What Makes a Person Emotionally Strong?


Positive navigation through negative circumstances.

Shoba Sreenivasan, Ph.D., and Linda E. Weinberger, Ph.D.

Naftali Deutsch was the type of young boy that psychologist Norman Garmezy, who pioneered research on emotional strength in children who thrived despite adverse circumstances, would have wanted to study.

Deutsch (2007), now in his eighties, wrote in his autobiography that the last day of Passover in the Spring of 1944 marked the end of his childhood in the rural Eastern European village of Kimyat. He was exactly 12½-years-old. Hungary’s Nazi party had ordered the expulsion of all Jews from the country. Within 24 hours, Naftali and his family, along with the village’s entire Jewish sector, were crammed into boxcars. Soon, Naftali would be in Auschwitz, ordered to move to the right—to work—while his father was ordered to move to the left, which meant death. Unlike many in his family, the 12-year-old boy, wrenched from his home and thrown into the dire circumstances of a concentration camp, survived.  Yet Deutsch’s story is not only a tale of horrors; it is of a laser-like focus on survival. He used his farm skills to surmount obstacles to starvation, his guile to minimize severe physical abuse and to protect the weak, and his religious education both for spiritual sustenance as well practical guidance through recalling the actions of Biblical heroes who overcame impossible situations.

Garmezy (Garmezy, Masten, & Tellegen, 1984) and subsequent colleagues (Masten & Tellegen, 2012) would label Deutsch’s survival instincts and actions as positive navigation through negative circumstances. Developing competence in the face of adversity means adaptive rather than maladaptive thinking and behaviors: focusing on solutions and actions rather than catastrophizing and passivity. It involves goal orientation, curiosity, altruism, a sense of self-efficacy, meaning-making, and mental flexibility.

Still, for many, such traits dissolve in the face of severe adversity. What keeps one person going while another collapses? Children who overcame adversity to become successful adults shared these elements of emotional fortitude:

  • Internal locus of control: a tendency to view themselves as controlling the circumstances rather than being controlled by their circumstances.
  • Re-framing: perceiving obstacles as challenges rather than as traumatic experiences; a re-framing of one’s experiences in a positive rather than negative manner.
  • Meaning: a spiritual or purpose-based framework that allows for what Viktor Frankl, the renowned psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor, called the “will to meaning,” or making sense of the purpose of suffering.

Interestingly, the benefits of overcoming adversity do not stop once the trauma ends. In fact, researchers suggest that resilience from adversity is a dynamic process. Post-traumatic growth can be a by-product of the experience of positive navigation through even the most negative of circumstances. Deutsch vividly illustrates the concept of growth from trauma as his story moves into his post-concentration camp journey when he moved to Israel and then to the United States.  At each juncture, his story is one of having determination and perseverance, seeing even lowly positions as stepping stones and learning opportunities, and being fueled by optimism and gratitude.

Post-traumatic growth rather than post-traumatic bitterness is not an easy feat. Perhaps, when one can put the ordeal in context, when one can see meaning in the misery, then growth can flourish. Deutsch’s words underscore this:

On the whole, I think I’ve accomplished a lot. I rebuilt my life out of the ashes of Auschwitz and I raised a beautiful family to carry on the tradition in which I was raised. Try as they might, Hitler and his henchmen could not destroy it. It survived with me and will continue to survive through my sons and their families. To me, the survival of that tradition, evidencing the defeat of the evil cult which tried to destroy it, is the ultimate reward. (p.254)


Deutsch, N. (2007). A Holocaust Survivor: in the Footsteps of his Past. Jerusalem: Mazo Publishers.

Frankl, V. E. (1984). Man’s Search for Meaning: an Introduction to Logotherapy. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Garmezy, N., Masten, A. S., & Tellegen, A. (1984). The study of stress and competence in children: A building block for developmental psychopathology. Child Development, 55, 97–111. DOI:10.2307/1129837

Masten, A. S. & Tellegen, A. (2012). Resilience in developmental psychopathology: Contributions of the Project Competence Longitudinal Study. Development and Psychopathology, 24, 345-361. DOI:10.1017/S095457941200003X


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