Want to build resilience? Try a home improvement project.

Once we accept life as something filled with uncertainty and challenge by its very nature, our hearts and minds become available to live it more fully.

A few months ago, I decided to refinish some melamine bookshelves by sanding them, adding trim pieces, and finishing them with a paint sprayer. Easy, right? The internet made it look so simple! I watched YouTube videos and read online reviews of the products. I learned the procedures and bought the correct suite of materials. With glittering eyes and an upbeat playlist, I laid out my workspace in the garage and went for it.

I was in for a rude awakening. The sandpaper I used first did not remove enough outer layer, with paint gliding straight off the surface. The electric sander I used thereafter took off too much outer layer and left me with soggy particleboard. The recommended ratio I mixed for the sprayer was too watery. The nozzle pumped out too much, then too little.  Sometimes the paint dried well, but sometimes the layer I had just so carefully laid peeled off in dry latex shreds. The nail gun split a delicate trim piece right down the middle, and I had no replacement. Clouds of paint stained my garage floor. This was not going well.

Long story short, I did finally finish the shelves over the course of several weekends, and I’m pretty happy with them. But the psychological roller coaster of executing this project got me thinking about resilience. Resilience is generally defined as the ability to adapt and recover in the face of adversity, trauma, and stress, or even use coping strategies that help limit the impact stress has on us. Though we cannot avoid pain or difficult experiences, we can learn to navigate them with strength and trust that we will make it through. Like other psychological skills, it can be learned and honed over time.

How can trying a new home improvement project help you increase resilience? As I did with my project, yours may help you see the following:

  1. Sometimes things don’t work, and it’s not because of you. I followed the advice of the blog posts. I bought the correct products, executed steps in the right order and timing, and ran into obstacles again and again. I did everything the way I was told to; why isn’t it working? Inevitably, my mind toiled over how I must have missed something, how I was the problem. But then I realized I did not need to take every setback personally; so many variables impacted how this process happened, including random luck. Resilience is about setting aside the tendency to personalize those things that go wrong. It’s recognizing that errors and obstacles are part of the rhythm of life, and adopting a mindset of humility. We are not the center of the universe; we cannot control everything, and events sometimes unfold the way they will, no matter how much influence we try to exert. Once we let go of this exaggerated sense of responsibility and blame, we can move through difficult moments much more lightly. Resilient people are self-compassionate people.

  2. You can try something hard, and make mistakes, and still be okay. The mind will try to tell us that we suck, that we’ll never get this stupid thing done, why did we even bother, and so on. When we let stress get the better of us, we find ourselves lost in a dark emotional forest, convinced we’ll never find our way out. Part of being resilient is remembering the impermanence of life, that both pain and joy are fleeting. The process of painting (and repainting… and sometimes repainting again) those shelves frankly sucked at times, but I’m still here, in one piece. I can do difficult things, and so can you. Nelson Mandela said it best: “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

  3. Good enough is good enough. So much stress and pain come from attempts to control or force things so they work out exactly the way we think they should. In the spirit of seeing errors as a normal, healthy part of life, resilience helps us come to tolerate and even appreciate imperfection. My bookshelves are decent and functional; I can get stuck looking at the ways the furniture falls short of my ideal, or I can appreciate that they are done and function (so far, anyway), and life can move on.

  4. You’re a better problemsolver than you were before. Part of resilience is learning to perceive challenges as more manageable by breaking them down into smaller steps, and to consider new perspectives that could help you get through. I had to do a lot of tinkering and reworking to get a tool to operate how I wanted it to, or two pieces of wood to line up. Flexibility is the ultimate feature of resilience; problems feel more workable when we believe we can find some way through it, even if it wasn’t Plan A.

  5. There are gains, too: skill, experience, and tangible products. If we let ourselves feel it, there is an immense sense of pride and self-efficacy in completing a project that at one time felt daunting. Though imperfect and amateur, these bookshelves ended up better than the state in which I found them, and it was because of me! Even if they had gone up in a spectacular blaze and fallen apart in my hands, I still gained understanding of what to do (and what not to do) in approaching such a project in the future. In addition to handling stress and pain with more grace, being resilient is about savoring the positive, too.


Once we accept life as something filled with uncertainty and challenge by its very nature, our hearts and minds become available to live it more fully. Resilience helps us navigate the ups and downs of life with more grace and ease. In completing a sufficiently challenging home improvement project, you will inevitably ride these waves of challenge and triumph and build inner strength along the way. Happy DIYing!

Share this post