Resilience Through Focusing on What We Can Control
Maybe we can learn something from our animal friends.
Posted July 31, 2020
Resilience is a fascinating aspect of life. In short, well, there is no in short. Understanding resilience is a full-time job for some mental health professionals and researchers. Research recently conducted into whether or not resilience is a personality trait or a learned skill highlights that there is still something about resilience that we find difficult to understand. My favorite conclusion to a resilience study was when Scheffer et al. (2018) concluded that the "dazzling web of mechanisms that shape resilience may seem disappointingly complex. However, even if the details are not resolved, taking a resilience-based approach need not be complicated.”
A friend of mine who has dedicated much of her life to animal welfare provides anyone who follows her social media accounts with glimpses into her world. Commenters on her posts are quite often amazed to see happy dogs playing with children, or relaxed dogs happily sleeping on their new beds. Commenters are amazed for good reason because they know the past traumas that the dogs have endured and overcome. Many years ago I once commented on one of her posts that the resilience of animals was truly fascinating, and in doing so I began to seriously think about resilience for the first time.
It might be a little strange that a random social media post led me to seriously thinking about resilience since "resilient" has commonly been a word used to describe me ever since I was paralyzed as a teenager. I am occasionally asked how I came to terms with my injury and my answer has always been the same: I simply focused on what I could control and didn’t dwell on what I couldn’t control. It was the answer I gave to a reporter writing about me shortly after my injury and it is the answer that I still give to people today.
I do not claim to speak for all people with disabilities, but as a person with a rather severe disability, there would be a very long list of things that I cannot change regardless of how much time I devoted to trying. Sisyphus at least nearly makes it to the top of the hill before the boulder rolls back down. There are many boulders I cannot even move, so I put those out of my mind and focus on the boulders that I can move. People have labeled that as resilient.
Perhaps we are over-complicating resilience. There are obviously important clinical implications that warrant serious study, but it seems like our friends in the animal kingdom have mastered an aspect of it. Having had adopted abused animals and seeing their triggers has shown me that they do not forget their past traumas, but they seem to excel in focusing on what they are doing in the present. I can relate to that, and I suspect that many other people with disabilities could as well. Having no real choice other than just letting go and focusing on what we can change is an aspect of disability and resilience that can work in our favor.
Scheffer, M., Bolhuis, J. E., Borsboom, D., Buchman, T.G., Gijzel, M.W.S., Goulson, D., Kammenga, J.E., Kemp, B., van de Leemput, I.A., Levin, S., Carmel M.M., Melis, R.J.F., van Nes, E.H., L., Romero M, & Olde Rikkert. M.J.M. (2018). Quantifying resilience of humans and animals. PNAS. 115 (47).