Are you resilient? Do you sink or swim when faced with obstacles or stressful events? Say you grew up poor, I mean really poor, and all you had to eat for lunch each day at school were saltine cracker and butter sandwiches. Because you didn’t want your more well to do schoolmates to feel sorry for you, each time you crunched down on your cracker sandwich and licked the butter from the salted edges, you smiled. Despite your chronic adverse circumstances – low socioeconomic status – you worked hard in school. In fact you excelled, and you continue to do so: maybe at work or as a parent, or both. That’s resilience.
If you’ve never experienced a life challenge (unless you have lived in bubble wrap for all of your existence, I find this nearly impossible), you’ll never know whether or not you’re resilient. Adverse events can be chronic, as in the scenario I depicted above, or acute, as in witnessing a trauma or being a victim of an accident.
To better understand what makes us resilient, one researcher has looked at what are called “protective factors,” the particulars of individuals’ backgrounds, including personality, that play a role in their success, regardless of challenges. In follow-up to his research, his students identified factors that fell into two different groups: psychological makeup, disposition, or environmental influences in one group, and pure chance in the other. Another, larger study attempted to decipher the factors contributing to resiliency. Though, similar to the former study, luck played a role in some cases, psychological constitution was instrumental in the majority of situations. They might not have been geniuses, but the more resilient children possessed a healthy sense of self. They were willing to seek out new experiences, take chances, utilize the skills they had to be successful. One researcher describes these children as having an “internal locus of control,” meaning that they believed they, rather than outside circumstances, had control over their outcomes. They believed they were the authors of their life scripts.
As with most things though, resilience fluctuates. We’re human after all: if we’re burdened with one stressor after another – divorce, death, a job loss, injury – we tire and lose resilience (think of an overstretched rubber band). But the good news is: we just might be able to learn how to be resilient. Another researcher has discovered that individuals who did not bounce back so easily as children were able to develop resilient skills later in life, enabling them to prosper.
If we have the capacity to create our outcomes, then why not say resilience is an offshoot of perception, another human element within our control. As a clinical psychologist at Columbia University says, “Events are not traumatic until we experience them as traumatic.” Because we’re the ones who label the event as traumatic, we also have the capacity to re-label it as something else – simply as an experience, for instance. In this way we become more resilient. Of course, it’s not always that easy. Because we’re human, we agonize over this and that, lose sleep over this and that. It takes re-training the brain, taming our unwieldy thought patterns, tying our worries and fears into a constrictor knot. Though this hackneyed phrase may cause you to roll your eyes (Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard this, how many times now?), I’m going to share it with you anyway: If we expect something to become true, it will become true. If we focus on an adverse event as potentially harmful, we sink. If we focus on that same event as a challenge, we swim – and win.