NOTE: This is the first draft of the “Resilience” essay in my forthcoming book, Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas. Responses and comments welcome, no matter how brief.
Copyright 2013 David J. Bookbinder
Along with perseverance and a sense of purpose, an essential capacity for successfully traversing the Hero’s Journey that describes our lives is resilience.
Resilience is the ability to bounce back. In a physical object, it is elasticity: the property a material has to return to its original shape or position after being bent, stretched, or compressed. In an ecosystem, it is the system’s capacity to withstand shocks and to rebuild itself when disturbed. In a person, it is recovering quickly from adversity.
Resilience is what lets us rebound from failure and come back from heartbreak, illness, financial disaster, and tragedy. Those who lack resilience are overcome by obstacles and tend to give up in the face of hardship. Resilient people may feel the pain of defeat, but they don’t let it keep them down.
Resilience in materials is intrinsic, but in people it is a dynamic quality. Like a muscle, it can be damaged by stressors greater than the “system” can withstand and it can atrophy if neglected. But it can also be strengthened by exercise.
In my therapy practice, I see many people whose resilience has been beaten down, or in whom it was never developed. Once we deal with the problems that brought them into therapy, much of our work together is about creating a more resilient approach to life.
Loss of resilience is especially evident in addiction and depression. By the time most people with addictions or depression seek therapy, their lives have become unmanageable. Important relationships have ended or are strained to the breaking point, they are cut off from systems of support, and their self-esteem has dropped to nil. They feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of what they have lost and daunted by the seemingly impossible task of recovering their lives.
As a therapist, I have learned to listen for “overwhelmed.” Overwhelmed says “This is too much for you. Give it up.” But overwhelmed is also, often, the starting point for building resilience.
Sometimes “overwhelmed” leads to recounting stories of others who faced apparently insurmountable obstacles and overcame them. We talk about their heroes. Regardless of whether the people my clients admire are friends or family members, sports figures, historical personages, or even fictional characters from books, comics, movies, or television, we look closely at what enables these heroes to deal with their nemeses and their personal demons. Therein lie clues to my clients’ own heroic qualities.
In my own struggles, I have sought inspiration from movies. Watching comeback films like Cinderella Man and epic science fiction sagas like the Matrix, Terminator, and Aliens series has helped me activate the energy it takes to rise from injury and defeat, phoenix-like, and move on. Sometimes I share with my clients what it took to help me recover my life and let them know that they can do it, too.
For several years I’ve been developing a program for building resilience. Central to it are skills that help us adapt to change. These skills fit into four categories: (1) Creating an environment conducive to building resilience, (2) Finding support from systems and individuals, (3) Enhancing problem solving ability, and (4) Increasing emotional adaptability.
A first step toward creating a safe, resilience-friendly environment involves cat hairs. In this context, the term “cat hair” refers to an experiment with lab rats conducted to determine whether rats are genetically programmed to fear cats. In this experiment, researchers placed rat pups who had never been exposed to cats in a cage and then monitored their playfulness. Initially, the rats played together freely. Then the researchers took the smallest cat stimulus they could think of, a single cat hair, and dropped it into the cage. Soon, the pups stopped playing and ran to the edges of the cage, frozen with fear. After a few hours, the researchers removed the cat hair and continued to monitor the rats. Days later, however, the rats continued to show signs of fear. They never returned to their baseline playfulness.
Fear leaves an imprint on us, too. If fear is not addressed, we will respond to our “cat hairs” with the fight/flight/freeze response common to mammals. Dramatic examples, such as the “shell shock” response of soldiers who have been in combat, are well known, but the “cat hair” phenomenon also shows up in many other ways, unconsciously dictating our responses to jobs, relationships, conflict, authority figures, and many other aspects of daily life, often subtly inhibiting self-actualization. Unlike rats trapped in their internal mazes, though, we can learn to recognize when a cat hair is a true sign of danger and when it is just a hair – a trigger, not a gun. Removing ourselves from true danger and detoxifying our responses to triggers is often a first step toward creating an environment where resilience can grow.
Another component to building resilience is close relationships. Trauma, addiction, and many forms of mental illness, as well as more common troubles like low self-esteem, loneliness, and anxiety, feed on isolation. In many cases, the therapeutic relationship begins the process of developing a deep, trusting relationship that can serve as a model for making or re-making relationships outside therapy.
In the 80s, I was fond of a science fiction TV program called Quantum Leap. Its protagonist, Sam, was caught in a temporal anomaly that transported him to various points within his lifetime, but his consciousness landed in the body of someone else. Early in the series, he discovered that his purpose for being in each place was to set something right that had gone dramatically wrong. When he succeeded, he would leap again, hoping that this leap would be the leap home.
During his quantum leaps, Sam was guided by a holographic projection of his best friend, Al, who was assisted by Ziggy, a supercomputer. As a therapist, I am often in the role played by Al and Ziggy, helping clients travel into their pasts, assisting them in finding ways to set right what once went wrong. Unlike Sam, they can’t alter what has happened, but they can do the next best thing: reverse the emotional damage, unsticking what once was stuck, promoting a more resilient, open, and flexible response to the future.
Establishing connection with a supportive community is also helpful in building resilience. We are social animals, and separation from the pack weakens our ability not only to thrive, but sometimes even to survive. Support groups, spiritual groups, and group activities that permit us to follow our curiosity and pursue our interests can create connections that steady us under stress and act as a safety net when we stumble. In addition to more traditional social groups such as families, neighborhoods, and religious organizations, the proliferation of 12-step groups and the vast assortment of Meetups available through meetup.com attest to the importance of these newer kinds of focused communities.
Perhaps the most powerful factor in developing resilience is seeing opportunities for growth in adversity – the silver lining in the cloud. Questions like “What can I learn from this?” and “How can going through this make me a better person?” foster a creative, problem-solving attitude that gives us leverage on our problems and prevents us from being consumed by them. A growth-oriented way of life broadens our perspective; from this new vantage point, we can see our limiting or self -defeating patterns. Awareness itself promotes resilience, but paying particular attention even to small windows of opportunity helps us enter new territory.
Just as adversity can disconnect us from our creative and spiritual selves, acting in ways that promote reconnection to these essential parts enhances resilience. Tapping into spiritual practices such as meditation, prayer, and meditative activities such as yoga and tai chi aids in returning to return to center when we have been dislodged. Creative activities of almost any variety bring to life latent parts. Taken together, enlivening our spiritual and creative selves enables us to move forward from adversity with greater balance and a more complete response to whatever lies ahead.
The ability to empathize with others and to give with an open heart also enhances the emotional adaptability essential to resilience. In the moments when we feel most depleted, giving in this way lets us become our best and most generous selves and, paradoxically, adds to our capacity to be fully human. This principle underlies many healing practices in indigenous cultures, where the shaman chooses a sickly boy to become his apprentice. The boy becomes strong through healing his people, but he must continue to heal others in order to stay healthy himself.
Over the course of a lifetime, my own resilience has come from a gradual incorporation of all these modalities. I have found strength in therapy and close friendships, connection in community and family, self-discovery in my artwork and writing. (The Flower Mandalas, for instance, helped me retrieve what I have come to realize was a beautiful and symmetrical inner world present since childhood.) Participating in a Buddhist sangha has become gratifying in ways I had previously associated only with intimate relationships and close friendships. And stepping into my best self each morning as I walk into my therapy office allows me to continue being the wounded healer who remains healthy by helping others to heal, and stays resilient only as long as he assists others in developing their own resilience.