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You Are Stronger Than You Think

Why you might underestimate your resiliency.

Key points

  • People often underestimate their own resiliency.
  • Human brains are wired to try to minimize the impact of negative events.
  • The psychological immune system often works outside of human awareness.
Source: YuryImaging/Shutterstock
Source: YuryImaging/Shutterstock

Imagine that you magically wake up tomorrow as a stronger and more resilient version of yourself. How would you live differently? What would you do if you knew that you would eventually recover from failures or setbacks?

Would you take more chances? Finally finish that project or make that call or have that conversation?

What opportunities have you been putting off or passing up because you don’t think you’re strong enough to deal with the rejection or disappointment?

What if I told you that you are probably stronger than you think you are?

How can I know that? Because most of us are stronger than we think.

There are a lot of ways we overestimate ourselves: We tend to think we are smarter and healthier and better drivers than we probably are. But there are also ways we underestimate ourselves. And one thing we tend to underestimate is our ability to cope with negative events. We often predict that we will feel worse and for a longer period of time than we actually end up feeling. We can’t imagine ever getting over a breakup or job loss or the death of a loved one.

But, our emotional responses are often less intense than we imagine they will be, even for really bad situations, like losing a spouse.

Why you’re stronger than you think

Our brains are wired to try to minimize the impact of negative events. According to University of Virginia psychologist Timothy Wilson, one way our brains do this is by trying to make sense of negative events. We might do this by rationalizing or reinterpreting events in a way that makes them seem more predictable and inevitable. We tell ourselves that “we knew all along” that things would happen the way they did. When events seem more predictable and less novel, it reduces their emotional power.

Here is how Wilson describes our sense-making processes in his book Strangers to Ourselves: “Just as we have a physiological immune system that identifies dangerous foreign bodies and minimizes their impact, so do we have a psychological immune system that identifies threats to our self-esteem and finds ways of neutralizing these threats.”

So, if we’re really that good at making ourselves feel better about negative events, why are we so bad at predicting that response? Why do we think we’ll feel so bad for so long? Why do we underestimate our own resiliency?

One reason is that our psychological immune system that helps us deal with negative events often works outside of our awareness. Since we’re not aware of how our brains work to help us make sense of and adapt to negative events, we underestimate our ability to do so.

Another reason we have a hard time predicting how we’ll respond to negative events is that when we think about a negative event, we often think about it in a vacuum. We think only about that one event and how it will make us feel.

We might be right that we’ll feel bad if we don’t get a promotion, but we probably won’t feel as bad for as long as we think we will, because not getting the promotion is not the only thing that will affect how we will feel. We have a million other things going on in our lives that will affect our well-being. We find out we didn’t get the promotion, but then we go home and eat dinner and go to our kid’s soccer game and meet a friend for lunch. And all of these things will also impact how we feel.

But if we focus too narrowly on the things that will change as a result of a negative event and not enough on all the things that will stay the same in our lives, we will predict that we will be a lot more adversely affected by negative events than we probably will be. We will forget that life usually does go on.

How are you going to use your strength and resilience?

You have a hidden superpower. And it’s not magic. You really are stronger than you think you are.

Now, what are you going to do with that? How are you going to use your superpower?

© Jen Zamzow, PhD


Dunning, D., Heath, C., & Suls, J. M. (2004). Flawed self-assessment: Implications for health, education, and the workplace. Psychological science in the public interest, 5(3), 69-106.

Wilson, T. D., & Gilbert, D. T. (2005). Affective forecasting: Knowing what to want. Current directions in psychological science, 14(3), 131-134.

Hahn, E. A., Cichy, K. E., Almeida, D. M., & Haley, W. E. (2011). Time use and well-being in older widows: Adaptation and resilience. Journal of Women & Aging, 23(2), 149-159.

Wilson, T. D. (2004). Strangers to ourselves. In Strangers to Ourselves. Harvard University Press.

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