How We Elicit What Happens to Us

True mental resilience derives from accurate interpersonal cognition.

Posted Oct 21, 2019

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines resilience as "the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or even significant sources of stress.” Resilience can be examined from psychological, biological, economical, sociological, and other perspectives (Southwick, Bonanno, Masten, Panter-Brick, & Yehuda, 2014). Two core concepts of psychological resilience consist of adversity (e.g., stressors, ranging from daily hassles, bullying, harassing, to major life traumas) and healthy adaptation (mental coping and thriving despite disadvantage and adversity; Fletcher, & Sarkar, 2013).

A bit of common advice reiterated for enhancing psychological resilience involves the popular statement that, “It is not what happens to you, but how you think about (or react to) it.” Although this assertion is beneficial as a cognitive coping strategy in helping people focus on their reactions to the experienced adverse events for the purpose of alleviating depression, anxiety, and other maladaptation, this advice appears to only view the individuals as a receiver of negativities, but not as the persons who also bear certain responsibility for their unfavorable experiences.

In fact, except for those helpless victims of abuse in early childhood and unpredictable or unpreventable events, such as some natural disasters, the victims of adversities in most human interactions do play a role in what has happened to them. From the perspective of Eastern philosophy (e.g., Sun, 2009, in press), people are interdependent simultaneously and consequentially—not only in the context of love and connection, but also in conflict situations when they intentionally interact or communicate with one another. This is because most interpersonal situations involve the processes in which early interactions will shape or modify subsequent interpersonal dynamics, including instances of interpersonal animosity and conflict.

There are at least three reasons that the victims play a role in the experienced adversities (e.g., a failure to obtain love and connection because of fear of rejection, or being trapped in conflict as a result of an inability to detach from or diminish their predicaments):

First, all interpersonal communications—such as evaluations, explanations, judgments, and other processes—are determined not only by the participants’ needs and personalities but also regulated by their cognitions of interpersonal reality (e.g., participant mental activities, including one another’s motivations, needs, feelings, expectations, and how and why they process, interpret and react to one another’s messages). You are part of others’ perceived reality and human environment, just as the interacting others and contexts are part of your perceived reality.

Second, although people employ their perceived interpersonal reality to validate or invalidate one another’s communications with the belief that their mental representations of the other(s) are accurate and valid, all the people operate on a level of awareness of interpersonal reality in human interaction.

In other words, there are always misrepresentations of one another’s mental activities and situations, yet people tend to assume their perceptions of the reality are true and objective. Accordingly, others’ abusive behavior toward you is greatly influenced by their misperceptions about you with unawareness of the distorted cognition.

Third, we need to recognize our distorted or inaccurate cognition of interpersonal reality can be revised and become more accurate in human interaction. There are two types of human interaction: those that sustain or validate distorted cognition, and those that invalidate or modify the misrepresentation of reality for the self and interacting partners or opponents. The terms “validation” and “invalidation” are not defined by unilateral beliefs, but by the way in which the recipient’s participating, intentional, relevant, and active cognition interacts with the other’s communication.

For example, an individual’s dysfunctional thinking and actions may be validated by an interaction that reinforces his or her distorted perception when the communication falls within the range of the perceiver’s comprehension. In contrast, interaction (including engagement in and detachment from interaction) can revise the perceiver’s action and perception when the interaction allows the perceiver to discern and adjust his or her mental disparity with human reality. In interpersonal situations, the process of validation and invalidation are applicable to the cognitive distortions of both the self and the interacting partners.

In short, psychological resilience involves the understanding that our actions and communications influence others’ cognitions about us and environments, which in turn shape how they interact with us. We are, in part, responsible for our interpersonal adversities if we are unable to recognize and revise the distorted interpersonal cognitions in human interaction.