Coping with Moral Distress
It's Time to Scrap the Primary System in the U.S.

Cultivating Moral Resilience

The Antidote for Powerlessness

Last week I blogged about the concept of moral distress. Moral distress is defined as knowing what to do in an ethical situation, but not being allowed to do it. Moral distress is the feeling that we've compromised ourselves due to external forces beyond our control. Powerlessness is at the heart of moral distress. Moral resilience shifts the narrative from powerlessness and helplessness to possibility and choice. Moral resilience is the antidote for the powerlessness felt from moral distress.

I have found in such situations that tools exist to help alleviate moral distress. One is moral resilience. Moral resilience is an evolving concept in response to moral distress. Moral resilience requires dedication, discipline, and compassion toward our limitations and inevitable setbacksCreating a regular time and commitment to cultivate the elements of moral resilience and engaging resources to resist distractions and weakening will, are essential to robust moral resilience. We can think of it by asking the following questions:

  • Who am I being in this moment?
  • How do I want to be known?
  • Am I choosing to act or not act in a way that I can live with?

An interesting piece posted on, identifies certain practices that can help to cultivate moral resilience whenever we are feeling boxed in by a morally distressing situation and struggling to hold onto our integrity.

  1. Self-mastery: The art of learning to self-regulate.

It’s about learning how to struggle well, starting by turning our attention inward or engaging interoceptive awareness. Interoception helps us to be mindful of what’s happening below the surface that might be fueling our feelings, thoughts, and actions.

  1. Self-awareness: “To thine own self be true.”[1]

We need to be self-aware. The desire to be moral requires that we are fundamentally aware of what values, commitments, and imperatives comprise our moral core. This requires regular examination, otherwise, we risk becoming complacent or losing our moral sensitivity. At the same time, we want to avoid becoming rigid or dogmatic.

  1. Self-expression: Choose and contribute in ethically clear and competent ways.

There are many ways to express ourselves, but when it comes to moral resilience, two ways can be particularly helpful: developing ethical competence and speaking with clarity and confidence. 5-Ways-To-Build-Moral-Resilience

  1. Meaning-making: Don’t demand it, create it.

Meaning-making is the process of how we perceive, interpret, and make sense of events in life, relationships, and ourselves. Meaning gives us a way to reconcile incongruities in our values, beliefs, and expectations and in our attitude toward life.

  1. Connectedness: Engage with others.

Knowing that you are not alone in our moral struggle can go a long way to alleviating a sense of isolation and despair. Shifting the narrative from one of powerlessness, hopelessness, and helplessness to one defined by possibility and principled choice will help to both moderate the effects of moral distress and cultivate moral resilience.

Moral resilience reflects the ability to take moral actions despite fear and be realistic about one’s own limitations. The goal is to seek meaning in situations that threaten moral sensitivity and reasoning, and to discern the appropriate levels of moral responsibility in morally complex, ambiguous, or conflict-laden situations.

Moral distress and moral resilience are often discussed in the context of the nursing profession. Nurses face ethical challenges in clinical care, so they need to be morally resilient to respond in ways that minimize their distress and preserve their integrity.

We all face ethical conflicts in life and need a way to deal with them. By cultivating moral resilience, we can develop the tools to resolve ethical conflicts.

Moral resilience is grounded in moral conscientiousness. It reflects a vigilance to live in ways that are aligned with who we are and what we stand for amid situations that appear to be incongruous with integrity.

Posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on January 30, 2024. You can sign up for his newsletter and learn more about his activities at: Follow him on LinkedIn at:


[1] “To thine own self be true” is a well-known Shakespearean quote. It is found in Hamlet in Act I, Scene 3, and is spoken by the King’s advisor, Polonius. E.g. Polonius advises his own son, "to thine own self be true," and yet does not himself follow that advice, betraying his morals with his actions.