June 6, 2022

Growing Through Hardship: Practices for Resilience and Purpose

How do we build resilience and stay connected to purpose in the midst of suffering? Lauren Van Vranken shares 3 practices.

Photo by: Vesky on Unsplash

“Thriving is living connected to purpose, and purpose is discovered at the intersection of our individual, relational, and aspirational development.”

Growth Despite Discomfort

Recently in conversations surrounding individual development, I have heard variations of the sentiment, “Identify areas of your life that are draining and difficult, and then eliminate them so you can focus on the life-giving aspects of your life instead.”

I immediately paused and wondered: What if the most meaningful and purposeful parts of our lives happen to be draining, difficult, and involve suffering? What if pursuing our purpose feels painful at times?

Raising a two-year-old can be draining, but parents cannot simply eliminate that stress from their lives. Pastoring a church and walking with congregants through painful losses and dark nights of the soul can be difficult, but cannot be eliminated from one’s vocation and purpose. Returning to graduate school and facing the demands of deadlines can be draining, but students cannot merely eliminate these requirements from the process.

The scenarios are endless: consider supporting loved ones as they navigate physical or mental illness; combating racial injustice and inequality; advocating for improvements in the education system; or assisting with the relocation of displaced people and refugees. Tied to purpose, these scenarios simultaneously highlight draining and difficult situations that people cannot and should not simply eliminate from their lives. Being in relationship with others—even through hardships—provides us with support and community needed.

A purposeful life will be full of difficulties, as well as rewards. How do we stay connected to and maintain a life of purpose during times of slow growth? How do we build resilience and thrive when our individual and collective experiences involve hardship and suffering?

Regulation and Reflection

Our brains tend to prioritize processing negative over positive information. This often results in negative emotional experiences having a stronger and more sustained impact on our bodies than positive experiences.[1] Thankfully, when we engage in practices of regulating our emotional and physical responses, we can mitigate the impact of negative emotional experiences and increase our ability to adaptively respond to stressors.[1]-[3]

Practice 1: Physical and emotional regulation by checking in with our bodies.

Becoming curious about our emotional states, we can start by noticing and naming our emotions.[1]-[2] Often, our bodies may be responding to what we are processing in our minds without our awareness of the physical impact. When we find ourselves in challenging emotional states, staying regulated can involve noticing the ground beneath our feet and the presence of our bodies in the room, and taking a deep breath. Pausing to notice and name what is happening within our bodies provides space to understand our emotions, and allows us to act and respond accordingly.[2] Our physical and emotional responses are integral to our relationships. Remembering our purposeful connection to relationships, as well as our personal goals, can help us stay present in the moment, care for ourselves, and attend to our emotional and physical needs.[4]

Granting ourselves time to calm our bodies and minds and recover from stress can take many different shapes—from reaching out to a trusted friend to practicing simple breathing exercises. Regulation is not a specific formula, but incorporating intentional practices into our daily lives can help reduce emotional labor and increase our resilience in facing future challenges.[4]-[5]

Practice 2: Attending to ourselves with self-compassion.

As we increase our ability to notice and name our emotions, we can also notice how we are caring for ourselves in response to situations of uncertainty and suffering.

As seen in the Bible, Jesus often retreated to reflect and reconnect with God (see Matt. 14:23, 26:36, Mark 1:35, Luke 5:16). While living His purpose, Jesus was moved with compassion to respond to injustice, pain, and suffering. Yet, He also attended to Himself by taking moments to pause, reflect, and connect with God. Like Jesus, we cannot ignore hardships but rather choose to approach challenges with curiosity and gentleness.

Self-compassion involves being kind towards oneself by extending understanding and warmth to oneself instead of self-judgment or criticism. It involves recognizing our experiences are not simply isolating events, but are connected to a larger narrative of our common humanity. Self-compassion requires practicing mindfulness towards painful thoughts and holding these feelings in a careful balance, instead of overly identifying with them or avoiding them.[6] Self-compassion is extending an invitation to hold ourselves and our experiences with tenderness.

In addition to increasing our awareness of how we attend to our bodies and our emotional state of being, it is important to direct reflective attention to our thoughts and beliefs.[4]-[7]

Practice 3: Reflecting on our thoughts and beliefs

Attending to our thoughts and beliefs, while still utilizing self-compassion, can help us uncover assumptions we make about situations or where we simply “fill in the blanks” with our own conclusions. By increasing our awareness of the present and reflecting on what is known, we can reorient ourselves to living in truth and grace.[4]

For example: Christians reflect on their commitment to live connected to purpose and partner with the Holy Spirit to reframe their thoughts in order to align with God’s goodness and presence in suffering. This ability to reflect and reframe is part of individual and aspirational development. Research shows that reframing how we think by increasing our awareness of opportunities or benefits in otherwise negative experiences is connected to healthier functioning.[8][9] It reduces the residual effects of negative emotional experiences on our daily lives.[1]-[7]

Incorporating Daily Practices

How will you incorporate practices of regulation and reflection in your everyday life?

  1. Practice noticing and naming how you feel.
  2. Attend to your body with self-compassion.
  3. Reflect on your thoughts and beliefs.

Through reflection, reorient yourself to address any lies you have believed about yourself or others. Focus on identifying a benefit within a negative experience, and consider how you can approach the situation with fresh perspective.

Try writing out a reflection of your experiences. Self-disclosure of painful emotional experiences, even through writing, can facilitate a sense of resolve and increase physical and psychological health and immune function.[2]-[10] We cannot eliminate hardship and uncertainty from our pursuit of purpose, but we can strengthen our ability to respond with practices of resilience and recovery.[1] I encourage you to explore the practices in this post as tools to recover from hardships and build more resilience in this changing world.


[1] Larsen, R. J. & Prizmic, Z. (2004). Affect regulation. In R. F. Baumeister & K. D. Vohs (Eds.), Handbook of self-regulation: Research, theory, and applications (pp. 40-61). Guilford Press.

[2] Tabibnia, G., & Radecki, D. (2018). Resilience training that can change the brain. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 70(1), 59–88.

[3] Tugade, M. M., & Fredrickson, B. L. (2004). Resilient individuals use positive emotions to bounce back from negative emotional experiences.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86(2), 320–333.

[4] Please see psychologist Cynthia Eriksson’s The 5 R’s: A Guide to Resilience and Recovery.

[5] Schumer, M. C., Lindsay, E. K., & Creswell, J. D. (2018). Brief mindfulness training for negative affectivity: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 86(7), 569–583.

[6] Scoglio, A. A. J., Rudat, D. A., Garvert, D., Jarmolowski, M., Jackson, C., & Herman, J. L. (2018). Self-compassion and responses to trauma: The role of emotion regulation. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 33(13), 2016–2036.

[7] Brans, K., Koval, P., Verduyn, P., Lim, Y. L., & Kuppens, P. (2013). The regulation of negative and positive affect in daily life. Emotion, 13(5), 926–939.

[8] Low, R. S. T., Overall, N. C., Chang, V. T., Henderson, A. M. E., & Sibley, C. G. (2021). Emotion regulation and psychological and physical health during a nationwide COVID-19 lockdown. Emotion, 21(8), 1671–1690.

[9] Troy, A. S., Wilhelm, F. H., Shallcross, A. J., & Mauss, I. B. (2010). Seeing the silver lining: Cognitive reappraisal ability moderates the relationship between stress and depressive symptoms. Emotion10(6), 783–795.

[10] Niederhoffer, K. G., & Pennebaker, J. W. (2002). Sharing one’s story: On the benefits of writing or talking about emotional experience. In C. R. Snyder & S. J. Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of positive psychology (pp. 573–583). Oxford University Press.

Lauren Van Vranken Thrive Fellow


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