THE BLOG

A New Look at Resilience

02/25/2015 09:14 EST | Updated 04/27/2015 05:59 EDT
Thomas Barwick via Getty Images

When you think about resilience, you probably think of the ability to bounce back when faced with difficult or painful situations. You think about being able to carry on when you've encountered stress or loss, disappointment, frustration or tragedy. And that's all true.

Resilience, as most of us understand it, is the capacity to remain hopeful and optimistic, with an open heart and open mind, even after being hit with life's most difficult challenges.

It's also, in my mind, closely associated with an attitude of empowerment, in which we trust our own abilities to care for ourselves and to cope with adversity.

In my practice as a psychiatrist, I come across many individuals today who feel helpless and hopeless in their lives. They feel like passive recipients of life's difficulties; like victims of people and circumstances.

From their perspective, bad things just keep happening to them and they wonder why a familiar pattern of chaos and crises continually repeats itself.

These individuals are often anxious, angry and overwhelmed. They're confused and don't have a clear sense of how to cope. They have very little resilience.

They often engage in an unconscious pattern of behavior, called the "repetition-compulsion," in which they attempt to resolve an old trauma or relationship by recreating it in the present. Sadly, this only serves to re-traumatize them and further convince them that they're without agency.

These people all share a common history of childhood neglect, abuse or trauma. The experience of helplessness and hopelessness in their childhood convinced them that they'd have minimal agency or power in their adult lives as well. When they repeatedly encounter difficulties, they begin to believe that this is simply their lot in life.

Resilience, to me, isn't just about being able to cope well with life's challenges. Coping well is essential, but insufficient in my mind.

What's needed for true resilience is to experience yourself not as a passive recipient of life's hardships but as an active agent in your own life; someone who takes well thought-out action on your own behalf. Someone who feels empowered.

In my work with those who've experienced difficult childhoods, my goal is to help these individuals see that although they were helpless as children, things are different today.

As adults, they can see that they're free to face the truth about themselves, others and the world and to make informed, conscious choices about which actions they'll take. They can let go of their victim-identity and embrace an identity of someone with real agency.

If resilience means being calm, confident and flexible, both mentally and emotionally, then feeling empowered in life leads directly to all of this: when we know that we can take good care of ourselves, we're less anxious, we experience more inner peace and we can let go of any fear-based rigidity.

If resilience means not just surviving but thriving in the face of adversity, then being more empowered is just the thing: when we understand that we can positively affect our life circumstances, we begin to see life's most difficult challenges as opportunities for growth and learning, for deepening our compassion and developing greater wisdom.

To be empowered in life doesn't mean trying to be in control, as in reality, we have very little control in life. Empowerment means knowing that we always have a choice in how we deal with things. In fact, when we trust our ability to take care of ourselves, we lose the desire to be controlling.

Empowerment doesn't mean being aggressive, either, as that comes more from the need to compensate for feelings of insecurity. In fact, when we feel empowered we become less resentful, angry and aggressive. We feel more confident and less anxious, so we're less likely to become irritable or defensive.

Being empowered means taking responsibility for our part in the difficulties we're facing. We see the truth about the choices we've been making (whether consciously or by default) but we choose not to beat ourselves up over these choices.

We practice something that I call ruthless compassion, which is a philosophy of pursuing the truth rigorously, but always in tandem with self-compassion. Self-compassion includes loving-kindness, understanding, acceptance and forgiveness toward ourselves.

When we're more loving and compassionate toward ourselves, we continue to evolve and flourish. With self-compassion, we can be more loving with others, too, as our greater levels of confidence and calm make it possible for us to be more vulnerable and intimate in our relationships.

Resilience, then, can be seen to have much to do with empowerment; to letting go of victim-consciousness, aggressiveness, defensiveness, control and rigidity, and to embracing conscious-awareness, personal responsibility, agency and ruthless compassion.

Sign up here for my free wellness newsletter, Wisdom Wednesday, which comes out on the first Wednesday of each month. March is all about self-compassion, eating healthy and getting back on the exercise bandwagon.

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