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 website, and in my book Prosilience: Building Your Resilience for a Turbulent World.

Prosilience #1: Resilience is a Verb

It's not a personality characteristic!

As a long-time student of resilience, I began my exploration in a time when researchers were just beginning to understand what made some people better able to deal with adversity than others. This early work tended to frame resilience as a unitary quality or trait that people possess.

The next step in the evolution of our shared thinking was to recognize that there are multiple attributes that contribute to an individual’s resilience; this work has built on research and assessment of personality, and identified such things as optimism, self-esteem, and extroversion as ingredients of resilience.

Over time, perspectives such as Carol Dweck’s work on “fixed” vs “growth” mindsets, and research on the brain’s ability to develop new connections (neuroplasticity) have helped us recognize the ways humans can use life experiences as a catalyst for development and change, and to see ourselves and others as capable of intentionally increasing our effectiveness at dealing with adversity and challenge. This has led to a number of programs to help people use tools such as mindfulness training, therapeutic intervention, and games such as Shadows Edge to systematically learn and practice new ways of thinking and being during times of challenge.

A further advance in understanding resilience comes from research on body-brain connections, and the impacts that early childhood adversity, neurological differences, and traumatic experiences can have on how people experience the world around them. This helps us see how the very same situation may present a much larger resilience challenge for some individuals than for others. In This allows us to recognize ways we can shape situations and environments to reduce the level of potential threat and disruption they present.

My most recent “aha” on this topic came from a scholarly article[1] whose authors view resilience through a very different lens. They describe the process by which one form of response to a stressor (for example, a physiological reaction) can lead to another symptom (for example, an emotional response), and then to another (for example, an ineffective or awkward interaction or a feeling of hopelessness). They describe how these connections can become so automatic and tightly linked that they can become self-sustaining—creating spirals of negative outcomes that persist over time. From their perspective, resilience is about reducing, or damping down, these reverberations. Any strategies and resources that people use to do this for themselves (such as taking a deep breath, applying a “reframing” strategy to view a problem as an opportunity, or drawing on social support) or for others (providing a calming presence, shifting the environment) are active ingredients in the resilience process.

This has led me to a reconceptualization of my own perspective on resilience. I am focusing much more of my attention on resilience as something we do than on resilience as something we are. Here are some of the insights that have emerged as I focus on resilience as a verb:

1.        In addition to reducing the negative symptom spirals, we can do things to tip things in a positive direction, where a healthy outcome in one area (such as experiencing emotional calm) leads to another (such as engaging in a healthy behavior), and to another (such as communicating effectively with another person), and to another (such as feeling hopeful). As the connections between these become stronger, we are able to replenish and strengthen our energy for future challenges.

2.        Resilience is about much more than bouncing back. Sometimes the best outcome we can achieve in a given situation is to limit damage or minimize harm. Sometimes we are able to keep moving or get back on track toward our objectives. And sometimes we are able to use the challenges we face as a catalyst for growth.

3.        Humans are “resiliencing” all the time. We are continually operating in ways that increase or reduce the challenges we face; anticipating or responding to new situations; and moving into and out of more/less effective ways of feeling, thinking, and acting.

4.        We can build muscles and gather tools that help us “resilience” better. For example, learning the skill of positive reappraisal, practicing emotional self-regulation, building a network of social support, and increasing our physical health all are likely to increase our effectiveness at reducing negative spirals and achieving better outcomes.

5.        Energy is the currency of resilience. We use physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual energy in dealing with life’s difficulties and challenges. When our energy is depleted, it’s harder to use our muscles very effectively. As a result, a really important part of the process is knowing how to recharge our batteries when they are run down.

6.        We can use small, everyday challenges as places to intentionally practice resilience: noticing how our thoughts and actions move us into negative, neutral, or positive spirals; trying out new responses and resources; building our capabilities step by step. We can even go looking for challenges that feel “just right”—not too easy, not too hard—as places to flex our muscles and build our skills.

7.        Very small positive actions (I sometimes think of them as “micro-boosts”) can potentially have a huge impact. These can include things we do for ourselves (taking a moment to notice something beautiful), things others do for us (smiling, calling us by name), or things we do for others (taking time to pay a compliment).

Perhaps the most important outcome of viewing resilience as a verb is that it moves us away from labeling and judging ourselves and others, and toward recognizing that we all have moments—and sometimes days, weeks, or months—when we’re not resiliencing very well. We can acknowledge and celebrate the “lift” we feel when we, and those we are supporting and helping, turn a negative spiral into a positive one, and capture those moments, and those insights, to help us continue the journey through life with hope and possibility.

[1] Kalisch et al. (2019) Deconstructing and reconstructing resilience: A dynamic network approach. Perspectives on Psychological Science, Vol 14(5) 765-777.

About Prosilience

A newsletter to help individuals and organizations build challenge-readiness.

This is Prosilience, a newsletter about personal and organizational strategies for building challenge-readiness. Drawing on my background in psychology, organizational development and change, massage therapy, sailboat racing, and an endless curiosity about new ideas and connections, I write this newsletter for everyone who shares my passion for making the world a place in which we all can flourish together.

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