Why do some people seem to be resilient?
Is it a consequence of upbringing? Circumstance? Luck? Research shows it comes down to perspective – and that’s something you can shape.
What is resilience?
Resilience is a word that is bandied around a lot and perhaps has different meanings to different people. For this post, the definition referred to will be the one used by Maria Konnikova is her article “How people learn to become resilient” in The New Yorker, 11 February 2016. She quotes Norman Garmezy, a developmental psychologist from the University of Minnesota.
resilience = succeeding or excelling despite incredibly difficult circumstances
~ Norman Garmezy
Research shows that people can only demonstrate their resilience when faced with challenges like obstacles, stress and environmental threats. Those who believe that they, not their circumstances, affect their achievements are said to have a high internal locus of control. They see themselves as in charge of their own fates.
What are the traits of the resilient?
One longitudinal study showed that resilient children showed traits like
- positive social orientation
- being a seeker of new experiences.
This disposition is important. It is a perspective of doer not done to.
Resilience is not static
It appears that resilience is dynamic. It is a function of the stress response. Resilience can show up in childhood, or later in life. What’s more it can change throughout life. What research seems to show is that people have different responses to stressors. Sometimes they are resilient and manage stressful situations well. Other times, if overloaded with stress – that is so intense a person is overwhelmed by it – they can reach a breaking point.
An effective stress response depends on your perspective
Resilience lies in the way we “see” stressful events. Psychologists say it is in our psychological construal of events. This can be positive or negative. Like the glass filled to the half way mark – it can be half full, or half empty.
Effectiveness lies in the way we respond to our construal of events. The way our brain responds to it is important – whether a situation is perceived as a threat or a challenge. A more positive perspective enhances how we deal with a situation, enhances our self-belief that we can handle it. Both are elements of resilience, both can be learned. Of course, effectiveness also depends on having the capacity to apply these in the face of adversity.
Learning to be resilient, learning to be flexible
We can make ourselves more or less vulnerable by how we think about things.
If we frame adversity as a challenge, we are able to be more flexible, to deal with it, move on, learn from it, and grow.
If we frame adversity as a threat, and a potentially traumatic event becomes an enduring problem, we can become more inflexible, and more likely to be negatively affected.
~ Konnikova, 2016.
This seems to rely on a couple of things: awareness and exercising flexibility in cognitive responses. George Bonanno, clinical psychologist at Columbia University Teachers’ College suggests that the cognitive skills that underpin resilience can be learned over time.
- Awareness – notice your response to stressors. Try a helicopter view of yourself in these situations. Look for what pushes your buttons, notice how you react.
- Cognitive responses require reframing situations in your own mind ie choosing a different perspective.
- Adopt a positive frame eg the water glass is half full; this challenge is an opportunity for me to build my skills.
- In situations where “hot” emotional responses arise, try to recast them in a less emotional way. Breathe. Choose a response. [See an earlier post: Regain composure in 4 seconds.]
Training yourself to notice these things and shape your own response will better equip you to deal with traumatic/stressful events, should they occur. Important to your success, is the development of your internal locus of control. By adopting a view that you do things that make your own success rather than things are done to you, can lead to positive changes in well-being and performance.
This has resonance with the “growth mindset” concept developed by Carol Dweck. A person with a growth mindset thrives on challenge. For them, failure is seen as an opportunity for learning, growth and stretching existing abilities.
Your mind can be your best friend, but also your enemy
Bonanno promotes the development of resilience through flexibility in using these cognitive skills. However, he warns that things may also work in reverse.
We can become less resilient, or less likely to be resilient. We can create or exaggerate stressors very easily in our own minds. That’s the danger of the human condition.
~ George Bonanno
This happens when anxiety prevails. People worry and ruminate over something that may be minor, but can grow as a threat that can become an enduring problem. You can become your own worst enemy in this.
How do you mitigate this risk?
Develop your resilience, every day
There are many practices to enhance a positive mindset. Here are a couple, that you can do alone or share:
- practise reframing situations positively – look for something good that can come out of an experience or event for you
- keep a gratitude diary – at the end of each day, record three positive things you are grateful for that happened that day (even if you start at one) Try and persevere for a period of time so you can review them and notice any changes in your observations.
What are your thoughts about resilience?