Just as contradictory studies about what treatments are best for particular diseases, what foods one should and shouldn’t eat to be healthy or which factors in one’s emotional make-up are hereditary and which are not – such studies seem to appear faster than we’re able to agree or disagree with their findings. So, too, an article in this week’s New York Times offers a new twist to an old supposition regarding the theory of RESILIENCY.  Now, we’re being told that PAST ADVERSITY PROVIDES A MAP that leads to becoming resilient.

I have to admit to having a basic bias and will, therefore,  accept the fact that some of you will disagree with me.

Having suffered in silence throughout my early years (which places me in the category of those who have experienced past adversities), I am not of the opinion that the pain and confusion caused by my mother’s mental illness made me in any way a stronger person, better able to handle adversity than others whose childhoods were not traumatic or, at best, far less dramatic.

I do believe that we come into this world with a core personality and, given the environment in which we then live, the features of our character can be enhanced or impaired.  I cannot go as far, though, as to conclude as this article does by saying that “the number of life blows a person has taken may affect his or her mental toughness more than any other factor … and that frequency makes a difference.”

According to Roxanne Cohen Silver, a psychologist at the University of California, Irvine, “Each negative event a person faces leads to an attempt to cope, which forces people to learn about their own capabilities, about their own support networks – to learn who their real friends are. That kind of learning, we think, is extremely valuable for subsequent coping …”

I disagree because it assumes that people are able to cope as best they can when faced with negative experiences varying from the loss of a parent, child or mate to the loss of a job and income, to the diagnosis of a life-threatening illness.  The truth -as I’ve known it to be in my psychotherapy practice as well as in my life – is that people who have had one too many punches often lose their desire or ability to cope at all.  Having been knocked down in the first or second round, they do not have the resources to draw upon that someone who hasn’t even entered the ring.

My belief – cynical as it may sound – is that studies will continue to prove or disprove whatever theory the scientist’s bias going into the study may be.

Just as this article concludes that “mental toughness is something like physical strength … which cannot develop without exercise,”  I believe that everyone is challenged throughout life in a myriad of ways.  Yet, how we meet each challenge has more to do with the particular circumstance we’re experiencing at the time of each challenge.  In short, if we’re in good physical health, it’s easier to pursue finding work in a bad economy.  If we’ve lost a spouse at a time when we happen to live in an isolated area and do not have the support we once had, the loss will be that much greater to overcome.

In the end, I believe that it is possible for people who are born to adversity to succeed far beyond what their environment would cause us to think likely. Somehow, their internal wiring allows them to do so, while others remain totally disabled.

A good start in life – one that others may even call a “blessed” start can certainly be a contributing factor, but it is not a determining one.  Repeated hardships are not the prerequisites for resiliency just as wealth and fame do not protect one from disease or lives that are unsuccessful.

Often, what is more of a determinant is having a mentor, a teacher, friend, religious leader, therapist or relative – a role model who instills trust, offers hope and shows us another reality that adversity alone can’t offer. That gift is as much, if not more of a determining factor as any which the most recent study suggests.

In short, it’s not a workout with adversity as a personal trainer that we need in order to be resilient but fewer challenges that cause us to feel defeated.  And when we are faced with defeat, we will rise to the occasion only if and when we have the support of family and friends, and our will to survive (the very wiring with which we were born and which was enhanced or impaired) allows us to do so as best we can.  

Please do share your thoughts here on this site, if you disagree.


1 Comment

  • Anonymous says:

    I took a class once on theories of personality and chose to research resiliency traits. Having someone who cares and remains present in one's life was certainly the most important dependent determinant along with natural inborn traits (that we have no control over). I don't think being constantly faced with adversity strengthens us, but sometimes being faced with adversity opens up strenghths and resiliencies that we never knew we had, or brings us to levels of growth we would never have achieved otherwise. You know or have heard of people who aspired to levels of greatness because they were faced with challenges. Had they never been challenged, they would have lived simple, superficial lives.

    Also it depends when, at what stage of life, and the circumstances surrounding that time that might also play a role in someone overcoming or succumbing. Early poor parenting, I think, leaves people with lifetime struggles and pain. It also makes them more empathic, kind and caring, with greater sensitivity (although I admit it could have the opposite affect in severe cases of abuse or neglect- as people relate to the abuser). Just like a minor cold makes one immune to that virus, thus strengthening our immunity, small challenges may strengthen our resiliency. A powerful septic event though may destroy our immunity, like a major challenge we cannot overcome. Or a cold in a healthy person can cause our immunity to grow; a cold in an immunocompromised individual can be fatal. Early childhood trauma, I would liken, to any illness in an immunocompromised, or undeveloped immune system. The perils are greater than the gains. And we are so exposed to "disease" from early on, we fear even the common cold; i.e. can't deal with even lesser traumas.

    I personally would rather have had a happy, carefree childhood and easily have foregone the potential growth and good that ensued or will one day ensue from it. Alas, the choice was not mine, as is not the case for most people challenged by early onset adversity. There's an old hebrew expression, that alludes to the fact that the pain of many is a solace for the individual. Knowing that others are in your shoes or share similar experiences is comforting. You are not alone. And so obviously you are using your pain to help others. Much to be admired.