Resilience and Other Miracles

What enables emotional survival in the wake of adversity?

Posted Jun 09, 2014

Resilience is adapting well to change or traumatic experience—the death of a loved one, divorce, struggles with illness, job loss or financial anxiety.

It is more than the ego’s capacity to metabolize psychological loss so that a person is able to resume their original level of psychic functioning. Even more, it’s the assimilation of change in a way that advances ego functioning and its capacity for adaptation (Unbroken Soul, 4).

"Diary of a Young Girl" by Anne Frank, illustration by Marc Chagall

What we know of resilience was initially defined by literature on Holocaust survival. Emotional recovery comes from a combination of factors, both constitutional and environmental. Social support is a major protective influence. Eliciting nourishing bonds with attachments figures furthers resilience (family, friends), as does the ability on the part of the individual to trust again. Social relationships help moderate stress. Individuals vary in terms of their ability to reach out to external sources for new role models and emotional connections that offer sustenance.

Bouncing back also comes from creating a reflective space to mentalize, to think about your own mind, to look at feelings, needs and wishes. Mentalization is the opposite of invalidation or having your version of reality invalidated or denied by others. A double abuse is inflicted when there is mistreatment or misfortune then denial of the harm. Individual or family therapy helps facilitate the process of identifying one’s mental contents: frustrations, desires and their varied manifestations. Your life is no atonal poem.

Resilience often involves the willingness to rewrite or restructure the family narrative and its intergenerational destiny. So, the capacity for narrative reframing is important in assimilating new knowledge into one’s life history. Mental representations of childhood experiences have a "stickiness" and enduring mental adhesion. “Defensive delineation” means repeating family stories or being trapped by not repeating them.

Recovering and thriving emotionally sometimes involves accepting the limits of others, sometimes caught up in their own chaos, and mourning this.

The American Psychological Association offers ways to develop a personal strategy for emotional resilience. Cultivating this character attribute involves thoughts, behaviors, and actions that can be learned. The APA emphasizes “making connections” and self-care that attends to basic needs such as eating well, exercising regularly and getting good sleepMeditation or spiritual practice aids some in the road to recovery.

The possibilities for resilience depend not only on factors within the individual, but also on the holding environment of a person’s broader culture. How do societal institutions, such as memorials and museums, help transform the effects of individual and group trauma? Some helpful social networks may be faith-based organizations, the support of local “Meet-ups,” or volunteer work that assists others in need.

Cultural containers such as theater, film, and musical events may increase resilience. For some, art, poetry or journaling enable psychic representations of trauma to shift from an actual, embodied experience to a transitional space within the mind. “We repeat not what we have repressed but what we remember in a particularly rigid way” (Good Stuff, 107).

Being resilient does not mean that a person doesn't experience distress or sadness when faced with adversity. It likely involves bearing considerable emotional pain. Yet, it also asks us to let go of any masochistic pleasure in guilt and suffering.

Verses from a poem by Maya Angelou express the quality of resilience:

"Caged Bird"

A free bird leaps

on the back of the wind

and floats downstream

till the current ends

and dips his wing

in the orange sun rays

and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks

down his narrow cage

can seldom see through

his bars of rage

his wings are clipped

and his feet are tied

so he opens his throat to sing.

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References

Good Stuff: Courage, Resilience, Gratitude, Generosity, Forgiveness, and Sacrifice, by Salman Akhtar. Jason Aronson Press, 2013.

The Unbroken Soul: Tragedy, Trauma, and Human Resilience, eds. Henri Parens, Harold P. Blum, Salman Akhtar. Jason Aronson, 2008.

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