Resilience – Are You Born With It Or Do You Learn It?
Born or bred? Nature or nurture? How often do we discuss this quandary in the hope of finding answers that will give us more resources and understanding.
Resilience has had its fair share of this debate applied to it. Thankfully for us, it’s come out of the research showing itself to be a quality that we can learn and develop.
The research has also shown that resilience is not actually that extraordinary – it’s a capacity we all have as human beings. We’re born with an innate capacity for this aptitude. The learnt part is that we can actively grow and apply this capacity.
Thus, we only know how much of this resilience capacity we have at any moment when we are actually faced with an adversity or obstacle in our life. Do we fall apart, give up and stagnate? Or do we conquer, learn and rebuild?
So if it’s possible to develop resilience, why would we want to learn how?
What is resilience?
Being more resilient is a very useful capacity to have, as it allows us to handle life more effectively. It is our ability to bounce back after a tough patch in our life.
More current thoughts around this adaptive ability say that resilience is not just about surviving through the difficulties, but also about thriving. It’s about being able to transmute a challenge and keep living our life to the fullest.
The more we experience life and all it’s joy and pain, the more we develop our inner strength to keep showing up, and thus our ability to be resilient grows as well.
Hide away from life, and we’re never going to exercise our resilience muscle. Yet engage with what life brings our way, and we’ll find that muscle grows in strength and capacity. (Along with our courage muscle, as we then become less afraid of being knocked down as we know we have the strength to get up again.)
Why would we want to have resilience?
Who wouldn’t want more of the ability to cope with the stress that comes from life’s curveballs? It’s a given that life ‘will happen’, for as long as we are breathing. And if we want to make the most of our life, we need to engage with it and live it fully.
If we do so, it’s inevitable that at some point we are going to experience what society calls “failure”; we’re going to make a mistake as we learn; and we will get knocked over.
If we are to be successful though in handling and rising up again when these things happen, then resilience and its characteristic view of obstacles as challenges, becomes a most useful resource to have.
If we live a purposeful life too, in that we want to do our bit to make this world a bit better in some way, then developing our resilience is going to help us achieve these goals.
Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and founder of the Leanin movement, is a great advocate of feminism and contributing to a more equitable society. “To fight for change tomorrow, we need to build resilience today,” she says in her book ‘Option B’ which she co-authored with psychologist Adam Grant. This book is all about resilience, especially in the face of grief. Grant explains that resilience is a lifelong project, and not a fixed personality trait, and thus we can develop it.
There’s no doubt that some people seem to have more of an inclination towards being resilient, as if it were a personality trait. So we can be led to believe that they must be more naturally resilient, and thus that they are more likely born with this attribute.
Yet when you break resilience down, you can see it has a structure to it, and is made up of a few core components. And each of those components can be developed by individuals who put in the effort to grow their resilience muscle, making it stronger.
Resilience is one of those experiences that is termed a ‘gestalt state’. It is a whole experience, or gestalt, that comes about as a result of organising smaller parts together. Or said another way, the sum of the parts results in a more organised and greater whole.
Just like a cake is something greater than its separate ingredients of flour, eggs, sugar, milk etc. so resilience has ingredients and a recipe, that if we apply those components to ourselves, we get to experience our resilience, as in have our ‘resilient cake’ and eat it too.
The Recipe for Resilience
Knowing now that resilience can be learnt, and that it is a lifelong project and has a structure to it, we can unpack the ingredients and organise them in the way that we too can have more of this resource to bounce back from life’s setbacks.
Ingredient One: Internal Locus of Control
If we feel that we are in the driver’s seat of our life and that things might affect us, but we get to choose how to respond and what actions to take, then we are more likely living with an internal locus of control.
If we give our sense of power away to circumstances or others, and don’t believe that we can have any effect on our achievements, then we might have an external locus of control.
The more empowering stance to take is to have an internal locus of control, with an external check. This means that we know that our life and the results we get are our responsibility, and that we get to choose our responses. The check part is that we then also discerningly take in some useful feedback from others to help us, and then ultimately make the final decision on our own.
This sense of control, or personal power, comes when we own our ability to think and feel, and know that we also own our ability to communicate our thoughts and feelings, as well as to take action and behave in certain ways. Owning these abilities rather than allowing external circumstances or others to own them, leaves us with a sense that we have some control in life. Thus we can look for what is within our power to think or do when we experience a setback.
Feeling this empowerment is opposite to feeling like a victim, who believes they have far less choice or abilities. Yet this empowerment still acknowledges that (bad) things do happen and can have a (negative) effect on us.
This viewpoint results in us trusting our abilities and choosing what meaning we will give to a situation. Part of being resilient is this feeling that we have choices, and that we can choose perceptions that support us to bounce back. And a big slice of resilience is the perspective that tough moments are opportunities of challenge that help us learn and become stronger.
Ingredient Two: Optimise
This sense of power over our thinking and behaving, leads us to be able to choose an optimistic explanatory style.
Optimism is not just positive thinking. It’s a concept that Martin Seligman developed and is the opposite of what he called “learned helplessness”.
When we learn to be helpless, we will explain any difficulty we face with 3 P’s, as in:
We take it Personally, and interpret it as an issue about our self.
It becomes Permanent, as in we believe it will never change and things will always be this bad.
And the problem is also seen as Pervasive, in that we let it affect all aspects of our lives.
A resilient person though has a different style of explaining when something bad happens. They are called optimistic, because they face and acknowledge the setback, and then:
contain it in that they distinguish the difficulty as being external to them (so not personal, not “about me”);
temporary, as they know this might be happening now, but it too shall pass.
And they keep it limited to the particular context or part of their life it effects, knowing that other parts of their life are ok and even going along well.
Ingredient Three: Ego Strength
These two ingredients, our internal locus of control and related ability to choose to frame adversity as challenge and learning, and then also choosing to optimistically explain the challenge, makes it much easier to face the moment.
A key part of resilience is ego-strength, which is our ability to face reality for what it is. When we can accept what happened, even though we don’t like it or agree with it, we are then able to work out what the next step would be to change or deal with the situation.
Without this strong ego-strength, we are more likely to deny or avoid the challenge, and are then unable to work out what the next effective step would be to handle the setback. Ego-strength enhances our ability to see things as temporary, and linked to only the relevant area of our life.
This opens a choice of options available to us, and thus reinforces our sense of feeling in control, or empowered to do something about our situation.
And hence, we are more likely to bounce back – to exercise our resilience muscle.
Ingredient Four: Goals & Commitment
What also helps us bounce back is having a sense of direction in life, or purpose. This means that we are committed to certain goals, and thus can muster up the determination to deal with obstacles and get going again towards our goals.
When we’re committed to a bigger ‘Why’ in our life, it also helps us to not take setbacks as personally. We rather see the bigger picture, putting a challenge into perspective and learning from it, as we journey towards our higher intention.
Ingredient Five: Self-care
The last main ingredient of resilience to note, is about how we care for ourselves.
When we look after our bodies and health, like having a level of fitness with good nutrition and enough sleep, we will be more ready to cope with challenges. We will also have the energy to take effective actions, and to do what we need to do, to be ready to dust ourselves off and stand up again.
This self-care also means that when a setback hits us, we then rest when we need to, we take time to process a challenge or heal if applicable, and we also allow joy to be part of our bouncing back. Sandberg and Grant mention in their book that doing small things that brings us joy actually gives us strength, and can help us be more resilient.
When your capacity for resilience is high, you tend to be very active in dealing with whatever called forth your resilience in the first place. Without resilience we could find ourselves waiting for the situation to fix itself.
Yet our resilience capacity is only activated when we participate in the situation. And it’s a reinforcing property of resilience, that the more you exercise that muscle, the more you develop it and the easier it is to apply when needed. Which means it’s easier to actively participate more.
Thus, with the other ingredients in place, just the act of mixing these resources together and baking them, leads to you applying them more actively, which further builds our resilience.
As the clinical psychologist and TED speaker Meg Jay says: “Resilient people tend to be active copers. They say, ‘What am I going to do about this?’ versus, ‘When will I be released from this?’ It may not be solved overnight, but every problem can be approached somehow.”
May you learn the recipe of resilience and enjoy the benefits of growing your capacity to bounce back, somehow, to overcome those challenges and live a full and meaningful life.