The Resiliency Route to Authentic
Self-Esteem and Life Success

by Nan Henderson, M.S.W.

A controversy is boiling about what is known as “feel-good” self-esteem.

At the heart of the controversy is the assertion that making oneself or someone else feel “special” by using methods such as looking in the mirror and saying “I AM somebody,” doesn’t do any good, and may do harm. One result, say some researchers, is that this type of “self-esteem building” produces “counterfeit positive self-assessment” (Rosemond, 2002) that can set people up for disappointment in the “real world.” This may be especially true for young people, who develop an unrealistic opinion about their “specialness”, only to be disillusioned “when life’s inevitable disappointments present themselves” (Smith & Elliott, 2001). In that disillusionment, kids may turn to alcohol, other drugs, violence, or other unhealthy escapist behavior.

I believe what people of all ages need is the “resiliency route to authentic self-esteem and life success”. This type of self-esteem is not the mere fluff of meaningless affirmations. It is based on recognizing actual accomplishment, identifying and understanding how we have and can use our strengths, and living a life filled with expressions of our unique “talents and gifts.”

Acquiring this “authentic self-esteem” starts by shifting our internal focus for ourselves–and for others, including our children–to a thorough appreciation and application of how we (or they) have “done as well as we’ve done.”

Every day of our lives, we all draw upon what researchers call our innate capacity for overcoming adversity. When dealing life’s small hassles, such as getting stuck in a traffic jam, or diffusing an argument with a coworker, or making the necessary arrangements to take care of a suddenly sick child, we draw upon this internal capacity for resiliency. Our children do this when they struggle through a difficult math lesson, figure out a way to get home when they miss the bus, or cope with an irritable parent. When a major life crisis hits, people draw upon this capacity in a much bigger way.

The first step on the resiliency route to self-esteem is to believe the resiliency research: that we do have an innate capacity for bouncing back. The second step is to identify our personal patterns of doing this. Ask yourself, or facilitate your child or your friend or your client asking themselves:

How have I done as well as I have done? What are the two or three biggest challenges (including crises or traumas) I have overcome in my life? What did I use to overcome them? What do I use every day to effectively cope with the typical stresses in my life?

In other words, what specific qualities, supports, skills, attitudes, aptitudes, and talents have we–or others– relied on to make it this far?

After making this list, I have found it helpful to look over the list of Personal Resiliency Builders–qualities researchers have identified as especially useful in overcoming adversity–and identifying which we most commonly use when we face a crisis, large or small. It is self-esteem building to help ourselves or others to see that we or they do have a few or even several of these research-based Resiliency Builders. These are, in fact, our personal lifelines to overcoming adversity.

(Individual Qualities that Facilitate Resiliency)

Put a check by the top three or four resiliency builders you use most often. Ask yourself how you have used these in the past or currently use them. Think of how you can best apply these resiliency builders to current life problems, crises, or stressors.

(Optional) You can then put a + by one or two resiliency builders you think you should add to your personal repertoire.

[ ] Relationships — Sociability/ability to be a friend/ability to form positive relationships
[ ] Humor — Has a good sense of humor
[ ] Inner Direction — Bases choices/decisions on internal evaluation (internal locus of control)
[ ] Perceptiveness — Insightful understanding of people and situations
[ ] Independence — “Adaptive” distancing from unhealthy people and situations/autonomy
[ ] Positive View of Personal Future – Optimism; expects a positive future
[ ] Flexibility — Can adjust to change; can bend as necessary to positively cope with situations
[ ] Love of Learning — Capacity for and connection to learning
[ ] Self-motivation — Internal initiative and positive motivation from within
[ ] Competence — Is “good at something”/personal competence
[ ] Self-Worth — Feelings of self-worth and self-confidence
[ ] Spirituality — Personal faith in something greater
[ ] Perseverance — Keeps on despite difficulty; doesn’t give up
[ ] Creativity — Expresses self through artistic endeavor

Give yourself (and others) credit for what you and they have gone through and overcome–and especially for whatever was used to do it! Even if you (or someone you love) currently faces a terrible problem, suspend focusing there, and take some time to thoroughly assess and appreciate what has already been accomplished. Then, ask of yourself or another: How can these strengths be used to overcome current life challenges?

This is a powerful approach. A school counselor told me recently how she applied it. A high school student, Sandy, was referred to this counselor because she was failing in two subjects, math and science. Normally, the counselor told me, she would immediately confront a student with the problem–in this case two failing grades–after making some brief small talk. Instead, after the small talk, she opened her session with this question: “Sandy, I have learned a little about your life. Tell me, how have you managed to do as well as you have done?” Sandy, the counselor reported, immediately burst into tears. “Never in all my years has anyone acknowledged what it has taken just to get to school,” she said. Most of the rest of the session was spent identifying all the strengths Sandy had used to “do as well as she had done.” Towards the end of the session, the counselor said, “Let’s talk about how you can use all these strengths you have shared to bring your grades up in math and science.”

The third step is to expand the list of resiliency-builders–ways we’ve overcome life’s challenges–to include other strengths. “What are my strengths? How can I capitalize on them? What one, two, or three things can I do better than 10,000 other people?” are additional questions we should ask or help someone else ask. (Buckingham & Clifton, 2001).

This composite list of resiliency builders and other qualities, talents, skills, and aptitudes paint the most important, but most often overlooked and undervalued, picture of who we are.

For the last 30 years The Gallup Organization has been conducting research into the best way to maximize a person’s potential. Two of the findings are “each person’s talents are enduring and unique,” and “each person’s greatest room for growth is in the areas of his or her greatest strength.” One of the conclusions of this research is: “The real tragedy of life is not that each of us doesn’t have enough strengths, it’s that we fail to use the ones we have”(Buckingham & Clifton, 2001). I would add another tragedy, connected to the first: We obsess about and overestimate the power of weakness, and we fail to recognize and underestimate the power of strengths.

Admittedly, using the resiliency route described here is not always easy to do. We live a culture obsessed with “what is wrong”–with our bodies, our homes, our leaders, our financial status, our material accumulation, our children. And we are very specific in naming all that is wrong: “My thighs are too fat,” “My carpets are dirty,” “My income is too low,” or “You are too lazy,” “Your room is too messy.” Rarely are we as constant and specific in giving ourselves or others the credit that is due. This approach does not mean ignoring real problems–such as alcoholism, other self-destructive behavior, or an abusive, violent temper. But it does mean:

1. Giving ourselves and others credit for all we have overcome, all the ways we have demonstrated resiliency. And naming these accomplishments and the strengths we used in securing them as specifically as possible.

2. Spending time focusing on “how we (or others) have done as well as we’ve done”, suspending the common obsession with what hasn’t yet been accomplished.

3. Identifying other strengths–important lessons learned, virtues, talents, skills and capabilities, how we help or serve others, all the best things about being who we are.

4. Maximizing these strengths as the best path to success, and using them to solve current life problems.

The final step on “the resiliency route to authentic self-esteem and life success” is finding ways to live our strengths, to use them to the utmost as much as possible. “Too many individuals hide their ‘sundials in the shade'” conclude the authors of the Gallup research (Buckingham & Clifton, 2001). Rather than obsessing about correcting all our weaknesses, we should put our strengths to work for us, they advise. “Become an expert at finding and describing and applying and practicing and refining your strengths.”

The happiest and most productive individuals are those who do just this, states Martin Seligman (2001), past president of the American Psychological Association (APA) and a leading resiliency researcher. Dr. Seligman and several colleagues are spearheading a shift in psychology based on a recognition of the power and importance of human strengths. They have recently formed a new branch of psychology within the APA to create “a science of human strength to compliment the science of healing” (Seligman, 1998).

Ironically, social scientists are finding that achieving healing is more likely to occur through employing a focus on clients’ strengths. People dealing with the serious problems mentioned above have historically struggled in therapies and programs that ignored their strengths. Fortunately, “the strength approach” to helping people heal is gaining greater acceptance as a more powerful and successful approach.

“People are more motivated to change when their strengths are supported,” concludes Dennis Saleebey (2001), editor of The Strengths Perspective in Social Work Practice. People I have interviewed who have left gangs, recovered from alcohol and other drug addiction, made it successfully through college despite a childhood of abuse, or overcome other significant traumas have told me the same thing. “The people who helped me the most were the ones who told me ‘what is right with you is more powerful than anything that is wrong with you,'” a young man who successfully completed college despite a childhood of living in one foster home after another told me (Henderson, 1999).

That is the most important message to give ourselves as well as we take “the resiliency route to authentic self-esteem and life success.”


Buckingham, M., & Clifton, D.O. (2001). Now, Discover Your Strengths. New York: Free Press.

Henderson, N. (1999). Preface. In N. Henderson, B. Benard, N. Sharp-Light (Eds.), Resiliency In Action: Practical Ideas for Overcoming Risks and Building Strengths in Youth, Families, & Communities. San Diego, CA: Resiliency In Action, Inc.

Rosemond, J. (2002, January 7). Unmerited praise doesn’t help kids. The Wichita Eagle.

Saleebey, D. (Ed.) (2001). The Strengths Perspective in Social Work Practice, 3rd Ed., Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Seligman, M. (1998, September 3). Speech delivered to the National Press Club. Washington, D.C.

Seligman, M. (2001). Review of the book, Now, Discover Your Strengths. Printed on back cover. New York: Free Press.

Smith, L.L., & Elliott, C.H. (2001). Hollow Kids: Recapturing the Soul of a Generation Lost to the Self-Esteem Myth. Rocklin, CA: Prima Publishing.