The Resilient Therapist

By Beth Miller, PhD


A proverb tells us to be wary of a naked lady offering us a dress.  As caretakers we can easily diminish our ability to be resilient and “sufficiently dressed”.  So what does it mean, as therapists, to cultivate resilience, keep the bounce in our step and thrive from the adversity we observe and experience fairly regularly?


We all need resilience to cope with our vastly changing and uncertain world.  Resilience is the ability to go to the edge of life and come back with heart and soul elevated, the ability to evaluate and re-evaluate what is important in light of whatever adversity is going on in one’s life, and the ability to deepen one’s understanding of oneself and the world’s climate.  Resilience is a sure steady step over a rocky terrain.


We are all born with this capacity to be resilient – to be able to put our lives back together and bounce back from hard times and painful experiences.  But life has a way of crushing this innate capacity so by the time we are adults we have pockets of brittleness.  We have places and times we are down for the count.  Sometimes in life unexpected tragedies or difficult patients leave us feeling we cannot deal with one more thing – even a missed appointment or a particularly anger patient.


But resilience can be cultivated and developed.  We can learn to flourish.  As therapists it is imperative we pay attention to the times we feel stuck to the mat from depletion.  What makes one person resilient and another overly vulnerable?  Given that we are all both resilient and overly vulnerable at times, often depending on the circumstances and what the events mean to us, what are the innate characteristics and qualities of hardiness?  There are certain ways of being and attitudes that naturally result in a strong enough bounce to navigate life’s hard times and tragedies.  Two qualities are particularly relevant for therapists:  1. Discovering and Getting Your Needs Met, and 2. A Search for Meaning.



Be wary of a naked therapist offering a dress.  In order to be effective, in order to be available, in order to be vital, we must be in good shape and have our own dress.  Being in good shape requires a steady attention to our needs and a commitment to fulfilling them in a flexible, constructive fashion.


Being overworked, overtaxed and taking care of other people on a regular basis can leave us unaware and not remembering what we need.  To refresh and rekindle this awareness, ask yourself “What do I need?”  Continue to ask yourself this question for about fifteen minutes during meditation, or while you are in the shower or sitting with a trusted friend or family member.  Notice your responses.  Listen to yourself and take time for self care.



Listening to people’s pain and stories can leave us depleted in small and profound ways.  Since September 11, we are faced with real uncertainties in our country, the world and perhaps in our own belief system, depth of character and sense of security.  These are the times to expand our perspective – enrich our beliefs and find hope in hopeless places.  Having meaning means believing in something beyond the roles and assumptions we make about who we are and the world within which we live.


Viktor Frankl wrote movingly about how he survived WWII concentration camps.  Essentially, no one could take from him – “the freedom to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way”.  He also brought forth images of his wife, the love of his life, and found solace and a reason to go on when he did not want to continue living.


Meaning can show up in the simplest ways.  Sitting in the midst of great loss, my friend Karen described the varied colors of autumnal apples and experienced the deepest joy and awe of nature.  How had the apples never looked as beautiful as they did in this painful moment?


Whether we find meaning in the timelessness of the redwood forest, passing on tradition to the next generation, adding to the consciousness of Life or delving into the mysteries of the universe discovered on inner spiritual pilgrimages, meaning has the potential of transcending and transforming tragedy.  Cultivating meaning strengthens our inner belief that we can overcome.  Not necessarily overcome illness, injustices, uncertainties or terrible times, but overcome fears, giving up, shame and resistance.  As therapists we can use and model adversity as a way to bring consciousness, a deeper awareness for simple pleasures and to help us rub the sleep out of our eyes.



Please contact CLASP through our website at - if you would like information or referral for coping with personal stress or impairment.  We’re here for you.


Beth Miller, PhD, is a practicing psychologist in San Francisco, CA and an adjunct instructor at the California Institute of Integral Studies.  (References are available from the author.)


You can contact the column editor, Mary Ann Norfleet, PhD, ABPP, at 555 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, CA, 94301; 650-327-4442; or by email:



California Psychologist * July/August 2002