Resilience and Mental Toughness – is there a difference and does it matter?

Health resilience

There is a difference and, although the two ideas are closely related there are important differences.

Unfortunately the terms these days are often used interchangeably which might mean that the desired outcome is targeted but not achieved. Moreover, resilience is often used in the Hoover sense of the word – it describes all vacuum cleaners but isn’t all vacuum cleaners.

When we started our work with Mental Toughness we, in a sense, we’re building on the work of Kobasa.   She picked up on work from Health Psychology where Mental Toughness was fairly closely defined as “the ability to recover from an adverse situation” or something like that. What this suggested was that resilient individuals were able to cope with adversity when it arose.

That description has begun to flex and change and there are now many definitions that import ideas from positive psychology. We think that fudges the issue and the concept of psychological resilience is drifting more closely to the concept of mental toughness.

We get people who, when we describe Mental Toughness, will say “that’s what I mean by resilience”. Our response is – “you are no longer describing resilience, you are describing mental toughness”

However, it is useful to revert back to the original definitions because they point to something significant. If an adverse situation arises, and the person copes with, they can and are described as resilient. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are positive about the experience. They may have simply gritted their teeth and got on with it – because “needs must” for instance.

Without something else coming into play (a positive mindset) overexposure to setback and adversity may wear the individual out.

In its purest form resilience could be considered a passive or perhaps neutral quality. “I am resilient because I have to be resilient”. Not “…. because I want to be ….”

In the late 20th Century Suzanne Kobasa, looking at resilient managers found that some responded differently to stress pressure and challenge than others although all sought to be resilient. She found that some adopted a positive approach to adversity and challenge sometimes even seeking this out. She found that this predisposition towards exposure to challenge and risk often meant that these individuals dealt better psychologically with set-back (and repeated setbacks). She called this Hardiness to separate it from the idea of resilience.

With the addition of the idea of Confidence, this has now emerged as Mental Toughness. This is defined as “a personality trait which determines in large part how individual deal with stress, pressure, and challenge irrespective of circumstances”. A mentally tough individual sees challenges and adversity as an opportunity and not a threat and has the confidence and positive approach to take what comes in their stride.

Resilience and Mental Toughness are related. Most if not all mentally tough individuals are resilient but not all resilient individuals are mental toughness. The difference lies in the positive component.

The Oxford English Dictionary (on-line) defines Resilience as “the ability to recover quickly from difficulties”. This describes an ability to recover from an adverse situation either largely or completely. It does not necessarily imply that the person has a positive feeling about the negative situation. It simply means – something has gone awry, but I am going to grit my teeth, pick myself up and I still believe that I can do some or all of what I originally intended – despite this set back – and I am going to do my best to achieve some or all of my goals.

We would commonly describe someone who does this as a resilient individual. Although it will help that an individual is optimistic or positive, this is not a necessary condition for resilience.

Consequently, an individual who is resilient without optimism and confidence can be resilient but may find the going tough and may be more likely to wilt if the requirement is too frequent or too sustained.

Confusingly the Oxford English Dictionary offers Toughness as an alternative description of Resilience.

Is the distinction important? We believe so.

Both resilience and mental toughness are developed through experiential learning. Either through targeted development, coaching or simply living through life’s experiences.

The outcome is subtly different but important in a world where everyone experiences change, challenge and setback more frequently and more quickly than ever before. Adopting a positive mindset is important – this is about being “comfortable in your own skin” and accepting life’s ups and downs as part of the journey through life. It’s part of the process of personal development.

We might usefully think of the difference in terms of the phrase “survive and prosper”. Resilience helps you to survive (but not always) and Mental Toughness helps you to prosper (but, again, not always).

It matters because the outcome is more positive leading to:

  • Better performance
  • Better and sustained wellbeing
  • Development of positive behaviors

Singly or in combination these produce better outcomes for organizations and individuals.

Fig 1

Mental Toughness ScaleWhat this means …   for Mental Toughness    for Resilience
CONTROLLife Control – I really believe I can do itLife Control – I really believe I can do it
Emotional Control – I can manage my emotions and the emotions of others 
COMMITMENTGoal Setting – I promise to do it – I like working to goalsGoal Setting – I promise to do it – I like working to goals
Achieving – I’ll do what it takes to keep my promises and achieve my goalsAchieving – I’ll do what it takes to keep my promises and achieve my goals
CHALLENGERisk-Taking – I will push myself – I am driven to succeed 
Learning from Experience – even setbacks are opportunities for learning 
CONFIDENCEIn Abilities – I believe I have the ability to do it – or can acquire the ability 
Interpersonal Confidence – I can influence others – I can stand my ground if needed.Possibly – Interpersonal Confidence and Life Control together can be seen as describing self-efficacy.

The way we deal with these questions now is to ask the questioner to define or describe Resilience. Then to describe for them how we see the difference. Essentially what we are doing here is introducing psychological well-being and positive psychology into the explanation.

If they continue to maintain that Resilience is the same, then ask then to define what it is when individuals face up to adversity and challenge but don’t like doing it.

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