Last term I had the opportunity to talk to the College staff about “Building Resilience”. Here is a summary of that talk.
Resilience, which refers to “bouncing back from adversity” or continuing to do well despite significant challenges, has become a buzzword in Psychology and Education.
As South Africans we know that we face enormous challenges — from high levels of unemployment, crime, violence and emotional distress to low rates of literacy and education. At the same time the world of work has become increasingly competitive. Despite these challenges, South Africa continues to produce remarkable, well-rounded young men and women. Bishops boys are no exception.
How do we continue to ensure that our children develop the necessary skills to survive and even thrive in tough times? In The Building Resilience Handbook (2012), Capetonian Rod Warner draws on his extensive research to set out the fundamentals of building resilience.
#1 Connect to your meaning in life
The most important principle is that of meaning-making. Whether the adversity is medical, financial, emotional or social, people are forced to evaluate what’s important to them and to shift priorities accordingly.
Warner talks about three broad categories of meaning: people, causes and faith. The most meaningful areas of our lives are those to do with family and friends, our jobs and interests and our faith.
#2 Use your unique strengths
We are often told that we need to be well-balanced and address our weaknesses in order to succeed. While a certain amount of that is true — for example, if you don’t have empathy then you will struggle to maintain a meaningful relationship — Warner found that people are generally better off building on their strengths than trying to remedy their weaknesses. Using our strengths gives a greater sense of efficacy and builds confidence.
We can also develop our character strengths. There’s an excellent (and free) online survey which tells you what your top character strengths are. The challenge is then how to use them to help yourself and others.
#3 Maintain perspective
“Maintaining perspective” is about keeping a balanced view of yourself, others and the world. If you’re able to step back and reflect on your thoughts, feelings and behaviour then you are better equipped to change course when necessary.
Researchers into happiness found that one sure way to be unhappy is always to compare ourselves to people who are more successful or who have more than we do.
Another aspect of perspective is being mindful. Mindfulness asks us to realise that we are not our thoughts and to see out thoughts as a stream of consciousness. The more attached we are to a particular perspective, the harder it is to change it.
Perspective is also about seeing difficult situations differently. Humour is a great ally in this process, as illustrated in this clip of professor Jill Klein talking about her family’s experience in the holocaust.
#4 Generate positive feelings
Generating positive feelings is not about ignoring difficult feelings. It is important to acknowledge when we are feeling angry, sad, anxious or ashamed. However, these powerful emotions can hijack us and leave us stuck in negative patterns.
By contrast, taking the time to generate positive feelings can have a profoundly protective effect. Gratitude is perhaps the most powerful feeling here. There are many exercises we can do to acknowledge the many positive things in our lives which we often take for granted.
#5 Be realistically optimistic
Some gifted people seem to be able to turn any problem into an opportunity. For them the glass is always half-full. For the rest of us, maintaining a realistic sense of hope and optimism is crucial in mobilising the resources we need to combat difficult circumstances and to start thriving again.
#6 Persevere by being open-minded and flexible
One of the most important aspects of negotiating any adversity is problem-solving. The danger here is that people develop tunnel-vision and become too rigid in their problem-solving strategies. Warner advises us to be flexible in pursuing our goals and to be open to different perspectives on how to get there.
Angela Duckworth is a psychologist who has written extensively on the issue of Grit, which can be summed up as “Perseverance with Passion”. The art of perseverance is significantly helped, she says, by adopting a “Growth Mindset”. This is …
“… the belief that the ability to grow is not fixed. That it can change with your effort. Dr Carol Dweck has shown that when kids read and learn about the brain and how it changes and grows in response to challenge, they are much more likely to persevere when they fail because they don’t believe that failure is a permanent condition.” (TED Talk, 2013)
#7 Reach out to others
Everything we do involves relationships. Psychology increasingly tells us about the fundamental importance of early relationships. But relationships are also important at any age — whether it is our peer relationships in school or relationships with our colleagues and the broader community.
Two graphs which illustrate resilience are reproduced below. The first graph shows “impaired resilience”. Here we find that people either succumb to their circumstances or limp along with “survival coping”. In the second graph, the person is “moving forward and dealing with their issues”. This person demonstrates post-traumatic growth and is emerging from their adversity with enhanced resourcefulness and strength.
“Resilience enables children to grow up happy and joyful in the face of the disappointments, pain and difficulties they all experience. Resilient children are less likely to become helpless in the face of challenges; less likely to become depressed; they are more successful in persisting with problem-solving; they take appropriate risks and are better at reaching solutions.”