statistics for a practice or game.

Now you might be saying: I’m not an athlete, so what does this have to do with me? The answer is a lot. Athletics happens to be a platform where there is immediate feedback and constant preparation to display skills in front of an audience. Sounds similar to the businessperson pitching products to venture capitalists. Parents dealing with a child’s angry outbursts. Someone navigating the dating world, searching and testing for intellectual stimulation, emotional connection, and physical chemistry with potential partners. This research is relevant to anyone who is trying to execute high-level performances.

There is no singular path to bouncing back from adversity. No single psychological strength offers salvation. What this new research shows is that there is value in at least three distinct psychological strengths: hope, self-compassion, and grit. Books exist on each of them. In the future, I hope others will explore their potentially powerful combination.

Remember: we are a matrix of personality dimensions. Identify the strengths that produce consistently high performance, are energizing, and put them into action. There is nothing strange about a self-compassionate, gritty person who possesses sufficient agency to pursue valued aims and adapts to the roadblocks and obstacles that arise on the journey. Cultivate these strengths and become more resilient.

Provocation

What beliefs do you hold about self-compassion that might serve as a barrier to using this strength? Notice what you think when pondering these statements – I will become complacent if I am kind to myself. Accepting my mistakes means I’m less likely to fix them. I’m less likely to improve myself if I accept myself completely. Experiment with being self-compassionate while also invested in self-improvement. These are not opposing forces. Self-compassion fuels personal growth.

What long-term, passionate goals are you persevering toward that are someone else’s dreams? Grit becomes a potent force when the object of desire is of personal interest and tied to what you care about. Imagine nobody found out about the effort you devoted toward goals and if you succeed. Will a lack of public approval change your attitude about these pursuits? Check in on the motives behind your actions. Be gritty for the right goals and for the right reasons.

Know someone who is an exemplar of self-compassion, grit, and hope?
Share these Provoked ideas with them!

For access to the primary study discussed above, click here: Doorley, J.D., Kashdan, T.B., Weppner, C., & Glass, C. (in press). The effects of self-compassion on daily emotion regulation and performance rebound among college athletes: Comparisons with confidence, grit, and hope. Psychology of Sport and Exercise

Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is Professor of Psychology and leads The Well-Being Laboratory at George Mason University. His latest book, available for pre-order, is The Art of Insubordination: How to Dissent and Defy Effectively.