BY: T. Franklin Murphy | May 2018 (edited 2-1-2021)
We build resilience by cultivating many resources. Our diverse skills, connections, and confidence will provide strength during tragedy.
In recent decades, mental well-being has become tantamount; the search for wellness is epidemic. Now that survival is guaranteed, we want to feel good while surviving. Pleasure feels good, and pain doesn’t, so we maximize one while working to minimize the other. Positive mantras appear everywhere preaching, “do what you love” and “find your passion.” We devour thoughts that promise pleasure and limit pain. However, pleasure alone is not enough for wellness. Life can challenge, knock us down, or even overwhelm. We need resilience to weather the difficulties. We must build resilience.
"Resilience is all about being able to overcome the unexpected. Sustainability is about survival. The goal of resilience is to thrive."
Expectations of Ease
Secretly, many (if not most), feel entitlement to greatness. Life, they believe, should be pleasurable—a nirvana where we escape the stings and enjoy uninterrupted pleasure. When reality challenges this notion, we complain, point fingers and rant about unfairness. We may acknowledge that life includes difficulties, but we cry out when painful experiences intrude, “why me? This isn’t fair!” The expectation of uninhibited joy clashes with the coarseness of reality. Faulty expectations magnify the pain and confuse our dream of ease.
See Unrealistic Expectations for more on this topic
Resilience is the process of healthy adapting to life stresses.
I spent a quarter century intimately exposed to the most harrowing experiences of humanity. I know life includes tragedy—and sorrow. An inescapable chunk of existence includes misfortunes and affliction. Wellness demands we possess sufficient resilience to work through calamities. We must be capable of suffering the shocks and continuing to move forward.
With cautiousness and wisdom, we can sidestep much unneeded trauma but escaping all suffering isn't possible; too much protective avoidance and we limit experience.
As we peel away misguided expectations, we recognize constant pleasure is a fairy tale, misrepresenting our reality and magnifying the disappointments. Pain free living doesn’t exist.
See Realistic Optimism for more on this topic.
Instead of seeking escape from inglorious realities, we must build resiliency, strengthening our resources to withstand the shocks of life. We can't stoically face sorrows without being stunned; we can, however, work through disappointing realities into without curling into hopeless depression. With resilience, we respond to hurt with constructive behaviors and find healing. We move through pain, fazed but not irreparably damaged.
"Instead of seeking escape from inglorious realities, we build resiliency, strengthening resources withstand the shocks of life."
How to Build Resilience
We often envision resilience as a single muscle—a character trait we exercise to strengthen. This concept of resilience is misleading. Resilience is more of an oversized toolbox, packed with practiced techniques, internal and external resources, and knowledge. When confronted with traumatic life challenges, the resilient have several options for support, strength, and recovery.
Daniel Goleman wrote that, "long-term studies of hundreds of children brought up in poverty, in abusive families, or by a parent with severe mental illness show that those who are resilient even in the face of the most grinding hardships tend to share key emotional skills" (2005, location 5099).
Instead of working through pain with grit and resolve, hoping our efforts will make us stronger, we must target specific areas in our life before tragedy strikes, cultivating mental and external practices and resources.
Social scientists Mustafa Fletcher and David Fletcher examined high athletic achievers to find common characteristics of their resilience. They found that, "characteristics common to 13 professionals who were extremely successful and concluded that thriving was related to factors such as a positive personality, balance in perspectives, experience, flexibility, and social support" (Tedeschi, et al., 2018, location 1838).
We need a web of empathetic and compassionate people in our lives. Superficial connections won't do. Surrounding ourselves with supportive others takes effort. We must prioritize strong relationships, risking vulnerability, and supporting others in their times of need. These connections become a lifeline in our own moments of despair.
Healthy relationships repeatedly prove to be an important factor of resilience. Ronnie Janoff-Bulman, world-renowned political psychologist, wrote "in a recent review of empirical studies conducted with community samples of aging Holocaust victims, the researchers found a remarkable degree of psychological well-being and resilience; and two of the variables that best predicted good psychological functioning were self-disclosure and having a survivor spouse" (2002, p. 160).
Knowledge of Available Resources
Pride can do us in. We sit and suffer. Modern society has a wealth of resources available. Insurance plans typically include mental health benefits. Counties and cities have free clinics and therapists. Depression, anxiety, and grief can knock any of us down. Prideful suffering is not a courageous endeavor. Get help.
Wellness arises from healthy habits. Our mental and physical health is a product of practiced habits that span over weeks, months and years. By building wellness when life is going smooth, we have more internal resources to expend on those unexpected surprises.
See Wellness Basics for more on this topic.
Building resilience is possible. We start with daily practices, broadening available internal and external resources. No magical globe can predict what tragedy awaits. We don't know which challenge will collide with destiny. Without notice, our current circumstances may shatter, requiring courageous resilience to rebuilding and redefining our life. We begin small, but with consistency and patience our well of resources fills and expands. Our resilience grows, providing the ability to weather the traumatic storms.
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Goleman, D. (2005). Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. Bantam; 10th Anniversary edition
Janoff-Bulman, R. (2002). Shattered Assumptions (Towards a New Psychology of Trauma). Free Press; Completely Updated ed. edition.
Tedeschi, R. G., Shakespeare-Finch, J., Taku, K., Calhoun, L.G. (2018). Posttraumatic Growth: Theory, Research, and Applications. Routledge; 1st edition