Bad stuff happens—that’s a given. But what makes the difference between being able to bounce back and getting bowled over?
Most of the time we think about resilience as an individual characteristic—something we have or do, like optimism, perseverance, willpower or grit—that help us get through difficult times. Pick up most self-help books and you will find the focus is on individual coping strategies or personal improvement.
But to focus on an individual’s abilities or traits as the main source of their ability to heroically overcome adversity is to miss a lot of what is going on. Similarly, to judge someone who seems crushed by life circumstances as unresilient is to take an unfairly narrow view.
As Canadian resiliency researcher Michael Ungar shares in his book Change Your World: The Science of Resilience and the True Path to Success, a person’s environment has a lot more influence on how well they manage adversity than their own thoughts, feelings and actions. This isn’t to say that personal traits and attitudes don’t matter. However, the more challenging our circumstances, the more our personal or internal resources come up short.
Like different species of flowers that each require different conditions to thrive, we too can only thrive if our environment has the capacity to provide the right resources. Access to affordable housing, good education, healthy food, caring friends, safe communities, timely health care and financial resources are essential.
So what are the key resources we need for resilience in difficult times? The answer varies depending on the individual and the circumstances. Ungar identified 12 resilience resources that we generally depend on for personal well-being. He sums them up with these statements—the more we can complete, the better we will do when stressed:
- Structure: “There are people in my life who expect me to _________.”
- Consequences: “When I don’t meet expectations, I know that _________ will happen.”
- Intimate relationships: “I can reach out to my _________ to get help when I need it.”
- Other relationships/community: “When bad things happen in my life, there are people like _________ who will support me as best they can.”
- Identity: “I feel respected for what is special about me when I’m with/at/doing _________.”
- A sense of control: “In my _________ I get to participate in making decisions that affect my _________.”
- Belonging, spirituality, sense of culture, and life purpose: “At my _________ people miss me when I’m not there.” “There are places such as _________ where I can celebrate my culture and beliefs.”
- Rights and responsibilities (social justice): “When I’m with others at my _________ I feel treated fairly.” “When I’m with _________ I am responsible for myself/others.”
- Safety and security: “I am well-cared for by _________.” “I feel safe when I’m with/at _________.”
- Positive thinking: “Though I have problems, I know that things will get better when _________.” “I know there are good things about me, such as _________.”
- Physical well-being: “I am healthy enough to _________.”
- Financial well-being: “I have enough money to _________.”
Ungar calls these 12 resources “shock absorbers when our lives hit a speed bump.”
So how are you doing in terms of these shock absorbers? Are there some blanks you have yet to fill in?
Knowing the importance of these resources can help us prioritize developing them in our own lives. So often we find ourselves too busy to have friends over, but recognizing the importance of cultivating personal and community connections can help us decide to make the time.
Perhaps we have been complaining about safety issues or social justice concerns in our community—maybe now is the time to advocate for changes. And how many of us have lingering, low-grade health concerns that we have been letting slide rather than accessing health care and related resources? Working with a budget counsellor or financial advisor to get our finances in order and minimize debt can also help us handle an unexpected expense or job loss.
Having as many of these resilience resources as possible in place before a catastrophe strikes can make all the difference in how we weather it.
Rather than counting on rugged individualism to help you heroically overcome life’s inevitable challenges, develop and depend on the resources around you. Changing your world will make you more resilient.
Susan Winter Fledderus is a Clinical Therapist with Shalem Mental Health Network