After Adversity, Do We Need Resilience? Or Growth?
Explore why “springing back” to the old you is counterproductive.
Posted December 12, 2021 | Reviewed by Tyler Woods
- Being resilient means returning to prior unhealthy coping styles of dealing with adversity.
- Personality change and interpersonal growth are healthier goals than resilience after life misfortunes.
- Explore your early life emotional conditioning to learn about yourself and prevent yo-yoing back to unhealthy ways of grappling with adversity.
Resilience is defined as an ability to return to prior function after adversity or trauma. Victor G. Carrion, MD, says resilience “…is a physics term: it literally means that the spring bounces back to its original form.”
If, after trauma, we hope for people to be resilient and get back to who they were, what are we saying? Is this the best course we can hope for them?
Gaining Resilience Does Not Help
When people experience the adversity of divorce, is it better for them to return to how they were before the divorce or even the marriage? If they do, have they grown any? Are they setting themselves up to repeat the same errors when committing to future romantic relationships, if they are no different.
Homer B. Martin, M.D., and I are psychiatrists. We studied thousands of people for a combined eighty years during psychotherapy work with them. We discovered resilience—snapping back to an earlier, usual way of being—was unhelpful and unhealthy for people following upsetting and traumatic episodes. These discoveries are in our book, Living on Automatic: How Emotional Conditioning Shapes Our Lives and Relationships.
No Such Thing as Normal
When we helped people overcome their tendency to snap back to their usual selves, they did better psychologically. We helped them become “anti-resilient.” This meant they grew and shed automatic, repeating, resilient patterns that took them back to old ways of being and trying to cope.
The assumption is that resilience is a good or helpful goal because a person’s prior functioning, way of coping, or being must be “normal” and “healthy.” We did not find this to be true. Instead, we found people of all ages function in skewed roles or personality styles to greater and lesser degrees. “Normal” does not exist for anyone.
Skewed or pathological roles and coping styles are learned by age 3 in most families. The roles are taught by how parents “emotionally condition” their children.
Coping Styles Predate Misfortune
We discovered people go into adversity with ways of coping already in place. These coping patterns are flawed. We observed these coping patterns also kick in automatically to try and fend off any new psychological insult.
When people experience adversity, the worst thing that can happen is for them to return to their usual way of coping. The unhealthy thing is for them to be resilient. A better outcome is for people to grow through developing new insights about themselves and new strategies for wrestling with difficulties in life.
A Need for New Methods of Grappling with Difficult Times
People need new self-understanding that helps to better navigate themselves, their relationships, and their traumas. A newly-divorced person should discover what went wrong in the recently dissolved marriage. What conditioned roles did the couple function in that created the problems leading to their breakup?
A sexually-abused child may be pressured by her family to be resilient and return to being her “old self.” This pressure will not help her, Dr. Martin and I found. Instead, she should be helped to discern how and why her abuse took place. What were the emotionally conditioned role and coping styles she learned early in life? What was the personality of the molester that meshed with her style of coping that led to the abuse?
Resilience Essential Reads
I find sexually abused children can be helped to be less compliant with the wants and wishes of others, especially those bent on harming them. This involves learning to say, “No,” and acquiring enhanced self-autonomy and esteem. This comes from new discoveries about herself, her thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.
Steps to Help in Recovery from Adversity/Trauma
- Aim for growth, not resilience.
- Increase understanding of who you are by looking at the early emotional conditioning patterns your parents taught you.
- Seek both personality changes and interpersonal growth to discover how to manage relationships and confront suffering in new ways.
- Get help from a therapist, not to re-establish a resilient you, but to create a new you that grows, copes better and becomes healthier.
Calamities can be regarded as windows of opportunity to make healthy psychological changes, not for resilient springing back to the old you and your difficulties.
To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
Victor G. Carrion, MD, “Building resilience in our children for the after effects of COVID-19,” Psychiatric News, Nov., 2021, p.22.
Christine B.L. Adams, M.D., “Beyond Attachment: Psychotherapy with a Sexually Abused Teenager,” American Journal of Psychotherapy, 66(4): 313-330, 2012.