This content was published first in The Sunday Letters Journal: https://sundayletters.larrygmaguire.com/p/what-it-takes-to-survive by Larry G. Maguire on Sun, 29 Jan 2023 20:58:12 GMT
When I think about psychological resilience — the human ability to undergo the stress and difficulty of challenging life circumstances and come out the other side relatively psychologically healthy — it appears to be a condition of being in which we have little or no say. What I mean is, the I that I think I am can’t simply decide to be more resilient than it is and then simply follow a process to obtain it. There is more going on for the human organism than simply the force of will. Resilience interventions based on extensive research and practice also fail us. For many, the psychic structures of the self are reinforced to such an extent through experience that they are practically impervious to change. Something remains resistant.
We’re not talking about baking a cake or building a wall here. These are task-oriented things. Instead, the extent of our resilience appears to be an aspect of being that occurs given only the right mix of circumstances outside our conscious control. This is not to say that conditions cannot change. On the contrary, change can happen, and we can find healthier ways to live. But often, we find that the impulse for change has already occurred, and then we become aware of it. Action is then a natural consequence. In this sense, we are the watchers of our own lives, and all this doing is a part of that.
“Life inflicts the same setbacks and tragedies on the optimist as on the pessimist, but the optimist weathers them better.”
― Martin E.P. Seligman, Psychologist
I’ve written about free will, or rather the absence of it, a few times before . My initial sense of it before entering psychology was that free will existed—I believed human beings had the ability to choose the circumstances of their lives. Now I know they don’t. Free will, as we might commonly understand it, doesn’t exist, and the ability to choose resilience or not is evidence of that. That’s not to say I believe life is determined—that there is a script already written by some all-knowing, all-seeing cosmic being, and we have no say in how life turns out. We do have a say, but not the way we might ordinarily think.
What is this “I” to which I refer? Who or what is “me ”? My understanding of this is as follows; first, there is a self that I believe myself to be. It is, as Lacan claimed, a fabrication of the Subject—the unknowable I. The unknowable Subject makes what I refer to as I, me, my surface personality and identity. It is the culmination of all that distinguishes me from all other human beings or that consumes me by all the groups to which I am said to belong. I am both distinguished from others and consumed by them, and I am either at risk of annihilation as a consequence, or I present that risk to others. In other words, I am whatever I am said to be by others or by myself. I am always changing, never stationary, I am something different to everyone, and I am always a thin surface layer. Substantial in the physical sense that I appear to be material, but ultimately unsubstantial in that you can never know me. Nor can I know myself or, indeed, anyone else. I am a ghost, and the idea that this non-physical conscious self I call me drives my behaviour is illusory.
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I am pushed, and I am pulled by forces I cannot see or understand. I suppress my desire and my animal-like base instinct for sex and to kill. Push my buttons to such an extent, and I will react with force. I am out of control and only capable of self-assessment afterwards when the damage is done. Too late. I wish I could change but I can’t seem to. Who am I? What has formed me? For whom do I fight or lie down? There is a vacuum at my core, and I am drawn into it. I am afraid of my own thoughts and desires, so I put on a show. I wish to convince you of who I am, who I’m not, and who I desire to be. You do the same. So we both pretend except for those unique moments in life when we are forced to let down our guard. Who or what puts on the show? Maybe the show puts on itself, and you and I are, in fact, sitting in the audience with everyone else.
There is another angle to this discussion. In an argument against free will, some would say that if free will existed, then human beings would not choose to be drug-addicted, on the street, stealing and begging for a living. Who would choose that? If we were free to choose, we would not choose to be abused, bombed out of our homes, starved, or inflict pain on others. We would choose to leave abusive relationships and find a better life for ourselves away from social deprivation. Of course, from a limited and linear view of the world and of humanity, this might make sense. But who’s to say where the value of life and death lies? What does a worthwhile existence look like, and who gets to determine that for everyone else? What is the prescription for the ideal life?
Religion tried to be the prescriber, Catholicism particularly so in my country and failed dramatically. It had the uncanny ability to bring about, oversee, and facilitate some of the most obscene and inhumane events in the history of our country—or anywhere, in fact. Women and children mistreated, abused, beaten, imprisoned, stolen, sold, murdered and buried in cesspits, all in the name of a loving and caring God. Religion reflects ideology, and ideology reflects the beliefs of men—a rigid set of rules for life. And it’s nearly always men and our insatiable need to control others. Beliefs in the form of ideologies, therefore, are the tools of insane people.
Ok, back on course…
Fixed or Growth Oriented Mindset? Given the impact the rules of men have on our lives, rules that we'd hardly choose if they weren't imposed upon us, we are formed beyond the basic psychic structure. Sometimes these formations are hard to break down, maybe even impossible. However, research suggests that we can change once the impetus has arisen in us. Carol Dweck in her 2017 book Mindset1 , says that resilience forms part of a “Growth Mindset”. Dweck suggests that its opposite, a fixed mindset, is, “believing your qualities are carved in stone,” . In contrast, a growth mindset is “the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts” . In other words, if you believe that effort and work-rate matter, you can influence and change your experience in a positive way. Related to this is resilience, and resilience is a dynamic process rather than a fixed trait of personality. She goes on to cite Alfred Binet, the French educator and inventor of the IQ test;
A few modern philosophers… assert that an individual’s intelligence is a fixed quantity, a quantity which cannot be increased. We must protest and react against this brutal pessimism…. With practice, training, and above all, method, we manage to increase our attention, our memory, our judgment and literally to become more intelligent than we were before.
Alfred Binet | Modern Ideas About Children.
Regardless of who or what I am (let’s face it, we can’t know for sure the answers to these questions), I cannot entertain for a second that my life has already been designed, and I have no say in this design. Whether I am right or wrong, this is my belief, and my belief, according to Dweck’s research, determines my effort and results. I do have a say in how my life turns out, and the moment the surface me recognises that things have become unbearable and wants something different, there is an opportunity. Sometimes I need help to make the most of that opportunity, but what I do next matters. What I believe about myself matters.
What Resilience Is The American Psychological Association says that Resilience is successful adaptation to difficult or challenging life experiences. In particular, through mental, emotional, and behavioural flexibility. A number of factors contribute to how well we adapt to adversities. These include the ways in which we view and engage with the world, the availability and quality of social resources and supports, and the specific coping strategies we use. Do you cope by lashing out, drinking too much, drugs, TV, shopping, or food? These are destructive coping strategies. Psychological research has shown that the resources and skills associated with more positive adaptation (i.e., greater resilience) can be cultivated and practised.
What Resilience Is Not Just because one person copes better under a given challenge than another, this does not mean they don’t suffer equally, feel the pressure of stress, and react emotionally. Resilience is not the learned ability to deny our feelings, bury them deep, and behave like a lifeless mechanism. Resilience is not putting your head in the sand or telling yourself a fanciful story that runs counter to your perceived reality. Resilience is not the inability to feel.
Although certain theories have accounted for resilience as a trait of personality, contemporary psychology does not broadly agree. Rather than it being a fixed component of personality gifted at birth, resilience can be developed. Resilience is fostered through community, friendship, familial support, and perhaps most importantly, challenges under controlled situations. Resilience is not denial, it is acceptance and willingness to take on the challenge and development of the self.
“The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action. … Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.”
Viktor Frankl | Man’s Search For Meaning
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What Resilient People Do Differently Resilience is defined and composed of different aspects depending on who you ask and when you ask them. Researchers will answer you differently from clinicians and may have many different working definitions depending on the application or area, or behaviour being studied.
Definitions aside, research has shown that certain components and personal attributes are common in resilient individuals. In his paper titled Psychological and social aspects of Resilience 2 , Dr Saul Levine outlines the following personal attributes that are positive for resilience. Levine cautions us to note that none of the below attributes alone is necessarily sufficient to determine success or failure. Social, environmental, and other unseen personal factors also have a bearing.
Secure Early Attachment As the psychotherapist Erik Erickson noted 3 , the availability of close, caring, responsive and loving parents or caregivers is most conducive to an individual’s/child’s sense of trust and self-esteem.
Temperament A fluid and easy temperament, as opposed to erratic and brittle, facilitates social involvement, adaptability, coping, belonging, and resilience.
Intelligence Intellectual/cognitive skills are paramount to adequate comprehension and functioning; however, it does not guarantee exceptional resiliency skills. Intelligence is only a tool you must learn to use.
Health Both physical health and emotional stability are correlated with coping skills and resilience. However, there are innumerable examples of chronically ill or psychiatrically ill people who show extraordinary levels of resiliency.
Appearance It is clear from the research that an attractive appearance enables more approach than avoidance with others and results in consequential social reinforcement for one’s perceived self-worth.
Sociability Those with positive interpersonal skills, who can interact well, read a companion’s mood and receptivity, have empathy for others, inspire confidence and trust, and who are engaging and communicative are more inclined to have received help and opportunity themselves.
Self-awareness Like empathy, the capacity to recognise one’s strengths and weaknesses and have some insight into one’s own moods, relationships, etc., is important in dealing with challenges, disappointments, and failures in life.
Optimism A “glass half full” attitude goes a long way towards enabling one to cope with life’s difficulties. Just as we can learn to be pessimistic and helpless, we can learn to be optimistic and hopeful.
Sense of Humour To be able to laugh at oneself and at the vagaries of life allows us to cope better and is a wonderfully enhancing attribute.
Organisation The most resilient individuals are seemingly more purposeful and committed to an organised, analytical approach and a sequential plan of dealing with difficulties or challenges and resolving problems.
Productivity Resilient people tend to be dedicated workers, task-oriented, with an eye on successful fulfilment and completion of duties and responsibilities.
Compartmentalisation The attribute enables us to cope with inevitable life challenges by temporarily walling off our worries and problems so that they do not become debilitating.
Playfulness This refers to our ability to play, relax, and enjoy our leisure time. Absorption in must-do tasks and responsibilities without rest can otherwise be exhausting.
Approachability This relates to the social skills characteristic. However, here, it more specifically refers to our ability to respond to another’s offer of help during a particularly tough time.
Final Words I don’t know who or what I am ultimately, and although that might change from time to time—I might even seem confident and assured to you on occasion—the answers to these questions are always tentative. The truth is that we are more complex and ultimately indefinable than we would like to admit, and we have less control than we think. But that’s not the end of the story, and we are not set completely adrift in the world by a malevolent, mysterious force. It is mysterious, this life, but we can influence what happens to us. We don’t need to accept victimhood, we don’t have to be helpless. So do something about it…join a social group that matches your interests, give your time to a charitable cause, get in touch with old friends, improve your diet and get out in nature every day, and choose work you enjoy. And if you need help reorienting your view of yourself and the world, get in touch with a professional .
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This is an extract from the edited title How To Be Resilient, due for second publication soon. Paid supporters of Sunday Letters receive a free copy in PDF, ePub, Mobi and MP3. Become a supporter to get your copy .
1 Dweck, C. (2017). Mindset-updated edition: Changing the way you think to fulfil your potential . Hachette UK.
2 Levine, S. (2022). Psychological and social aspects of resilience: a synthesis of risks and resources. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience .
3 Erikson, E. H. (1994). Identity and the life cycle . WW Norton & company.