In my last post, Lessons from the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, I began thinking with you about the capacity to bounce back from difficult and traumatic experiences—a capacity known as resilience. So this week, I thought I’d offer a few keys to building resilience. Now I must make a disclosure from the start: this post is going to be very simplistic. There are books, scientific articles, and entire research programs dedicated to understanding resiliency. There is a whole section in the PT blogosphere dedicated to resilience, written by professionals with far greater expertise in the field than mine. But because I think I have a few useful ideas, I've given myself 750 words to share them with the belief that simple is a good place to start.

There are three key lessons to be gleaned from Kimmy Schmidt's fictional journey that echo a lot of great research as well as the wisdom of my own profession, psychoanalysis. Three keys to building resilience are:

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Source: CC0 Public Domain
  • Accepting the reality that difficult and traumatic experiences affect us deeply, at the core of our personalities. We cannot dismiss negative experiences as unimportant, because they profoundly shape both our view of ourselves and the world. This truth was expressed by the spiritual teacher, Adyashanti, who was recently interviewed by Oprah Winfrey on Super Soul Sunday. In the interview, he described traumatic experiences as “sticky,” explaining that negative experiences stick to our psyches much more than positive experiences do. This is so true. I think this phenomenon comes from our built-in orientation to protect ourselves from danger, a very old and deeply unconscious orientation connected to our survival instinct. We are wired to be on the lookout for signs of danger—and traumatic experiences confirm that the danger is real and so bolster our strongest defenses and protections.
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    Source: CC0 Public Domain

    Developing the awareness and conviction that we are not defined by these negative experiences. We are affected by adversity, yes. But we do not have to be defined by it. In resilience research, the ability to carry on in the face of adversity is called grit. A person with grit honors and learns from difficult experiences but is also determined to move through them. Like the character Kimmy Schmidt, we come to realize that we may have been held captive in the past (literally or figuratively) but we do not have to be held captive in the present. Our relationship with ourselves and the world can change as a result of new positive experiences. Furthermore, we can develop new ways of relating to our painful experiences, both those from the past and the present. In a way, changing the relationship we have with our painful experiences is what psychoanalysis, cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness practice, and even the search for enlightenment are all about.

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    Source: CC0 Public Domain
  • Developing the awareness and conviction that we are not defined by other people from the past. We are affected by other people and the past, yes. Profoundly. But we do not have to be defined by them. A major goal of most psychotherapies is to help people shift their focus from other people and the past to themselves and the present. In so doing, individuals become better able to take responsibility for their own thoughts, feelings, reactions, and choices. I like how psychoanalyst Marilia Eisenstein describes the aim of psychoanalysis as helping patients to become the principal agents in their own history and thought. As I like to put it, the goal of psychoanalytic therapy is for the patient to get into the driver’s seat of his or her life. Adyashanti conveys this idea so vividly: the keys to our happiness are not in somebody else’s pocket from the past but in ours today.

My recent reflections on this topic were met serendipitously by a wellness newsletter I received from my health insurance company last week. It described a lifestyle enhancement program called Resilience: Bouncing Back Instead of Falling Down. The course description highlighted for me the very practical implications of building resilience: “Being resilient can improve your self-esteem, upgrade your relationships, strengthen your immune system, and be instrumental in making other positive changes in your life. Resiliency allows you to experience more of life’s pleasures and get less bogged down by life’s setbacks. Learn how to restabilize after a destabilizing event, increase your emotional intelligence, and develop the skill of being anti-fragile.”

The journey of building resilience is lifelong and it takes work. But the benefits are considerable—emotionally, physically, and relationally. Whatever path you take, I hope that you will find a way to grow through and bounce back from your difficult experiences by being present to them and re-defining your relationship with them.

Copyright 2015 Jennifer Kunst, PhD

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