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Are there multiple versions of resilience?

This week we wanted to really spend some time to answer the question: what is resilience? Well, at least, what is resilience according to psychological researchers. I would like to say we have answers. But, also, we sort of don’t. What I mean is, there are many ways to define resilience. I also personally feel that resilience doesn’t just mean one thing. It doesn’t mean one thing from situation to situation. It also doesn’t mean one thing from person to person. What resilience is, and I mean, what resilience really is, just depends. However, there are always common themes to keep in mind, regardless of how it is defined. So let’s jump into it!

The most common theme that came out this month from resilience was the idea that people can appropriately adapt to change or stress. To me, that means there are two features that are important.

1. You adapt.

2. The adaptation is appropriate.

Let’s start with number 1. I will say first that I think I generally agree with this, but is it completely necessary? I don’t think so. For the most part, if something happens in your life, you probably should respond to it. If something good happens, hopefully you take time to enjoy it. If many good things happen, and it actually becomes stressful (e.g., you finally found the love of your life and you are going on a date, you just got a new promotion and a new team to manage, you just got a new car but you have to go DMV, your friends are all calling you to check on your well-being), you can adapt by planning your schedule to fit in all the things that matter to you and potentially decide some may matter less than others.

Of course, this also rings true for negative events. If your phone is stolen, you adapt by looking for it and trying to deal with your emotions. If you have a toothache, you potentially adapt by finding the help you need from a dentist. When things happen, you are also set into motion. It’s healthy.

This process of adaptation is definitely a good part of resilience. However, there are times where you really may not need to adapt. Something could happen in your life that you are truly unphased by. Maybe someone shared a story about you that could be taken as a breach of trust, but actually, it just doesn’t matter. And you don’t have to adapt to the fact that your friend told that story to someone else, because you don’t feel positive or negative about it. You are simply unphased and keep going on. Maybe you’re walking down the street and someone yells at you because they don’t like your hair (this probably happens right? People can be so strange and mean sometimes). If you are unaffected by it, perhaps you have already built enough resilience in yourself and there is no adaptation that needs to happen. This hinges on your sense of self and how well you feel on the inside. Because this same thing could happen where you feel unaffected and don’t adapt, but in reality, maybe you should adapt. I’ll give one more example below and then move on from this point.

Let’s take these two examples again where someone shares a story about you, and it is a breach of trust, and you act like you are unphased, but in reality, it actually was a huge deal that your friend did this to you. Maybe someone didn’t react because they are just so numb to this constantly happening. At the end of the day, the outward behaviors look the same (both this person and the person in the above paragraph move on and still treat everyone the same). But in reality, this new person is not doing well and has lost the ability to feel any way about a breach of trust (which would be completely healthy to have negative emotions in this instance). Or if this person was yelled at on the street about their hair and they just keep going. But in reality, these things happen and in the moment, they feel like a little thing, but it actually has been wearing on this person. And there should be some sort of adaptation to this, even just introspection about how it made them feel or potentially venting to someone else that is supportive (maybe not that friend who is out here telling your life story to everyone else). The thing is, resilience can look the same from the outside; we can all keep moving on, seemingly unphased; but on the inside, if it is actually taking a toll on you, adaptation really should occur.

OKAY! So, adapting, adapting, adapting, great. As long as we change our behaviors and emotions and thoughts in response to something, we are fine right? NO! According to researchers, the adaptation needs to be appropriate as well. What does that mean, right? It is very subjective and there really is no one-size-fits-all here.

There are many options we have when it comes to how we respond and adapt to the events around us. As much as I do not want to judge, there are (realistically and practically speaking) better and worse choices we can make. I don’t want to label any response as “good” or “bad” or adaptive/maladaptive or whatever. Instead, I’ll say that there will be options that we can take that likely will be to your benefit, either short- or long-term. And there will be options that we can take that are not to your benefit, short- or long-term. There will be choices we make that make help in the short-term, but in the long-term actually are damaging us. There are choices that are good for the long-term, but cause short-term suffering. All of these are option paths, but which one reflects resilience?

Perhaps it depends on if you are needing to survive or if you are in a place where you can thrive. Potentially there are people that thrive regardless of the situation. That is great! But, again, realistically and practically speaking, that might not be possible. If someone doesn’t have the resources, are they truly not resilient? If has more strife in their life and hit a breaking point, are they really not as resilient? Of course we all have choices and can make anything of any situation, but the idea that because someone isn’t resilient in every moment, that they should be now labeled as “not resilient” doesn’t sit well with me.

This is my opinion.

We don’t often look at resilient as the full process, but rather as snapshots. We are quick to judge, at least in psychological studies, that if they aren’t matching the criteria of resilient (e.g., they have too many PTSD symptoms, they scored low on a self-report survey of resilience [which I also would have a lot to say on, but maybe in another post]), they we can just label someone as less resilient. But, I always have to come back to the idea that resilience isn’t any 1 point in time. It is a process. It is active. It has ups and downs.

Also, in my opinion, someone can look or behave in a way that may not match the profile of resilience that psychologists have set up, but in the long-term are actually really resilient. OR, they just don’t match your idea of resilience.

Which brings me back to the beginning of this post…resilience depends. It depends on the situation. It depends on the person. It depends on what stage of life they are in. It depends on what else is happening. It depends on so many things that I think need to be better accounted for in research.

This post definitely took a more opinionated approach rather than sticking to science. But, within the scientific process, I think it is just as important to take a step back and really think about these thoughts. What are we actually measuring? What are these results, and we did we find them? Can we improve the method and thereby come to a more accurate conclusion?

I think yes, as long as we take the time to do it and communicate not just with other researchers, but with the public as well.

Perhaps we need to do away with the idea of resilience for it can be a toxic idea to chase and to be praised on. Okay, one last thought too. Instead of the need for people to be “resilient” perhaps we should be more focused on changing society so that people don’t have to fight to survive and rather thrive in the skin they are in.


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