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The Secrets of Resilience

11 November 2017

From The Wall Street Journal:

[R]esilient people are everywhere, not just in the ranks of celebrities. They are ordinary women and men, in every walk of life, who meet the definition of resilience set forth by American Psychological Association: “adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress.”

Across nearly two decades as a clinical psychologist and an educator, I have worked with many accomplished people who grew up in difficult circumstances. One thing I have learned from them is that the way we tend to talk about resilience is too simplistic. In everyday conversation, we say that people who are resilient “bounce back” or “rebound.” The dictionary defines resilience as elasticity, that is, the ability to recover quickly and easily—to snap into shape again, like a rubber band stretched and released.

These images are fine for describing recovery from short-term problems, like the flu or a career disappointment, but they don’t capture how resilience truly works and feels. The most common childhood adversities aren’t one-time events but chronic sources of stress: bullying, neglect, physical or sexual abuse, the death of a parent or sibling, addiction or mental illness in the home, domestic violence.

Such problems are recurring threats to a child or teen’s safety and well-being. Resilient youth do not just rebound from them. What they do is much more complicated and courageous. For them, resilience is an ongoing battle, a way of approaching life, not a restorative bounce.

. . . .

When the researchers asked these resilient adults how they understood their own success in retrospect, the majority reported that their most important asset was determination.

“I am a fighter—I am determined—I will survive,” said one woman who made her way out of an abusive childhood. “I give it 100% before I give up. I will never lose hope.”

“When things have to be done, you just do it. I am not the type of person to run away—no matter how difficult the problem,” said another subject who became a bookkeeper.

And another who became aerospace engineer put it this way: “I don’t let problems take control. I just pick myself up and start all over—you can always try again.”

Other research has suggested the importance of the fighter within. In a 2010 paper in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, Anke Ehlers of the University of Oxford reported on 81 adults who had formerly been held as political prisoners in East Germany. They had been subjected to mental and physical abuse, including beatings, threats and being kept in the dark. Decades after their release, about two-thirds of the former prisoners had, at some point, met criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), while about one-third of the prisoners had not.

What made some more likely to suffer from PTSD? Dr. Ehlers found that the extent to which prisoners had fought back in their own minds made a bigger difference than the severity of the abuse they had suffered. Those who felt mentally defeated—who felt like they were “nothing” or who quit caring what became of them—were more likely to report symptoms of PTSD later. By contrast, prisoners who had resisted from within—even if they appeared to have given up on the outside, by complying with guards or signing false confessions—fared better down the line.

This sort of inner defiance is, in part, how one man—an officer in the military who came to me for a consultation—told me he survived years of bullying as a child and teen: “I refused to accept what they said about me was true.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Since it is a rare author who does not experience failure, including repeated failure in addition to other life challenges, PG thinks resilience is an important character trait in addition to the other abilities a successful author has.

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One Comments to “The Secrets of Resilience”

  1. The thing is, with a rubber band, you stretch it and it returns to its normal shape without any sign of stress or damage. People don’t do that. There’s always something to show they’ve been through a trial.

    I had an abusive childhood. In no way did I grow up to be the same as someone who didn’t. There are issues, and probably some counseling would have been helpful, but I am not broken, by any means. Others were not so lucky.

    I do consider myself to be resilient. I’ve accomplished stuff I never thought would be possible during the worse times in my life. I have three wonderful, happy and healthy sons, who I raised by myself even though I was sure I would be a horrible mother. I studied so hard and used my own experiences to make sure my children had a better life than I did. I’ve been mistreated and abused even as an adult, and while there were times when I didn’t think I could go on, I found the strength and hope to rise above.

    Was it easy? No. I’m not a rubber band. I don’t bounce right back as if nothing happened. But I persevere, and learn from what happened, and I triumph. Nothing and no one is going to break me.

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