By Mark Vander Vennen
In a recent blog, I wrote about Toronto storyteller Marsha Shandur talking about how social media sites, such as Facebook, can have the effect of making us feel inadequate. Everyone else, she says, appears to have their “iSht” together, just not me. People post about their or their kids’ successes, and mine pale compared to theirs. Or maybe I post something and get few “likes.” These experiences can cause me to feel shame, and shame disconnects me from others.
In response, Marsha has started a Facebook page called I Don’t Have My iSht Together Either, where people share things that they may not be not proud of, maybe something a bit foolish that they have done. They become vulnerable, in other words, and it’s that vulnerability that effectively overcomes shame and fosters connection between people. It’s a wonderful page, and I encourage you to participate.
Perhaps it’s that uncomfortable feeling of shame that has something to do with the reality that social media, which promises to “connect” people, seems to have the opposite effect. As shame researcher Brené Brown has pointed out, the rising experience of loneliness in our society, which is reaching epidemic proportions, correlates with the rise of social media in our society.
I’ve been continuing to think about all of this. And then this past weekend there appeared a major article about resilience by Michael Ungar in the Globe and Mail, and an interview of Ungar in Maclean’s. Ungar is the Director of the Resilience Research Centre at Dalhousie University in Halifax and a Canada Research Chair in Child, Family and Community Resilience. His articles and interview gave me more to think about in relation to the theme of feeling inadequate.
In both articles, Ungar talks about the false promise of the “self-help” industry. He points out that resilience—our ability to bounce back from hard or adverse circumstances or events—is “not a DIY [Do It Yourself] endeavor.” He uses examples of people who claim to have dramatically improved their lives by, for example, training their brains differently around certain tasks or perspectives—such as, in one presenter’s case, training to climb Mount Everest without the need of an oxygen tank. The promise is that you can do this too, if not even greater achievements. If I work on myself, push myself, I can do extraordinary things.
The false illusion, according to Ungar, is that resilience—pushing through limitations, adversity and setbacks—is only an internal act of the will. In fact, he argues, resilience has much more to do with the community that I am a part of, the services and connections that I am able to navigate to and negotiate with according to what would be most helpful for me. In his studies around the world, Ungar has demonstrated that supportive communities and relationships are the difference-maker in whether you or I are resilient, whether we can bounce back from the hard things that happen in life.
I like that a lot. It makes sense to me, also in my own life. And it accurately pricks the balloon of the “heroic” impulse so prevalent in our society about how individual achievement happens. That heroic impulse, the individualist “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality, fueled in part by the self-help industry, creates all kinds of feelings of inadequacy and shame in me (because I have not achieved great things), just as social media does.
Of course, I have a responsibility to act responsibly and to make changes where I can. I do play a crucial role in my own well-being. But to assume that my capacity to make such changes and to bounce back from adversity are entirely only an internal capacity, or a personality trait, is false.
Ungar’s comments perfectly reflect the approach of WrapAround, one of Shalem’s programs. WrapAround is all about a community “wrapping” its resources around a person or family dealing with serious, complex challenges, driven by the family’s hopes and dreams and by them being in the driver’s seat of their own life-planning. They navigate to and negotiate for what they need, and the community, with its relationships, provides it. That’s what generates resilience. And it’s effective.
Ungar is a friend of ours at Shalem and at Wrap Canada—we use his normed and validated resilience measurement tools as part of our WrapAround evaluation regime. And his work on “helicopter parenting” or over-protected children has been important to us.
Check out Ungar’s articles and the new book they are based on, Change Your World: The Science of Resilience and the True Path to Success. They will dash some false illusions and inspire hope at the same time! We need more voices like Ungar in our self-help, DIY world.
Mark Vander Vennen, MA, M.Ed, R.S.W., is Executive Director of the Shalem Mental Health Network and a Board member of Wrap Canada.