5 steps to developing your resilience

“Your post just destroyed Melissa’s life.” This is the email I got from my friend Melissa‘s fiance, Steven, who is now her ex-fiance.

He did not like the post I wrote.

Before you tell me that I’m a terrible person for writing the post I want you to know that Melissa’s therapist read the post that same day and told her, “Penelope saved your life. That post is the only thing that made Steven angry enough for you guys to call off the engagement.”

So, the truth is that Melissa and Steven were good together as long as there was nothing hard to decide. You don’t really know if someone is good for you until there is something really hard—like telling Steven’s mom that Melissa was not going to have a Catholic wedding.

You don’t really know someone until you know their level of resilience. People can fake emotional stability, but when life brings challenges, resilience is what allows you to maintain a sense of well-being when you deal with the challenge. There are five key characteristics of maintaining your resilience.

1. Developing a strong locus of control.
This means that you feel that you can solve problems when they come your way. You have tools that reside in yourself and do not rely on external circumstances for efficacy.

People reveal themselves when they are in trouble. You don’t know how resilient you are until something bad happens. I remember when I was living in LA with my boyfriend and the Northridge earthquake hit. We woke up to our building moving like a ship in a storm.

When it stopped, we were covered with books, in a pitch dark apartment. Everything broken.

I remember my boyfriend just sitting there in bed. I said, “Get up. Here are your shoes. Get up. We’re going.” I had to tell him everything. We had this relationship where he was the older guy earning the money and I was the hot, flighty, professional volleyball player, and it turned out that in an emergency, I was the one who could  function at a high level.

That day changed how I saw him and how I saw myself.

We really don’t know ourselves at all until the stakes are high. That’s the silver lining of a crisis.

2. Maintain a sense of empathy.
Melissa and Steven have a shared Google doc, titled Breakup. Melissa wears her engagement ring on her right hand like an escrow account, and she tells him she’ll give the ring back when she gets all her stuff out of his house.

“Good one,” I tell her.

She calls me from the closet of his house. She shuts the door so he can’t hear.

I tell her how I read that in crisis, if you have empathy for other people, you will have empathy for yourself and you’ll feel a stronger sense of control.

“Whatever,” she says. She is not interested in my research.

In the middle of packing up Melissa’s stuff, the Home Depot guy comes to Steven’s house to measure for the cabinet veneers. Steven is stressed that the Home Depot guy will see he has walked into the middle of a breakup.

So Melissa stops packing. Sits down in a chair she’ll be taking. It’s so much easier to be accommodating of someone’s every wish when you know you are exiting their life for good in just a few days.

Now Steven is picking the cabinets, and he’s colorblind, so Melissa has to pick the cabinets that will, presumably, go to the next girl who moves in and says yes to a Catholic wedding.

3. Develop strong social connections.
Melissa starts moving her stuff to a storage area while she looks for an apartment. She stays at the house of one of her friends who I like but will never write about because she would never want to be on the blog.

I respect it when someone doesn’t want to be on the blog. It’s just that that was not the deal with Steven. He knew he’d be on the blog like he knew that Melissa liked his dog better than she liked him. He saw both as challenges to overcome.

Steven drives to work one day and finds Melissa’s chair on the street. He calls her: “I think your chair fell out of your truck.” He puts it in the bushes at the side of the road for Melissa to pick up after work.

See? He is nice. Nice for someone else. Just not for Melissa.

Melissa hangs out in her friend’s extra room, shopping on Craigslist. Having a friend to turn to is such a huge factor in someone’s resilience that the Journal of Social Medicine factors social connections into a patient’s overall health. Which means, of course, that you need to maintain close relationships when you are not in crisis. That’s a big part of a resilience—what you do outside of crisis.

4. Establish goals.
When Melissa was deciding to leave Steven, she sort of left and then couldn’t do it because she loves the house so much. She worked really hard on redecorating his house. When they finally break off the engagement, she immediately sets to redecorating a new apartment.

Not that she has one. That will come. But meanwhile, Melissa finds a sofa on Craigslist. She tells the person, “I’ll buy it. But can you deliver it to my storage unit? I just broke off my engagement and I don’t have anywhere to live.”

The seller gives Melissa $150 off. Camaraderie.

Cal Crow, director of the Center for Learning Connections, lists having goals as important in developing resilience. Moving past crisis requires you to stop looking at the past and look at the future.

5. See yourself as a survivor not a victim.
You can’t really feel that locus of control unless you feel power to take action. Which means you need to feel, almost immediately, that you have used your strength to survive something bad.

Luckily, people see breaking off an engagement as a triumphant act. Averting a close call. And research shows this is probably an accurate assessment: If you have doubts before your wedding you are much less likely to have a lasting marriage, according to researchers at UCLA.

This is true of people in general, but not people you work with. They don’t care that you broke off an engagement, they just want you to get your work done. I used to think that if I had a breakdown softly, in my cube, on the phone—with a friend who I had not cried to in a while so had a bunch of patience stored up for me—I used to think if I did that, then it’s not so bad to have a breakdown at work.

But you know what happens when lower your voice so you don’t bother your co-workers? They stop working so they can concentrate harder on listening. Because all whispers at work are scintillating. Which means that Melissa needs to keep going to work and acting like she is not a wreck.

Positive psychology maven, Martin Seligman, says that a component of resilience is pervasiveness—not allowing a setback in one area to affect another. This is maybe the academic explanation for why you should hold it together at work.

So when Melissa feels like crying at work, she pauses, takes a deep breath and buys something on Craigslist.

She buys a brass bed.

“It’s not good feng shui,” I tell her. “The brass is too high energy and there will no peace in your bed. And the headboard should be solid in order to provide stable, protective energy.”

I send her this link to bolster my argument.

“That’s okay,” she says, “I was thinking that I love my wedding dress so much, but I can’t imagine wearing it with the next guy, so I could drape it over my headboard like a feng shui fix.”


63 replies
  1. Irving Podolsky
    Irving Podolsky says:

    I remember reading the post you wrote about Melissa and Steven and I also remember thinking…IS STEVE GOING TO READ THIS? And then I moved on to agreeing with you that Melissa didn’t have an advanced sense of home design because she placed two chairs in front of the windows like bookends that do nothing. The chairs were so far away from the two other chairs facing the fireplace, that if four people were sitting in that space trying to keep a conversation going, their chairs would tend to isolate them.

    But I didn’t write that because I didn’t want to hurt Melissa and Steve’s feelings, not realizing that your post was already breaking them up.

    And yeah, every single doubting engaged couple that I personally know ended up in divorce – EVERY one!

    Did you and the Farmer have doubts about your marriage before you said, “I do?” (Or is this too personal a question…even for Penelope Trunk?)


    PS: Tina and I had absolutely NO doubts about our future together even though everyone else (on my side – Tina’s from Germany) figured my wife and I would be single again in less than 36 months. That was 37 years ago. And Tina sells antiques on One Kings Lane and I can tell you, it’s A LOT of work!

    • thatgirl
      thatgirl says:

      Thank jah you said what you did about the “matching bookends” chairs in front of windows. Way too much unnatural symmetry; with four chairs in one room, one will only be able to entertain three others beside themself. Not good planning.

      Amen to the “doubters” odds; every couple I’ve known like that has either long broken up after marrying, with a small percentage living in agony. Not winning.

  2. Ian
    Ian says:

    if i was way younger, wanted to get married and have kids, and was less intimidated by Melissa’s general amazingness, i would be jumping for joy at the news of her breakup and making adoring overtures (well…after she’d had some time to recover). but as it is, i’m just sorry for her disappointment, but very happy for her. not being way younger, i know that these things always wind up being for the best.

    go, Melissa!

    • Yuse L.
      Yuse L. says:

      Never saw that episode of How I Met Your Mother? It’s called The Window and there is no such thing as “too soon” or “recovery.” It’s probably too late even now.

  3. thandi
    thandi says:

    I did not do all those things after a major life crisis? I did the opposite curled into a ball and just grieved. Funny enough it doesn’t feel like a waste of time now, than it did last year when I thought about it. I feel bad for Melissa though, maybe she dodged a bullet. Couldn’t they reach some form of compromise? I love this post though.

  4. Serial
    Serial says:

    I had to look up “locus of control,” but now I have a term to use when I describe the difference between me and my sister. Also my mother in law.

    • Janna U
      Janna U says:

      I agree – seemed to me he used it as an excuse to break up. It’s not as if Penelope posted that Melissa was cheating on him. The whole religion thing is very important to a relationship and sounds like something they should have worked out *before* getting engaged…

      • thatgirl
        thatgirl says:

        Indeed. There are loads of things a couple should work out actively prior to marrying. Just wishing they won’t come up (starting with religiosity in one’s ceremony) is a recipe for further disaster.

        We know a couple who avoid the difficult conversations, 7 years and two children into their marriage. Crisis for them is detente, and as a result, they’re stuck and not talking about myriad issues. One day, one won’t notice while the other has left; we’re thinking one already has, figuratively.

  5. Byron
    Byron says:

    I strongly agree with viewing yourself as a survivor, not a victim. And I would argue that the headboard needs to be stable for other reasons! :)

  6. Senait
    Senait says:

    Lol, Penelope, you’re a genius. I love how you expose everything, look like an asshole, and then end up being right anyway. How do you do it?

    After this post, I’m a dedicated fan of yours. Melissa is lucky to have you as her friend.

  7. Alex
    Alex says:

    #2 in particular resonates with me. Penelope, you know I’m about to publish a book on this very subject called The Undefeated Mind: On the Science of Constructing an Indestructible Self, and in one of the chapters, I go over the studies that suggests we’re least likely to help others when helping other is the most likely to help us—that is, when we feel defeated by problems or devastated by tragedy. At those times, finding the emotional energy and autonomous desire to focus on someone else’s problems seems not only impossible but illogical. After all, don’t we need that energy for ourselves?

    Though this seems sensible at first glance, such an attitude actually results more from the smallness of thought that accompanies discouragement than from a sober assessment of the best way to recover one’s strongest self. For just as exercise can actually provide us with energy by forcing us to summon it up when we’re feeling tired, helping others can provide us with enthusiasm, encouragement, and even joy by forcing us to summon them when we’re feeling discouraged. To quote a famous Buddhist saying, “If one lights a fire for others, one will brighten one’s own way.”

  8. kat
    kat says:

    All I keep thinking about is feeling sad that Melissa won’t get to keep the dog. I recently ended a 7 yr. relationship and my dog is saving my life. Men come and go you know…but dogs are special.

  9. JT
    JT says:

    What about the dog? Won’t she miss the dog? They were never in love or the type of wedding wouldn’t have mattered. Please – someone in your blogs needs to get real problems. Lucky that she has the money to shop online to distract herself. Very shallow. And – yes – how people handle difficulty or stress in situations is important, but not every situation is the same. Your boyfriend froze when an earthquake hit. If you really loved him and would have been less fickle, maybe he would have been the one who responded appropriately when the next calamity struck. You are talented, Penelope, but Melissa bores the hell out of me.

    • Daniel Baskin
      Daniel Baskin says:

      Drugs, sex, food, and any other addictive distraction are also shallow. Yes, maybe she should pay a therapist instead. Maybe she should grin and bear it. The whole point of emotions is that they are affective, not logical.

      If these couples really loved each other, they would realize there are better people for them before intertwining their lives even further…oh wait, they did!

      • Es VC
        Es VC says:

        Hello Daniel;

        Having the time and chance to read another poignant blog from Penelope, I reviewed the comments and am interested to understand how you find addictions shallow? Have you any exposure to or worked with anyone with an addiction? You seem dismissive and invalidating.
        Apparently Melissa had the courage to confront her feelings and remove herself which ultimately was best for both; you agreed.
        I am seeking to understand your thought process. A sofa may not be a narcotic, endless alcohol, starvation or over eating. These are all shallow to you yet allow many to numb the feelings most needed to face?

    • thatgirl
      thatgirl says:

      So you’re saying Penelope being less fickle and “more loving” toward this ex-boyfriend would have elicited action on his part? At what point would you assign him responsibility for his own actions, particularly the essential “fight or flight” ones?

      What a ridiculous notion.

  10. Meaghan
    Meaghan says:

    Yeah reading the original post, I feel like if Melissa was fine with you posting that…then the breakup had nothing to do with you. You might have just been helpful.

    I had something happen where someone basically caused a breakup of mine to occur (revealed something I had written about one of my ex’s friends and showed it to her….I wasn’t very nice but I never meant for her to read it), but in the end I was glad they did.

    If a relationship could end because of someone posting all of the truths of the relationship out…it’s not the person who posted it’s fault.

  11. David Holmes
    David Holmes says:

    Penelope–how do you know the difference between forcing yourself to have goals and make progress and just get through the crisis, and giving yourself space and time to be stuck and not be sure of anything and just see what works in time, like you did when you were moving around from job to job for years and years in your 20’s? The two ideas seem to conflict to me.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Honestly, I never give myself time to rest. I’m very goal oriented and I’m really uncomfortable with not having goals.

      So, in my 20s, when I had totally stupid jobs, I also had huge goals: I played professional beach volleyball and I wrote a memoir and got a publisher. Neither of those things earned me much money, but having goals all the time helped me to figure out what I wanted.

      I am probably as lost now as I was in my 20s. I mean, I’ve founded three companies and now I am on a farm with my kids all day trying to figure out what to do. But I still make very clear goals with my career. They might be the wrong goals, but I set them and meet them. If I don’t have goals I get really depressed.

      Not everyone is like this. And some people who need goals don’t need big goals. So maybe the answer to your question is understanding what the best goals are for you.


      • Ebriel
        Ebriel says:

        Same here. Goal-oriented projects string my days and life together. When I’ve finished one, I’ve got to come up with another fast, or feel like I’m wasting my life. Over the years the projects have gone from short-term to larger goals, but sometimes seems like it’s never enough.

  12. Phil
    Phil says:

    Penelope – This was a great post. A few thoughts:
    – “Resilience” gets too little play in career discussions I see. I teach and do career coaching at a business school. One of the biggest points I try to make to students is that the “how you get up” part of your career is the ultimate decider of both success and happiness.
    – Your points about control and optimism are critical. “Don’t be a victim” is another common point. If you are clear about what you are grateful for and think “lemonade” rather than “sour”, you’ll be a lot happier. It’s not easy, but it’s a trainable mental habit.

    2 Questions:
    – In you research/experience do you find any connection in the ability to be resilient to people’s upbringing? (I have felt blessed that my parents – despite many faults – were very supportive. I feel this helped my attitude along the way. I felt “safe”.)
    – How important do you think “letting go” is? (In my experience, staying anchored to the past – whether it be failures, bitterness, fears…whatever – can be an anchor.)

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments.

    • Heather
      Heather says:


      I had read some research from the early 90s that suggested resilience in children was less “nurture” and more “nature”. The study focused on children from awful situations in urban environments. Some were able to hold themselves above it and escape while others were caught in the mire. There wasn’t anything different particularly about the environments, just the kids. Haven’t paid attention since.

      However, once you are conscious of your ability to choose your path then it’s on you to make yourself resilient.

      Staying anchored in the past, positively or negatively, requires energy and rehearsal. That energy and emotional investment are better off placed elsewhere.

      • Phil
        Phil says:

        Heather – Thanks. I am always torn between the nature/nurture divide. I like the quote I’ve heard that “nature loads the gun” and “environment pulls the trigger”. Hard to disentangle.

        I think your point about self-awareness is critical. Once I am conscious of a behavior or mindset, I can at least begin to conceive of coping mechanisms.

  13. TD
    TD says:

    This post wasn’t as raw as your last two posts, but I personally find it most useful.
    The idea that having goals develops resilience is kind of a new idea for me. I am not a goal oriented person like you, so it’s not as intuitively clear how setting goals can help me make it through hard times.

  14. Katelyn
    Katelyn says:

    What if the survivor narrative is just a story we tell ourselves to reduce guilt and shame over complicity in our own victimizations? It doesn’t 100% ring true to me (in general terms), but I’m a harsh judge of myself and others.

  15. Rebecca@MidcenturyModernRemodel
    Rebecca@MidcenturyModernRemodel says:

    Craigslist, ah my guilty pleasure. I really love that sofa. And the wedding dress. I am helping my friend’s daughter sell her wedding dress. I researched the top 3 wedding dress sites. A good one is preownedweddingdresses.com … we posted on all three. Not sold yet but not willing to reduce price (too soon). I think wedding dresses are a waste to save and should be sold immediately. No daughter wears her mothers wedding dress.

    I was just talking about selling things with my friend who cuts my hair. Her husband just had surgery that he is recovering from and is now sitting at home listing un-needed junk on eBay and Craigslist. She is thrilled. Money for free. She reminded me, “Remember when you lost your job and you started selling everything you didn’t want in the house?” I had forgotten I did that. This post reminded me of that conversation. Another crisis behavior.

  16. Melissa
    Melissa says:

    From one Melissa to another, if that little post rattled his cage, he was not willing to marry you in the first place. Tell him to kick rocks.

  17. thatgirl
    thatgirl says:

    There is no “stability” or “control” in shopping Craigslist for items one cannot yet use when emotions get the best of them. Moreover, addiction studies support that reinforcing behaviors like this enough embeds the behavior in one’s brain, dooming them to repeat the behavior whenever confronted; not a great behavior for someone with a retail bank job OR hedge fund.

    Melissa would be well-served by cognitive therapy. Here’s hoping she gets some before she shops or engages herself into another crisis situation–like this, or worse.

    Penelope – count me as one who believes you’ve saved her life by holding up the mirror–even when it isn’t popular or wrapped with a pretty bow, everyone can use someone like you in their lives.

  18. randomideas
    randomideas says:

    He broke up with her because of a post? That lie is so lame.

    Imagine what he would have been like as a husband…one can only imagine the fights:

    “I lost my job because you… (insert trivial excuse)”

    “I cheated because you… (insert trivial excuse)”

    “My mother died because you…(see above)”

    Melissa, you’re better off.

    • redrock
      redrock says:

      none of the blog readers knows Melissa apart from a few glimpses, none knows her ex-boyfriend. How can anybody here judge him or her or their relationship?

  19. Andrea
    Andrea says:

    This looks like a universally I-Love-You-Penelope-Never-Change sort of post. I have a hard time telling how they’re going to go.

  20. carrie
    carrie says:

    When i read the post i found it intrusive and questionable. Questioning your true friendship with Melissa. I think you are jealous of her…… very jealous of her and really don’t intend to look our for her best interest. You are a jealous female who pretends to intellectualize what is really pure jealousy. You are in a bad relationship, she isn’t. You live in isolation and have few friends. You live an unhealthy life with a man you don’t love. You are in a trap. How many women and men are guilty of the same thing?

  21. Sofia
    Sofia says:

    Great article! It’s interesting that we’re getting such a detailed insight into your friend’s life, I can’t help but to wonder if she’s ok with that?

  22. haber
    haber says:

    Penelope – count me as one who believes you’ve saved her life by holding up the mirror–even when it isn’t popular or wrapped with a pretty bow, everyone can use someone like you in their lives.

  23. http://Angelesstyle.blogspot.com
    http://Angelesstyle.blogspot.com says:

    How can you set goals and meet them everytime? Do you play a little game with yourself setting the goals so small and insignificant that you always meet them? I have intentions each day to accomplish certain things. Most of the time I meet them. What is your interpretation of a goal? Do you set them to make sure you are resilient incase you do not meet a goal?

  24. Cara
    Cara says:

    All I can say is this: Steven sounds like a massive douche. Immature, selfish, and lazy.

    Melissa also sounds like a bit of a soup sandwich, if you catch my meaning, but I don’t fault her for that.

    We are all the products of our environments.

    Steven probably always tried to please mommy and daddy, and as long as he had a nice catholic wedding (in spite of the fact that the night before he probably had Melissa bent over the kitchen table), all was well in the family.

    Melissa, it’s a bit sad, she just seems to be drifting through life, with no rudder, no direction.

  25. Pete
    Pete says:

    I took the whole “you just destroyed” bit as a veiled, partially retroactive threat from a vindictive whiner. Maybe it’s a good thing she’s free from all that now.

  26. Scensibles
    Scensibles says:

    Thank you for this blog post–it’s absolutely empowering.

    As a female entrepreneur, resilience is VITAL.

    I find the letting go of doubt and other people judgements while reminding myself that everything will be OK and that I have all the resources that I could ever need at my fingertips to create amazing opportunities is key.

    After all, life is what we make it…right?

    xo Scensibles

  27. tj
    tj says:

    Long time lurker forced to break the vow in internet silence in compliment of a wonderful post about life and good friends.

    Somehow I don’t Melissa will remain single long when readers like me are out there

    • anon
      anon says:

      ya, but seem like shes just going to get dumped again after the guy gets tired of hitting it.

      she doesn’t seem like a keeper to me.

  28. KarenInSacramento
    KarenInSacramento says:

    I couldn’t find a single thing in the other post that Steven would find so upsetting, unless it was discovering that his Jewish fiance would not go through with a Catholic wedding.

    Really, I’m always amazed when anyone expects another person to convert to their religion or abide by its trappings. That is the ultimate in disprespect for someone else’s faith (or integrity as a person without faith).

    Did he honestly expect her to bow down to his mother’s demand? If so, he wasn’t the right man for her. And blaming the breakup on a post is just childish.

  29. Biron
    Biron says:

    The right mental approach makes it so much easier to be resilient.

    I think these are all great points, but #5 really stood out to me. As soon as you start seeing yourself as a victim, you’re in trouble. You need to stay positive and maintain the view that you overcame an obstacle, or “survived”, and this will allow you to remain resilient and move on and continue progressing forward with your life.

    This is really a crucial piece. I understand why it was listed down at #5 but I certainly hope it isn’t skipped over by some readers that just skimmed the top.

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