Posted on 30th January 2021 at 14:51
Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall
We all know a lot more about resilience now, a year almost into living with a pandemic and its associated constraints. I mentioned resilience before in my article on burnout, claiming the topic needed a blog of its own. The main reason for this is that I can’t help but feel that a more realistic interpretation around resilience is needed rather than that which is propogated at times, especially in work places. I have had a number of clients who express concerns over setting boundaries in line with their capacity, along the lines of “but they [management] won’t think I am resilient [if I don’t suck it all up]”! Hmmm. I think some clarity on resilience is definitely called for!
My main concern is that resilience is sometimes viewed in a reductionist, binary fashion - it is either present or absent, you are resilient or you are not. Definitions of resilience describe it as our capacity to adapt to the challenges and changes life presents to us. It is frequently described as our capacity to ‘bounce back’ in the face of adversity, perhaps even leading to personal growth. From this much alone, we get the feeling that resilience is not just a personality trait, but is also a process with an outcome. Many popular definitions of resilience fail to relay that it is in fact, much more complex. We are talking biological, psychological, cultural and social components that interact with one another to determine how a person responds to adverse and stressful challenges.  We all possess resilience as an integral part of ourselves so the question is not, are we resilient (we are), but how resilient are we? It is true that some some people seem to be more resilient than others, largely measured as a function of reaction. Some remain calm in the face of adversity, some appear stoic and others appear more expressive. Another feature of resilience is that it may vary across different areas in a person’s life - we may show more resilience in work situations than in our personal lives and vice versa, or a mix, depending on the situation and timing in our lives. Whichever way an individual processes, copes and reacts, it is the end result that ultimately matters – can we recover? Is there an outcome?
As we grow up, our innate resilience is bolstered by supportive role models– seeing how our parents successfully deal with stress as well as us growing up in a supportive culture or community. Nurturing environments enable us to handle adversity and negotiate crises as they present throughout life. Resilience, therefore, is an ability that is fundamentally built through relationships between individuals and their environments. From a psychoanalytical point of view, it goes beyond simple adaptation, as it links the ability to survive to the capacity of our minds and our early emotional experiences.  These experiences rely on intuitive care as we develop. A child that benefits from consistent care and protection in their early stages of development, will surely be off to a good start in terms of future resilience. However, it also relies on appropriate relaxation of that care and protection, when the processes of separation and individuation take place later on.
Our response to stress and adversity also depends on our interactions with others within the cultural and social contexts we find ourselves and in turn, how resilient they are. In their studies of resilience in Afghan families, Panter-Brick and Eggerman  found that resilience really equated to a sense of hope. Afghan families believed their present well-being was determined by the future more than the past, and that securing resources for a better future matters more than the turmoil and traumas of the past. Holding on to a sense of hope gave meaning and order to the suffering they have endured in life and as such, meaningfully linked the future to the past and present. As the authors conclude:
What matters to individuals facing adversity is a sense of “meaning-making”—and what matters to resilience is a sense of hope that life does indeed make sense, despite chaos, brutality, stress, worry, or despair.
In terms of the role of society, this is scaled up such that it equips people with the resources (jobs, housing, access to good education and health care etc.) to create a better future and therefore construct meaning in life . We can surmise therefore, that our individual resilience through a pandemic will be influenced by the resilience of the culture and society we inhabit and that we do better if we get a sense of meaning and hope from it. While the advice on one hand is minimise our interactions with media, we also need it to get a sense of the resilience around us, in our state and in our leadership. This in turn informs us about how much we need to rely on our own resilience.
Meaning making is also a goal of psychoanalysis, that quest for a deeper understanding of the human psyche, in order to identify the potential source of emotional distress.  It makes sense that a mindset that seeks understanding and a meaningful life, a life that enables and nurtures resilience, may be strengthened by the process of psychoanalytic therapy rather than focusing just on changing behaviour or resolving symptoms.
If you feel such a process would help you and your resilience, please get in contact with us here.
1. Southwick S. M., Douglas-Palumberi H., Pietrzak R. H. Friedman M. J., Resick P. A., Keane T. M. Resilience (2014) Handbook of PTSD: Science and Practice. 2nd ed., New York: Guilford Press p.590–606.
2. Resilience and Psychoanalysis: A Systematic Review. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/327216288_Resilience_and_psychoanalysis_a_systematic_review
3. Panter-Brick C., Eggerman M. and Ungar M. (2012) Understanding Culture, Resilience and Mental Health: The Production of Hope. The Social Ecology of Resilience: A Handbook of Theory and Practice. New York: Springer p.369–386.
4. Ager A., Annan J. and Panter-Brick, C. (2013) Resilience—From Conceptualization to Effective Intervention. Policy Brief for Humanitarian and Development Agencies.
5. Gerson, M.W. Resilience, Psychoanalysis and Meaning-Making. https://www.psychstudies.net/psychoanalysis-resilience-meaning-making/
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