Who's Responsible for Resilience?
Updated: Apr 7, 2019
I sit to write this blog post less than 24 hours after a meeting with my youngest son’s teacher, where I found out that he is struggling enormously in class. He was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) back in 2016 but at that stage, it was considered extremely mild. Cue some very intensive therapies for the next 18 months, at which point we were told he was “progressing really well” and promptly lost funding for said intensive therapies. It would appear, based on extensive observations by his class teacher and support staff, that he is no longer progressing really well. In fact, he is going backwards. And so I find myself feeling as though we are back at the beginning.
The irony is not lost on me that I had set aside some time today, of all days, to write this post about resilience, when I am feeling anything but. I’m feeling sad, exhausted, defeated, overwhelmed and confused. And it’s easy in our stoic, ‘pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps’ times to add a little bit of self-blame to that mix for not “bouncing back” from this setback and diving into solutions mode. Luckily, I know that bouncing back immediately - as if nothing is wrong - is not resilience at all. Well, not the human variety anyway.
The word resilience comes from the Latin word “resiliere” meaning “to leap or spring back” and has, in fact, been used synonymously with materials such as metals, which are able to return to their previous state. It could be argued this is not what humans do at all; we adapt and change constantly depending on the context we find ourselves in. So what on earth do we mean when we use this concept with humans? Well, it depends where you look.
A quick google search delivers many options. Dictionary.com defines resilience as “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness” while Psychology Today states it is “that ineffable quality that allows some people to be knocked down by life and come back at least as strong as before. Rather than letting difficulties or failure overcome them and drain their resolve, they find a way to rise from the ashes.” Similarly, resilience is described in one YouTube clip as an “inner strength to deal with life’s pressures and demands”. Sense a theme here? Yep, you’re responsible for it. It’s innate. You’ve got it or you don’t. But guess what… we’re in luck! Research has found that resilience (at least in humans) is not in fact innate. Apparently, it is a skill we can learn.
Cue resilience becoming the latest buzz word, and organisations and schools everywhere investing time and money to teach this skill. After all, who doesn’t want employees and students to “bounce back” from adversity and come back stronger than before? Sounds almost like a super power! And if our workplaces and schools are investing in us becoming more resilient, then they must really care about us, right? Well, that depends on who’s responsible for resilience. And I would suggest that most programs place the emphasis on YOU as an individual, with little or no regard paid to the situational context you find yourself in.
Yates, Tyrell, and Masten (2015) suggest that resilience is most appropriately conceptualized as a developmental process or a dynamic system capacity, rather than as a static outcome or trait (Masten, 2014). These authors suggest that more modern approaches to resilience are grounded in relational developmental systems theory, which suggests that our capacity for competence (or resilience) at any given time, is a reflection of the possibilities that arise from the relationship of many interacting systems, both within the individual AND in the context that surround the individual at the time.
Did you hear my sigh of relief?! What a revelation to realise that my ability to be resilient is not solely dependent on me and my innate or learnt capacities for bouncing back, but that it is in fact enormously dependant on the context in which I find myself. And the variations within these individual and contextual systems are of course dependent on so many variables.
So where does this leave me with my current situation? Well, not only do I begin to draw on my internal resources (which are themselves, highly dependent on adequate sleep, exercise and coffee!) but I must look outwards as well. Who can support me to support my son? What are the systems around me that I can call upon to help us both be resilient to the path ahead? It is at least comforting to know that I don’t have to do this alone.
Yates, T.M., Tyrell, F.A. & Masten, A.S. (2015) Resilience Theory and the Practice of Positive Psychology From Individuals to Societies. In Positive psychology in practice (pp. 773-788). P. A. Linley, & S. Joseph (Eds.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.