Baumgardner and Crothers in the chapter on Resilience in their Positive Psychology textbook lead with this moving study and it made sense to me to start this piece with the study as it establishes a very important fact, that children possess the quality of resilience at a very young age, without being taught or trained, which made me think that resilience is not a very exclusive quality that is hard to acquire, but perhaps is something we are born with to a certain degree; yet we see people disintegrating in the face of adversity and using faulty coping mechanisms like drinking, doing drugs, stress eating etc. Baumgardner and Crothers corroborate my assumption by adding that resilience is a widely shared human capacity that many people may not know they possess until confronted with trauma and crisis.
In 1989, the people of Romania overthrew the brutal dictatorship of Nicolae Ceasescu. In the months that followed, it was discovered that around 150000 children were living under appalling conditions in the state run Romanian orphanages. Aa a state policy, women were not allowed to have abortions before they turned 45 and were supposed to have at least 5 children but the economic conditions in Romania at that time were harsh which meant that it was not possible to support so many children. As a consequence, thousands of children were turned over to state run orphanages. These children from poor families were considered ‘undesirables’- nothing but cheap labour for the future. Children were malnourished and slept in dirty cribs, blankets were soaked in urine and infected with lice. Few children had clothes and shoes and the orphanage buildings were unheated with broken windows. Many children suffered from extreme diarrhoea and infectious diseases. Nearly every ingredient for healthy physical and psychological development was missing from these children’s lives. As news of these children spread, people all over the world pursued adoption of the children. Two psychologists Elinor Ames and Michael Rutter tracked the progress of some of these adopted children. As would be expected, many children suffered significant problems. Ames (1997) reported serious problems in four specific areas: IQs below 85, behaviour problems severe enough to require professional help, insecure attachment to adopting parents and persistence of stereotyped behaviour from orphanage environment. The longer their stay in the orphanage was, the more severe were these problems. However, both Ames and Rutter found dramatic improvements in both physical and cognitive development in the adopted orphanage children. Two years late Ames described the improvement as ‘spectacular’. These results are all the more powerful considering each of the children showed significant delays in development before adoption. The ability of so many children to recover from truly horrific conditions is a testament to human strength and resilience in the face of adversity.”
What I am interested in is why some people respond positively to adversity and some don’t, if resilience is as pervasive a quality as it is touted to be. Linda Darnell, an adjunct professor of Media Psychology at Fielding Graduate University in an article on Huffpost states that each of us has an innate capacity for strength and throughout our lives, we develop — through conditions we find ourselves in — the skills to be secure, passionate, formidable and determined. However, when we experience trauma and crisis, some of us lose those skills needed for determination, and in turn lose our capacity to “self-right.”
But what are the factors that contribute to resilience, that make people respond positively to a crisis? Throughout my research for this article one particular thing kept popping up more than any other: the presence of warm, caring and supportive relationships, whether within the family or outside. Although the specific pathways through which close relationships promote optimal well-being and resilience are not well understood, Baldwin and Holmes (1987) reached an interesting conclusion in their research, they found that individuals who were primed with warm, fulfilling relationships, tended to be much less upset by failure and attributed the negative outcome to situational factors than to personal shortcomings. Basically, every time they fell down, they got back up immediately, dusted themselves off and started walking again. This somehow reminds me of a concept given by Carl Rogers called unconditional positive regard, which in layman terms is, loving and caring for someone, without having them meet certain set expectations. It makes sense to think that children primed with unconditional love and care would become more resilient adults because they would perhaps be able to draw strength from the fact that they have a support structure set up that’d think nothing, pass no judgement and take them in, no questions asked.
Imagine, you are facing a terrible wind hitting your face directly at a high speed, now imagine the same situation but with people lining up behind you propping you up from behind; when are you more likely to lose your balance? YES. Nailed it!
Several additional factors are associated with resilience, including:
- The capacity to make realistic plans and take steps to carry them out.
- A positive view of yourself and confidence in your strengths and abilities.
- Skills in communication and problem solving.
- The capacity to manage strong feelings and impulses. (APA)
As you go through these, a fascinating common thread might emerge for you, none of these are what you would consider one is ‘born with’; everything, to various degrees is acquirable. To quote Donald Meichenbaum, “Resilience is not a trait that individuals either have or do not have. Resilience involves behaviours, thoughts and accompanying feelings that can be nurtured, developed and learned.”
Many of us have heard of PTSD, but research shows that some individuals experience POST-TRAUMATIC GROWTH (PTG). PTG is the ability to experience positive personal changes that result from the struggle to deal with trauma and its consequences. PTG highlights that strengths can emerge through suffering and struggles with adversities. Individuals may develop a renewed appreciation of life and a commitment to live life to the fullest, valuing each day; improved relationships with loved ones; a search for new possibilities and enhanced personal strengths and new spiritual changes. Having said that, I concede that following a natural catastrophe or a traumatic event no one walks away unscathed but such is the complexity of the human condition, that neither do most survivors succumb in the aftermath to despair. Most show remarkable levels of resilience.
Perhaps, the concept of RESILIENCE was best captured by Helen Keller who was born blind and deaf when she observed,
Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of overcoming it.