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Responding to the Resilience Backlash

It's more than just an inner trait.

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The term “resilience,” which is used to describe strength despite adverse circumstances, has become a significant topic within psychology and many other disciplines. From day-to-day difficulties in work or relationships to traumatic life experiences, this word has become a catch-all term for overcoming challenging situations. In a recent Democratic debate, candidates were asked about setbacks that they’ve encountered that have made them more resilient.

As a researcher and a clinician who has studied resilience for decades, I have watched this term go from relative obscurity to ubiquity. Detailed literature on resilience has existed for over 40 years and arose as a response to the overemphasis on psychopathology. For a long time, clinical and educational experts believed that trauma and negative experiences almost inevitably led to negative long-term outcomes. This idea mostly stemmed from clinicians’ retroactive view in tying trauma and past hardship (e.g. early loss, abuse, parental divorce) to how patients presented themselves in hospitals, clinics, and consulting rooms.

But studies over the years following children with major difficult life events, now also known as ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences), show that a variety of resiliency factors had positive impacts on youth. These positive effects included a reduction of emotional, mental, or behavioral problems, an increase in psychological well-being, and a shield against chronic disease. I, too, found similar results in adolescent in-patient psychiatric patients I studied over the course of a decade. These factors are now studied in the disciplines of medicine, sociology, education, genetics, anthropology, and others.

With any scientific term co-opted into wider use, misunderstandings are likely to arise. I believe this is why there have been criticisms of the concept—some of which posit that the term “resiliency” may neglect larger issues of systemic bias, discrimination, poverty, and other difficulties that one may face, while others believe that too much resilience leads to maladaptation. Others stress that this term has been overused to the point of becoming hackneyed, and has been used to “resilience shame” individuals, a form of blaming the victim.

A common thread of these negative assessments is the misinterpretation of resilience as a purely inner trait. I consider this a disservice. This construct has been viewed by researchers, educators, and clinicians in much broader terms. For example, many theories include an interpersonal component that focuses on the influence of family attachment figures, friendships, student-teacher, client-therapist, or mentor-mentee relationships on adaptation. Other theories focus on community-wide components of resilience, such as grassroots groups that organize to fight back against disasters, exploitation, chronic deprivation, and systemic injustice. It would be a mistake to ignore the creative and positive work in recent resiliency research and activism.

Of course, there are still hard questions to explore. What leads some individuals to despair when others fight against the conditions that create a deeply unfair distribution of our resources in society? What can we do to foster resilience in our families, schools, and communities?

It is time to expand our collective view of resilience and understand its dynamic interplay with diverse environmental and societal situations and contexts. In that regard, the present criticisms can help focus future research and practice. But to give up on the “resilient person” and view everything through the lens of social conditions alone, is to give up on psychology, the study of experience, and adaptation.

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