A troubled family can indeed inflict considerable harm on its children, but resilient people are challenged by such troubles to experiment and respond actively and creatively. Their pre-emptive responses to adversity, repeated over time, become incorporated into their inner selves as lasting strengths.
To the degree that it is learned, resilience seems to develop out of the challenge to maintain self-esteem. Troubled families make their children feel powerless and bad about themselves. Resilience is the capacity for a person to maintain self-esteem despite the powerful influence of the parents.
It is also possible to be hurt and to rebound at the same time. We human beings are complex enough psychologically to accommodate the two. What the resilient does is refrain from blaming themselves for what has gone wrong. In the language of psychology, they externalize blame. And they internalize success; they take responsibility for what goes right in their lives.
One way they do this, Wolin has found, is to maintain independence. Survivors draw boundaries between themselves and troubled parents; they keep their emotional distance while satisfying the demands of conscience. Resilient children often hang out with families of untroubled peers. As adults, the resilient children of alcoholics marry into stable, loving families with whom they spend a great deal of time.
Survivors cultivate insight, the mental habit of asking themselves penetrating questions and giving honest answers. They also take the initiative. They take charge of problems, stretching and testing themselves.
But they don’t do all the work alone. One of the cardinal findings of resilience research is that those who lacked strong family support systems growing up sought and received help from others—a teacher, a neighbor, the parents of peers or, eventually, a spouse. They were not afraid to talk about the hard times they were having to someone who cared for their well-being.
Relationships foster resilience, Wolin contends. Resilient people do the active give-and-take work necessary to derive emotional gratification from others.
Reframing is at the heart of resilience. It is a way of shifting focus from the cup half empty to the cup half full. Wolin accords it a central role in “survivor’s pride.” He tells the story of a patient, a woman who felt helpless. She had been whipped by her father throughout childhood any time he felt challenged. Wolin instead encouraged her to see herself as smart, an accomplished strategist. She had eventually learned to recognize her father’s moods and respond to them.
There are lessons in her tale for everyone, Wolin insists. You re-examine your life story to see how heroic your acts were as a child. You go back to an incident, find the strengths and build self-esteem from the achievement.
Psychologist Edith Grotberg, Ph.D., believes that everyone needs reminders of the strengths they have. She urges people to cultivate resilience by thinking along three lines:
I Have: strong relationships, structure, rules at home, role models; these are external supports that are provided;
I Am: a person who has hope and faith, cares about others, is proud of myself; these are inner strengths that can be developed;
I Can: communicate, solve problems, gauge the temperament of others, seek good relationships—all interpersonal and problem-solving skills that are acquired.
Steven Campbell is the author of “Making Your Mind Magnificent.” His seminar “Taming Your Mind, Unleashing Your Life” is now available on line at stevenrcampbell.teachable.com. For more information, call Steven Campbell at 707-480-5507.