A critical view
Even if it’s been around for a while, ‘resilience’ has gained momentum in recent years, especially in times of crises. You’ll find many articles, podcasts and MOOCs out there giving guidance on how to become a resilient person; how strengthening resilience in children can counter disadvantage; or what needs to be done to make the economy and society more robust.
I want to use this space to explain what resilience means in my own words. And share some of my thoughts and a slightly different perspective.
The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
Resilience is a word that’s used to describe humans’ (or systems’) ability to ‚bounce back’ after they’ve experienced a “bad thing”: an adverse situation or life event, such as violence, trauma, a life-threatening event or the loss of a beloved person. In its broader sense, resilience is so to say a type of response our system (body/brain/psyche) gives to a ‘stressor’. And, this can be further generalised to any kind of system (the economic, social or health system for example).
Now, potentially, a ‘stressor’ could be really anything – and, individual perception matters a lot here (a fight with your spouse, a challenging task on-the-job could be stressors for you). So, on the continuum of possible stressors, you might perceive some as light, some as moderate, while others will turn out to severely affect you. What’s important to know, is that there is a huge individual variance in how we respond to stressors. Generally speaking, whenever our system is “stressed”, this translates into some physical, mental and neurobiological manifestations, you may not even be consciously aware of, such as higher levels of cortisol (the so-called “stress hormone”).
The type of stressor, length and frequency of exposure to it can therefore impact someone’s health and wellbeing in many different ways. Experiencing a “bad thing” can lead to a range of negative responses and trajectories, as severe as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression or chronical physical pain.
Resilience is depicted as a trajectory on the other side of the spectrum: Being resilient means your bodily and mental functioning is only disturbed for a relatively short period of time (or what is considered ‚normal’ in relation to that stressor). You stay relatively stable. You’re still capable of having positive emotions, and, you’re able to relatively quickly return to normal functioning and recovery.
So, because resilience is the ability to cope well with bad things – it’s seen as particularly desirable to be resilient and to build resilience.
White box: how much stress is good?
Research found that a moderate level and number of stressors in one’s life will benefit you in the long run: making you more resilient over time, as you learn to adapt and get better at dealing with some things or situations. However, experiencing an extremely traumatic event or several severe shocks will have a lasting effect on you and not translate into more resilience over time. (This kind of defies the popular saying “what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger”).
► i.e. some stress > loads of stress but also some stress > no stress
Positives and Pressures
For a long time psychology focused on defining and identifying disorders as ‘deviations from normality’ and on pathologising humans. Resilience is the turn to a more positive stance on human beings: instead of focusing solely on individuals’ ‘shortcomings’ and ‘weaknesses’, it’s telling us: “wait, actually, a lot of people have incredible strength and resistance to overcome difficulty and hardship in life”.
In one way I think this is certainly a positive shift.
At the same time, it’s important to acknowledge that the study of resilience has its own limitations: It’s shown so far that some individuals are “for some reasons” more resilient than others, but still largely taps in the darkness as to which determinant factor makes a person more or less resilient. It suggests, there’s not a single factor but a combination of individual factors, such as genes, personality and context – but we don’t know to what extent any of these really matter.
Yet, especially popular science is very quick to come up with a general formula of steps or strategies “how one could become a more resilient person”. But this neglects the whole point of individuality and life circumstance. It makes it look not only like resilience is the socially desirable, optimal, achievable objective. If in some instances you are not resilient or not trying hard enough or struggling to follow that single route, you are given a sense of failing. But also, it adds a lot of social pressures on people who don’t get there (perhaps more because of predispositions or the situation they are in than because of their willpower – who can tell frankly?). In a certain distorted way resilience has so become the new way to self-optimise.
Behind the veil
What is much less appreciated is that individuals who for instance develop a mental illness and are less resilient on the face of it, do often show great courage, effort and strength in their daily lives to keep going despite the hardship of the illness. But those things go unseen or misjudged by others and society, because they are not doing the kinds of activities or jobs that reflect resilience in the general opinion. Because their trajectory perhaps is “serpentined” and not an “upward sloping resilience curve”.
Perhaps on the contrary, they are very resilient – just in another sense – and it’s up to us to change how we look at them.
If we made a serious effort to develop empathy and a deeper understanding of individuals and the circumstances they are in instead of looking down on people in some way or another as if they failed in society – that would help. But, we need to be genuine in asking ourselves how work and living environments, communities and support structures can be shaped to reach out to those who feel or who are vulnerable. Because being vulnerable doesn’t mean you’re inadequate.
So I think, what we need to admit to, is the detrimental effects of pressure and expectations that come from society. But society is not just the intangible “other”. It requires from every single one of us to work on our acceptance and understanding of others. Empathising with someone doesn’t just mean pitying them. It means to extract your own self, your preconceptions and judgement, to listen and to reconsider.
Written and published June 2020
References I used to write up the explanatory part – to follow. Everything else is just my personal thoughts.
Benight, C., & Cieslak, R. (2011). Cognitive factors and resilience: How self-efficacy contributes to coping with adversities. In S. Southwick, B. Litz, D. Charney, & M. Friedman (Eds.), Resilience and Mental Health: Challenges Across the Lifespan (pp. 45-55). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Bonanno, G., & Mancini, A. (2011). Toward a lifespan approach to resilience and potential trauma. In S. Southwick, B. Litz, D. Charney, & M. Friedman (Eds.), Resilience and Mental Health: Challenges Across the Lifespan (pp. 120-134). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Feder, A., Charney, D., & Collins, K. (2011). Neurobiology of resilience. In S. Southwick, B. Litz, D. Charney, & M. Friedman (Eds.), Resilience and Mental Health: Challenges Across the Lifespan (pp. 1-29). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Seery, M. D. (2011). Resilience: A Silver Lining to Experiencing Adverse Life Events? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20(6), 390–394
Seery, M. D., Leo, R. J., Lupien, S. P., Kondrak, C. L., & Almonte, J. L. (2013). An Upside to Adversity?: Moderate Cumulative Lifetime Adversity Is Associated With Resilient Responses in the Face of Controlled Stressors. Psychological Science, 24(7), 1181–1189.
Seligman & Pawelski (2002). Positive Psychology: FAQs in Psychological Inquiry, Vol. 14, No. 2, pp. 159-163
Seligman et al. (2009). Positive education: positive psychology and classroom interventions in Oxford Review of Education, Vol. 35, No. 3, Well-being in schools, pp.293-311