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Rethinking Resilience

Researchers define resilience as adapting well to adversity or "bouncing back" after a significant stressor or traumatic experience. In this definition, "adapting well" means positively adjusting to the circumstances experienced without relying on maladaptive mechanisms like self-harm, addictions, and other high-risk behaviors. Research also shows that a person's ability to adapt well and bounce back positively correlates to certain protective factors. These protective factors reduce the negative effect of adversity and include external and internal factors in a person's life. Protective factors fall under three categories: individual, family, and community level. Although the list is extensive, some of the more notable factors include adults believing in the child, having a supportive family, and socioeconomic status.

Based on this research, the more protective factors a person has, the more likely they will be resilient. Therefore, if a person has childhood trauma, grows up in poverty, is victim to institutional racism and oppression, or doesn't have a supportive family, they will be more likely labeled as maladapted adults and won't be considered resilient. 


This concept is flawed. 


How is it appropriate to say to someone who might have been degraded, attacked, paralyzed by fear, frozen in grief, or experienced danger that they are not resilient because they have not appropriately adapted to this adversity? A trauma survivor faces an already monumental task of walking through the pain and suffering they feel every day, and every single trauma survivor is doing the best they can with what they have. They are doing their best to keep their head above water, manage the pain, and keep functioning every day. 


That is "brilliant resilience" (a term I heard from a workshop instructor I had years ago to describe all of the resourceful ways that trauma survivors find to continue fighting every day). Whatever a trauma survivor has to do to keep living should be labeled as resilient. We should learn to be grateful for those mechanisms, no matter how unhealthy, as they allowed each survivor to keep fighting. 


It helped mask the pain. 

It helped suppress memories. 

It helped them function. 


It goes without saying that although these are brilliant ways to survive, they wouldn't be something I would prescribe to a client in therapy. These served a purpose and stopped helping after a while. This is where therapy comes in.


In his book, "A Man's Search for Meaning," Viktor Frankl wrote, "an abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is a normal reaction" to give light to why people may respond the way they do after a traumatic experience. In other words, to react normally to a traumatic event seems abnormal. Therefore, any "maladapted" mechanism (the abnormal reaction) to trauma (an abnormal situation), can be considered a normal reaction. 


When we look at resilience as the process of adapting well to adversity, we inadvertently cause hopelessness and shame in trauma survivors. If resilience is needed to face trauma, and if the survivor knows they don't have it because they get labeled as "maladaptive adults," we halt their recovery process. 

The more appropriate definition of resilience should be "a person's continued survival attempts despite adversity." Therefore, resilience should exist within a spectrum, with one end labeled as survival with maladaptive mechanisms followed by survival with healthy mechanisms on the other end. A spectrum allows growing more resilient, rather than being labeled as either resilient or not, based on protective factors that are so often outside of the survivor's control. In turn, this empowers trauma survivors and honors all of the attempts they have made at survival. 


Rethinking Resilience as a Spectrum

No matter where you stand on the spectrum, you are still resilient. 


You have, after all, survived.