Life Skills for Staying Strong in Times of Adversity

life skills for staying strong during adversity

“The strongest oak of the forest is not the one that is protected from the storm and hidden from the sun. It’s the one that stands in the open where it is compelled to struggle for its existence against the winds and rains and the scorching sun.” -Napoleon Hill (1883-1970)

As much as we love smooth waters, an Arab proverb states that smooth waters do not make skillful sailors. In this journey called life, the question is not, “Will storms arise?” Rather, the question is, “When will the next storm arise?” And even more important than that question is, “What type of person will I be when the next storm arises?” Advanced life skills are needed to navigate these sometimes treacherous waters.

As I was pondering the topic of skillful sailing, I thought about a book I read a while ago. The name of the book is The Resilient Self: How Survivor’s of Troubled Families Rise Above Adversity (Villard, 1993). For too long, an impression that many have had of psychologists is that they tell people to ruminate on their past, blame others, and live as victims, without ever rising above adversity.

Unfortunately, the argument of insanity or of an abusive background would be used to condone criminal acts. This is an extreme perception, but the truth is that the study of people who have come through adversity with key strengths has given us insight into some important life skills we can harness as we face adversity on a daily basis.

The study of resilience has identified us to some of these advanced life skills that I’m going to introduce to you. Think on these resilience factors so that can be ready to successfully navigate the next storm in your life.


The life skills here involve learning to ask tough questions and to give honest answers. It’s about asking yourself hard questions — about your strengths and weaknesses, for example, or about the role you play in your own problems — and giving yourself honest answers. When going through hard times, the questions you choose to ask yourself are key to how what you will focus on and how you will handle the storm.

Here are some suggested questions to help you develop insight about your difficulties:

  • “How did I manage to get up this morning and get through the day?”
  • “What’s kept me going day after day despite feelings of hopelessness?”
  • “How is it (“What have I done so) that things are not worse?”
  • “What’s kept me from completely giving up?”
  • “How did you learn to cope with such an awful situation?”


What is your view of people and of the world? What is your view of the future? Research into children and adults who flourished despite adversity shows the following. Relationships begin in children with contacting – making fleeting ties with others who are emotionally available. In adolescents, relationships sharpen into recruiting – the deliberate attempt to engage with adults and peers who are helpful and supportive. In adults, relationships mature into attaching – mutually gratifying personal ties that are characterized by a balance of give and take.

Application: Do not be shy about asking for help from reliable people when going through difficult times. Men, in particular, often have a difficult time expressing their emotions and being willing to ask for help. Reach out and get connected, whether that is through an organization, a support group, or a professional counselor. Being willing to ask for help in times of adversity and diversity is a sign of health and strength. And don’t forget about cultivating those relationships during good times.


Research has shown that adults who emerged in healthy ways from distressing childhoods practiced independence as defined in the following way: they distanced themselves emotionally and physically from the sources of trouble their life. Independence begins in children with straying – wandering away when trouble is in the air. In adolescents, independence grows into emotional disengagement – detaching from troublesome situations and standing up for oneself. In adults, independence takes form in separating – taking control over the power of one’s pain.

2 Ways to practice independence when adversity comes your way:

1. Give it time. Take the time to acknowledge the pain of the adversity, but also take charge of it by distancing yourself from it. This is very different from denial, or repressing pain by pretending that it does not exist. Resilient people allow themselves to experience pain, but they share it with trusted friends, and they also do other things to distance themselves from the pain.

2. Set boundaries. Only allow yourself certain times to think about or reflect on the adversity. If you are prone to worry, schedule 15 minutes of worry time. Then, when painful feelings or worry come up, tell yourself, “I’ve got my worry time scheduled–I’ll think about it then.”


Initiative is the ability to take charge of problems, instead of being overwhelmed by them. You must learn that if you are ever going to live long and with significance in this world, you are going to have to accept and embrace adversity as a challenge and opportunity, rather than something to be overwhelmed by. The bigger your dreams and goals, the more adversity you can expect.

It takes a degree of mental toughness and creativity to approach the problems of living in a way that will benefit you the most. I suggest utilizing Tony Robbins’ power questions both to approach the daily hassles of living as well as the bigger crises that come into your life. Here are some of those questions:

Morning Power Questions:

1. What am I happy about in my life now? What about that makes me happy? How does that make me feel?
2. What am I excited about in my life now? What about that makes me excited? How does that make me feel?
3. What am I proud about in my life now? What about that makes me proud? How does that make me feel?
4. What am I grateful about in my life now? What about that makes me grateful? How does that make me feel?
5. What am I enjoying in my life right now? What about that do I enjoy? How does that make me feel?
6. What am I committed to in my life right now? What about that makes me committed? How does that make me feel?
7. Who do I love? Who loves me? What about that makes me loving? How does that make me feel?

Evening power questions:

1. What have I given today? In what ways have I been a giver today?
2. What did I learn today?
3. How has today added to the quality of my life or how can I use today as an investment in my future?
1. What is great about this problem?
2. What is not perfect yet?
3. What am I willing to do to make it the way I want it?
4. What am I willing no longer to do in order to make it the way I want it?
5. How can I enjoy the process while I do what is necessary to make it the way I want it?


Creativity is using the imagination in a way that, once again, helps you mobilize your resources and navigate tough situations in life. Creativity and humor are related resiliencies. One of the most helpful tools to tapping creativity during hard times is a workbook called The Artist’s Way Workbook, by Julia Cameron. It encourages the practice of freehand journaling every morning in order to tap into your inner resources. Other helpful forms of creativity may include drawing, listening to music, painting, walking in nature, and meditation. I have found that I am most creative internally when I am running out in open nature, all alone.


Humor is an offshoot of creativity. Learn not to take yourself or life too seriously! Learn to cultivate your sense of humor, because when you do, it will help you play in the midst of difficulty, shape your reality by offsetting pain, and help you laugh in the face of the absurdity of your pains and troubles. By no means do I mean that you should minimize or pretend that your troubles don’t exist. However, being able to find humor in every situation will help you cope more effectively. Learn to enjoy funny books or movies. Laugh often.

Morality and Values

This means that you have identified your core personal values, and that you are living and acting on the basis of an informed conscience. It means that you have developed a philosophy of living and a moral framework and principles for behaving and decision making. Ultimately, these values and principles will serve as roots that will give you nourishment when the storms of adversity pound against you.

In the most responsible and developed stage of morality and values, we have an obligation to use our gifts and talents to serve others, even in the midst of suffering and pain. I cite some examples here: Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr. These are only a few examples of persons who tapped into morality and spirituality in the midst of adversity.

I hope that you will use these advanced life skills to successfully navigate the ups and downs of life, both the seemingly small, and the very big. Let me know if you have used any of these life skills, whether you are using any now, and which ones you would like to develop for the future.

If you enjoyed this article consider email updates!

Stephen Borgman is a licensed psychotherapist committed to bringing hope, understanding, and solutions to his readers and clients. You can read more by Steve at Personal Success Factors.


  1. Jonathan June 1, 2010 Reply

    I wanted to take this opportunity to welcome Steve to Advanced Life Skills. This article is positively loaded with practical steps and guidelines for staying emotionally strong during times of adversity. Thanks for all your hard work on this Steve, it’s really quite exceptional.

  2. Steve June 1, 2010 Reply

    Jon, I am honored to be able to contribute to your blog. I love the title: Advanced Life Skills. We all need them on a continuous basis. Because it seems to me that life can seem more and more complex as we get older: so much change. But I have a feeling life has always been the same at the core. It helps to have a resilient mindset and a strong reference group. And there are so many great people on your blog and in the personal development community.

  3. Mary Ann June 1, 2010 Reply

    Get on, Steve! You sure know how to put it out there. I for one needed reminded; therefore, it is only fitting that I comment. It was a nice refresher course. Sometimes we need them as I did today.

    Thank you!

    • Steve June 1, 2010 Reply

      Thank you, Mary Ann. I write, in order to be reminded! Seriously, the more I write about these things, the more I hopefully internalize them. It is through teaching that we learn the best. Now if you take what you read and pass it along, you’ll be teaching in turn :)

  4. Mick Morris June 1, 2010 Reply

    This is a really thorough and practical resource to assist with recovery and resilience. I have bookmarked it for reference and sharing with people, Thanks.

    • Steve June 1, 2010 Reply

      Mick, I’m happy that it could be of use to you and to the people you share it with. I know that when I first learned about these principles, I found them very striking.

  5. Stephen June 1, 2010 Reply

    Hi Steve, as Jonathan said this is loaded with practical advice. I like the concept of resilience. I remember listening to a Bob Proctor audio once on resilience. He had decided it was the most important factor in success. I think he might be right and for life as well.

  6. Steve June 1, 2010 Reply

    Stephen, thanks for the feedback. You are so right about the need for resilience. Actually, Jonathan’s last post about meeting challenges creatively is a nice complement to this article. It’s humbling to write about all this: I’ve been having some challenges myself, and it’s time for me to re-read this article so that I can come out on top :)

  7. Farnoosh June 1, 2010 Reply

    Stephen, I like your writing voice and your sincerity. I feel overwhelmed and inspired after reading this – So many questions, so much homework for me ;) – seriously though, you break i down so well. It is difficult to be strong in adversity, quite obviously – but preparation can go such a long way and the techniques you mention here are excellent preparation tools. How will I react to the next storm? Very nicely said. Thank you!!!!

    • Steve June 1, 2010 Reply

      Farnoosh, you are very kind. You made a great point: Preparation is key. We can never be fully prepared, but by reading material like this blog, your blog, and others’ who are positive, we can gain the mental and emotional resilience needed to conquer storms in our lives.

  8. Nea June 1, 2010 Reply

    This is such a wonderful article. The amount of useful, life-changing information is amazing. I especially like the power questions, which are a positive way to reassess our lives.

    • Steve June 1, 2010 Reply

      Nea, I agree with you: when I read about the power of asking the right questions in Tony Robbins’ book, Awaken the Giant Within, it opened up a whole new world of possibilities to me. Unfortunately, we tend to ask ourselves the wrong questions if we are used to negative mental habits: “Why me? Why do other people get all the breaks? Why is he such a jerjk?” Power questions are definitely the way to go, if we want to improve our outcomes, both internally and externally.

  9. ZuzannaM June 1, 2010 Reply

    Hello Stephen,

    The post you made is a real good post. There are questions that were good to read and examine my own deeds. Loved the series,
    “Morning Power Questions, Evening power questions and Problem solving questions:”
    Those significant points are of a great value in ones life. Thank you for the wonderful presentation and of-course for me educational as well. It was a joy to read the blog on Jonathan page.

    Best wishes,

  10. Steve June 1, 2010 Reply

    It seems as though those power questions are a hit :) I know when I shared them on a different previous blog post someone wrote me and told me that they printed them out and put them on the wall beside their bed. Now there’s a great way to put this into practice!

  11. Hi Steve,

    I totally agree! Asking the right questions when going through times of adversity is key to helping cope. We have the choice to either look at the glass as half full or half empty. Thank you so much for sharing!

    • Steve June 3, 2010 Reply

      Jarrod, I’ll definitely take the half full cup of water. It reminds me of the twitter status I saw the other day: When things get tough, count your blessings, and not your troubles :)

  12. Frank June 2, 2010 Reply

    Wow! If this post was a meal. I could eat six times a day for the rest of my life. I have never seen so many steps, each of which can probably sustain a post of their own, gathered together to help people get through their “storm.” It is a really powerful tool to put things in their perspective by asking yourself the right questions. I guess it is time to start “talking” to myself. I throughly enjoyed reading this.

    • Steve June 3, 2010 Reply

      Frank, you’re correct about the size of the meal :) I struggled with whether to actually put everything in one package, but in the end, that’s what it ended up to be. When I find big meals like this, I bookmark it in Instapaper and read it in my free time on my iPhone :)

  13. Dia June 2, 2010 Reply

    Hi Steve,

    Thanks for this very nice article. You mentioned something very nice about how setting a specific time for “worry” helps us a lot. This is so true and helpful. Otherwise, we would spend our day worrying.

    • Steve June 3, 2010 Reply

      Dia, the worrying technique is borrowed from cognitive behavior theory. What’s good about it is that it’s actually a constructive use of time. We can clarify our fears/worries, formulate it into a problem to be solved, and then start working on solutions.

  14. timethief June 2, 2010 Reply

    Hey Steve,
    Your article is definitely worthy of printing out and keep close at hand. This part in particular resonated with me today: “Take the time to acknowledge the pain of the adversity, but also take charge of it by distancing yourself from it.” Tomorrow it may be another section that rings true and calls my attention to it. Thanks so much for sharing these power questions. I appreciate it.

    • Steve June 3, 2010 Reply

      Timethief, thank you for your kind comments. It’s true that it helps to come back and reflect on these points, because there is really so much there. I am so proud of all the resilient people who have gone through so much so that we can learn so much, in turn, from them. By the way, your name is intriguing, so I’m going to need to stop by your site ;-)

  15. Hulbert Lee June 2, 2010 Reply

    Hi Steve, thanks for this post. I like the list you provided here on asking tough questions. It’s important that we understand that tough situations are there to test us, and if we can find a way to overcome through those problems, challenges, or obstacles, then we can come out as a strong person. Thanks for sharing this with us as well as giving us an in-depth outline on resiliency and being emotionally strong during adversity.

    • Steve June 3, 2010 Reply

      Hulbert, thanks for the comment. The one common denominator of ‘success’ is that those who are successful have learned to expect and embrace adversity as a given on their way to accomplishing their goals. That’s why I love the inspiration at your site: From the Bottom Up. It gives us references to associate to, of successful individuals who have learned to make adversity their friend instead of their foe.

  16. kaddija July 29, 2011 Reply

    thanks Steve, I love the article, it is really interesting!

  17. rob October 24, 2011 Reply

    Steve, this is a great article and it has helped me a lot, thank you. I really like the part about the oak tree. I bookmarked it and will refer to it when needed, which has been quite often lately.

  18. Michael January 5, 2012 Reply


    You write with an eloquent and captivating voice, and this was a pleasure to read; like many others I have bookmarked, and shared this post. “Staying Emotionally Strong in Times of Adversity” was as refreshing to my mind as it was challenging to my heart.

    I have long considered the best approach to tap into, and to write about, my internal struggles. It dawned on me with your introduction to Tony Robbins’ that by answering these simple questions with honest words I will have a refined and simplified inner voice. I am excited with the literary challenge of putting this inner voice to pen and paper.

    I don’t often comment, but you deserve a bit of recognition for this post. I’ll be following you, and you will always be a welcome guest over at my blog!

  19. Gera May 3, 2012 Reply

    Hi Steve:

    I tend to be a negative individual, always looking at my weaknesses and the dark side of my life. You have no idea how much you have helped me, from realizing I have to be more confident to knowing that I have to be presistant and never give up in this journey.

    Thank you ?

    Sincerly Gera

  20. rop May 5, 2012 Reply

    this site is amaizing it has given me one more reason to live n enjoy life amid all the pain.

  21. Jess April 10, 2013 Reply

    Great information. Resilience is something I’ve been seeing talked about over and over lately and it is resonating with me. So often we are eager and energetic during the initial phases of something, but then when the going gets tough or we run into road blocks/adversity we shrivel up or abandon our efforts and move on to the next idea.

    Resilience really is key and realizing that when things get tough that is a part of the learning/growth process will make those moments a bit more tolerable. Thanks for sharing.

    • kamela September 18, 2013 Reply

      Real great article was just Googling when i ran into it and it really did change my day. A real positive reinforcement of the lesions that can be learned form going through life’s adversities.

  22. denis December 8, 2013 Reply

    Excellent advice. This is really good for people who are having problems with their relationships and work. This really combined everything into a more neutral approach and view of situations. Very good job.

  23. patricia July 15, 2014 Reply

    today, i woke up with a heavy heart, feeling sad and lost. On the way to work I decided that I needed to be tougher and not such a sook and give in to the tears. I said to myself, this is it, I needed to toughen up and stop letting these feelings overwhlem me and immobolise me. Its certainly a challenge this approach but I need to do it otherwise I will spend the rest of my life feeling lost. I then found this website, and to my surprise it confirmed that yes, I need to toughen up and be mentally strong so that I can start to feel better whenever I feel like this and eventually I will have trained my happy self to be the one who rules my thoughts. S0 thank you for your wise words

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