What is “Resilience”? It can be difficult to define precisely but you know it when you see it. My personal definition is this: “A resilient person can deal with severe adversity without being deformed by it. A resilient person can make it through painful experiences and live an optimistic, meaningful life while enriching the lives of those around them.”
Last week I wrote about how our ability to rise above challenges depends, in part, on the communities and resources that surround us. I stressed the importance of community and being part of a “tribe”. However “resilience” can also be reflected in the way people choose to respond to adversity.
There was a fascinating study done on resilience which is described in the book “Out of the Woods: Tales of Resilient Teens” published in 2008. The book opens in a locked psychiatric ward full of troubled teens. These young patients did not have trivial issues: drug addiction, suicide attempts, major disruption at school and criminal behavior. A group of psychologists interviewed them in great detail to get a snapshot of who they were. All the troubled teens that the psychologists selected for the study were considered to have had experienced similar levels of hardship. The troubled teens were then followed for more than a decade to see what sort of adults they became. Unsurprisingly, most lived unhappy, dysfunctional lives. However, what stood out was the small group (perhaps 1 in 10) who, against all odds, went on to have happy marriages, become great parents and find meaningful, constructive employment. So, the psychologists asked “...what made the resilient teens different from the rest of the group?...”
They went back to their original interviews and found resilient teens demonstrated 3 key characteristics:
The future-resilient teens could look at themselves honestly - finding patterns and sequences of events that had brought them to such a low point in their lives. They would say things like: “I was warned repeatedly about stealing from my school, I understand why they expelled me” or “I don’t like my step father, but I kept swearing at him and being rude so I get why we ended up in that horrible fight” or “I was very depressed about my parents divorce. I realize illegal drugs only make more trouble but they made me feel better for a short time.“
Honest reflectivity is often uncomfortable. It takes courage. For these teenagers it delivered “insight”. They took the time to think about what had happened to them. In contrast, non-resilient teens never connected the dots. I am not suggesting that they were completely responsible for their predicament, but they didn’t seem to have the ability to think about life. They tended to view themselves as the passive victims of injustice or just unlucky. They would make statements like “My step father is an idiot, I couldn't deal with him” or “The teachers hated me and were out to get me” or “I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time”.
Resilient teens considered themselves to be agents of change in their own life. They did not expect that some fairy godmother was going to wave her magic wand and fix all their problems. If their lives were going to improve, they instinctively knew they would have to make it happen. They made statements like: “I need to get some help in dealing with this drug habit. I need to stop hanging with the drug dealers at school” or “I need to get help learning to deal with my anger. I need to learn to walk away from fights” or “I need to sort out my relationship with my parents”. There was no doubt in the researcher’s minds that these teens had difficult, painful lives. Yet these teens were able to accept personal responsibility for their futures. They realized they could not afford to be passive about their problems.
By contrast, the non-resilient teens tended to wait for some external factor (over which they had no control) to come along and fix their problems. They would make statements like: “My school just needs new teachers who aren’t cruel and stupid” or “My step father needs to die in a car accident” or “If I won a million dollars in the lottery, that would fix everything.”
This point links back to my blog from last week. What has made humans such a powerful “force” on this planet is our ability to form “tribes”. The desire for friendship, intimacy and family seems hardwired into us. Non-resilient teens tend to be very socially isolated - distancing themselves from others, angrily shunning help when offered and regularly sabotaging potentially helpful relationships.
In contrast, resilient teens made connections (sometimes only tentatively) with people who could help them. Sometimes you can feel angry but not know why. Resilient teens seemed to be able to find their way through this, at least enough to cautiously build relationships with people who might be able to help - be it parent, step-parent, teacher or mental health professional.
At this point, the authors asked themselves, “Are these resilient teens just lucky? Are they surrounded by a network of support that the non-resilient teens don’t have access to?”. However looking closer, researchers discovered both groups had similar exposure to potentially supportive help. Unlike their non-resilient peers, the resilient teens made the decision to reach out and ask for help rather than push people away.
I realize that this last point seems to contradict last week’s blog where I shared research showing that resilience depends primarily on having a healthy family, community and other external resources. To be honest I think resilience is a combination of both. A complex mix of the environment that surrounds us and the personal decisions we make. Some of us survive incredibly painful life experiences (eg. the loss of a child). I would never be so arrogant as to judge the decisions people make in intensely painful times. However, I hope we can benefit from the story of these resilient teens as we work through whatever challenges life throws at us. Next week I share some profound words of advice from a psychotherapist who has spent most of her professional life counselling survivors of childhood trauma. Regardless of whether you had a difficult childhood or not, I think her words offer great wisdom for all of us.