Author, Consultant, Executive Coach - Helping people and organizations grow into desired results

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

What makes you stronger? Resilience & meaning-making

Traditional Western psychology suggests that the cause of people’s psychological problems lies in what happened to them in the past. According to this view, at some point early in each person’s childhood something “bad” happens (a trauma or an unfulfilled need). As a result, that person will spend the rest of his or her life repressing, compensating, avoiding or exhibiting any number of other problematic behaviour patterns based on reaction to that initial “bad” thing.

And so we get the simplistic and linear equation:

difficult childhood = problems as an adult
and the corollary:

adult with problems = adult must have had a difficult childhood.

Yet there are countless examples all over the world of people who have had terrible experiences as children – including those displaced by war, famine, poverty and other extreme situations – and yet they have managed to develop into well-adjusted and even happy people. Meanwhile, sadly, there are people who struggle with serious problems as adults who had relatively happy childhoods.

So the linear equation does not hold true – there seems to be something else at work here.

Resilience and meaning-making

Resilience describes the human being’s ability to survive, recover and persevere against various obstacles and threats.

Some people are made stronger rather than weaker by their past life experiences – how does this happen? Interestingly, much of it has to do with the story that you tell yourself about what happened.

Our brains are meaning-making machines. It’s a process that happens automatically and continually. What this means is that we constantly create narratives to make sense of our lives and the world.

The good news is that since we each write our own narrative or story about the world, it is entirely within our ability to change that narrative to create one that serves us better as we grow and develop through life.

You can create a narrative that promotes self-respect and hope without distorting the facts. This is a more comforting and optimistic view than the problem-focused approach most often used in traditional psychology – but is this just being a Pollyanna slapping a happy face on tragic situations?

No it’s not.

Was mich nicht umbringt, macht mich staerker

“What does not destroy me, makes me stronger.”
- Friedrich Nietzsche

In his excellent book It’s Never too late to have a Happy Childhood, Ben Furman cites research on how people recover from catastrophe and crisis which suggests the key factor in recovery is how people choose to make meaning of what happened.
After a bank robbery, for example, it is important that the staff has a chance to talk about what happened immediately and that everyone present during the robbery receives positive feedback. Everyone should be able to think that their reactions were meaningful, or at least understanding and normal in the circumstances. They should realize that each of them acted the best they could in that situation. [p52]
Taking this example to the wider context of how people make sense of childhood traumas and past problems in life, Furman continues:
The past is a story we can tell ourselves in many different ways. By paying attention to the methods that have helped us survive, we can start respecting ourselves and reminiscing about our difficult past with feelings of pride rather than regret. [p56]

You’re not “broken”

Admittedly, “bad” things do happen to people. The view offered in traditional Western psychology is that people are somehow “broken” or “defective” as a result and their life’s task is therefore to overcome past traumas.

What if it’s the case that people are capable of all things, but circumstances and “bad” events cause them to play to certain of their talents and abilities more than others? This is quite a different view, which suggests: people are not broken, they’re just not accessing everything that they were born capable of doing. So faced with life’s challenges, people develop “strong suits,” their default, habitual mode of behaviour - but there is absolutely nothing to suggest that they cannot develop their full potential and diversify across the full range of human abilities.

Viewed in this way, our past difficulties become a rich source of evidence for our own coping abilities and resilience in the face of adversity. We can rewrite our narrative to describe how the things that did not destroy us have in fact made us stronger and better able to withstand adversity. Furthermore, we can explore the full range of our talents and how they can help us to grow into well-adjusted and fully-functioning human beings.

We can come to view our past hardships as something of a gift. I heard a proverb once that is, I think, of Chinese origin:

One disease, long life; no disease, short life.

I take this to mean: if you never face adversity, you will be more likely to succumb to the first major problem you encounter; whereas, if you have been strengthened by the things that have challenged but not destroyed you, your resilience is much greater.

The thought I like best from Furman’s book is that everyone is due a certain amount of happiness in life. If you didn’t have that happiness in your childhood and early life, imagine how much more you can expect to find later in your life!

Wishing the world were other than it is gives you nothing more than a potent recipe for unhappiness...acting to make it what you want is a step toward happiness and satisfaction. So – get started on rewriting your narrative today!


M said...

At a seminar on equity that I recently attended, one of the facilitators shared a personal glimpse into her life when she was in an abusive marriage. Since then she has come a long way and in now a very successful business woman. She had been thinking that her past experience was what made her stronger. But another woman posed the question: "How much stronger would you be if you had not experienced the devestating effects of abuse?"

I posed this question to myself, since my son was murdered 4 years ago. Many people say that with the progress I have made, and the strides I have taken, that I am a stronger person than I was. But now the question haunts me: How much stronger would I be if my son hadn't died?

Todd Montgomery said...

Thank you for sharing your experiences and I'm saddened to hear of your grief at the loss of your son. From what you've said it sounds like you've created some meaning out of this tragic event, and that meaning has helped you through the past four years. Without knowing more about your situation, at this stage I offer the following observation: it's impossible to say how things might have turned out "if only" something did or didn't happen in the past. In my experience wishing things were other than they are is a recipe for melancholy and continued unhappiness. Your life continues despite his having ended; what do you want to do that honours the memory of his time with you while also providing a way for you to live a meaningful life? TM