Prosilience #2: The Opposite of Resilience

Three outcomes of resilience and why we don't always achieve them

A beautiful tree fell in my neighborhood the other day, due to the combined impact of heavy rain, a shallow root system, and old age. I recently learned of a young man who committed suicide, distraught over a broken relationship and an unhappy home life, and unable to bring himself back to a place of well-being. What do these events have in common? In each case, the world lost a living thing, because that living thing encountered difficulties and challenges that exceeded its capacity to endure them.

Although I focus most of my attention on what resilience looks like, and on examples of people who have overcome obstacles and difficulties, I've been thinking lately about what the opposite of resilience looks like and the lessons we can learn from this.

Resilient and non-resilient outcomes. It's easy to label some people as resilient and others as not, but I don't think this is accurate. Each of us is sometimes more resilient and sometimes less so. Instead of categorizing people, I have found it helpful to look at different responses to difficult or stressful situations, and evaluate the outcomes that were achieved. I believe that three types of outcomes can be labeled as resilient:

  • Minimizing harm. When someone encounters difficulty, and responds to it in a way that reduces the potential for damage or harm, they have demonstrated resilience. For example, when Angela encountered an angry employee, she listened to his concerns and helped him understand what his options were, which led to him calming down. When Deborah encountered a similar situation, she got frustrated and started yelling, which made the employee even angrier, escalating the incident into a shouting match.

  • Staying on track. When people encounter challenges, yet are able to keep making progress toward their most important goals, they have demonstrated resilience. For example, when Frank's house was flooded due to a nearby river overflowing its bank, he was able to quickly gather friends to help him save valued possessions, contact his insurance agent, and find a temporary place to live while repairs were being made. This enabled him to continue his efforts to start a business. However, his neighbor Albert, whose house also flooded, waited for two days to go back and retrieve his belongings and lost nearly everything. He had let his insurance lapse, and was not able to put down a deposit on a temporary residence. He started missing work and was fired from his job.

  • Learning and growth. When people are able to use challenges as a catalyst for learning and growth, they have demonstrated resilience. For example, when Ellen received a bad grade on a midterm exam, she asked for help from her professor, who suggested some changes to her study habits that positively affected grades in all her courses. When Daphne received a bad grade on the same exam, she told herself that she was stupid, kept on studying the same way she had been, and received a low grade in the class.

If the three outcomes above are indicators of resilience, then we can also identify the following less-resilient outcomes:

  • Increasing harm. When someone responds to a challenge in a way that increases or escalates problems, the result is the opposite of resilience.

  • Going off track. When someone responds to challenge in a way that blocks or limits their progress toward their most important goals, the result is the opposite of resilience.

  • Shrinking. When someone responds to a challenge by doing things that increase their level of fear, reduce their potential, or otherwise make them less capable, the result is the opposite of resilience.

What leads to negative outcomes? When someone responds in a way that reflects the opposite of resilience, it's rarely helpful to label or judge them. Most negative outcomes are related to a combination of the following issues:

  • Knowledge/Ability. The individual lacks understanding or judgment about how to respond effectively to the particular challenge, and/or lacks skill in executing the response.

  • Energy/Resources. The individual does not have the energy (physical, mental, emotional, and/or spiritual) or other resources (money, influence, etc.) to support a more resilient response.

  • Support. The individual does not have adequate support from friends, family, and/or community.

  • Preparation. The individual has not taken steps to anticipate and protect against potential challenges.

  • Damage. The challenge places additional strain on an area that has already been weakened by prior stress.

  • Magnitude. The challenge presents an unusually high level of difficulty relative to the individual's current situation.

For example, the tree that fell in my neighborhood had a root system that was weakened by earlier drought (damage), it had brittle branches due to its age (reduced energy), and it faced an unusually large volume of rain (magnitude). The young man who committed suicide faced several challenges at once that overwhelmed his available resources (magnitude). He had experienced trauma in his early childhood that predisposed him toward depression (damage, reduced emotional energy), and he was in an environment that offered little support from others (support). It's no more helpful to judge him for his suicide than it is to judge the tree for breaking. Instead, it provides us an opportunity to reflect and learn.

Think about some of the challenges you have faced. Can you identify times when your responses have been highly resilient? Times when your responses led to less-resilient outcomes? See if you can identify any of the elements above that influenced the effectiveness of your actions.

Build resilience. By reflecting on the opposite of resilience, we have identified some of the things that contribute to effective and ineffective responses to challenge. You can use this information to consciously build your resilience, deliberately doing things that will enable you to deal successfully with a broad range of difficulties. Increasing your knowledge, ability, energy, and resources; building a network of support; anticipating and protecting against possible challenges; and recognizing and seeking to heal areas of damage will all increase your readiness to deal with higher levels of challenge.

You can find additional information and strategies for proactively building your resilience on the prosilience.com website, and in my book Prosilience: Building Your Resilience for a Turbulent World.

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