Resilience: How and Why We Overcome Adversity

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It’s not enough to understand or have compassion for all the unfortunate reasons someone might have become dysfunctional. The science of resilience is beginning to show what else it takes to make a difference.

Having been a practicing therapist for many years, I’ve met my fair share of remarkable individuals. By far the most remarkable among them were those who had been disadvantaged and/or traumatized in just about every way you can imagine yet still somehow managed not merely to survive and cope with their circumstances but also to thrive and prosper against all odds. I’ve long admired individuals of such incredible character and also been interested in the factors that might account for their apparent resilience. In recent years, the budding science of resiliency has been slowly yielding some answers to the questions about why and how some folks are able to overcome tremendous adversity and move forward with their lives whereas others seem to be so damaged by their various traumas that they have a hard time making their way.

According to the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, a Harvard University-based organization, a review of findings from the various studies on resilience suggests that one factor in particular makes the difference between a child who perseveres despite having experienced significant trauma vs. a child who ends up crippled to some extent by their emotional wounds: a stable relationship with at least one adult committed to their welfare. It seems that when all other factors are taken into account — intelligence, educational level, economic opportunity, etc., what really makes all the difference is having at least one solid person in your life who you know truly cares about you and is committed to your welfare. It seems we are more prone to thriving ourselves when we can believe in our hearts that at least one other person on the planet also sincerely wants us to prosper.

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Of course the question of exactly how a loving, committed relationship ends up fostering resilience in youngsters is somewhat complicated. A certain, crucial dynamic interaction between a developing child and a loving, committed caregiver needs to take place for a child to acquire the skills necessary to adapt successfully to disadvantaging circumstances and to cope successfully with the rest of life’s demands. Among the key capacities a child has to develop are the capacity for healthy self-appraisal, the ability to adequately self-monitor and self-regulate, the ability to adapt to changing circumstances, and a mindset that anticipates and approaches new challenges and potential adversities with a fair degree of confidence. Developing these capacities takes a lot of consistent, caring guidance from a stable adult figure whom the child solidly knows is truly invested in them. In short, youngsters — even greatly disadvantaged and traumatized youngsters — learn to heal, to cope, and eventually, to succeed when they have someone they trust guiding them through the growth process.

In my book Character Disturbance [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK](?), I describe the unique process for providing character guidance to severely impaired and disordered characters. Disturbed characters have often settled on a “style” of relating to the world that’s compatible with their natural tendencies and the image they want to have of themselves. And in either disregard for or defiance of some of the negative consequences of their ways of doing things, they have come to believe that the style generally works for them. Sometimes life teaches them some incredibly hard to deny lessons and they begin for the first time to question their approach to things. When that happens, for the first time in their lives they become more open to potential corrective guidance. What my years of experience has taught me, however, is that while these folks require a lot of what I call “benign confrontation” about their dysfunctional ways of seeing and doing things, they won’t submit to authoritative guidance unless they firmly believe that the person confronting them is truly committed to their welfare. (For more on this topic, see “The Art of Loving — And Benign Confrontation” and “More on the “Art” of Benign Confrontation”.) So, once again, it’s love — genuine love — that matters most of all. Proper caring can really help someone — even a person who’s cultivated a lifetime of bad habits — to grow into a healthier, more prosperous person.

We’ve learned much already from the developing science of resilience, but there’s still much more to learn. One truly remarkable thing we’ve learned is that the factors that foster resilience actually produce changes in brain structures that we can see on brain imaging tests. These same factors even seem to enhance our immune system. Having at least one supportive, committed person in your life seems to make all the difference when it comes to becoming healthier on a wide variety of dimensions.

There’s a lesson for all of us in the helping professions in the findings emerging from resiliency research. It’s not enough to understand or have compassion for all the unfortunate reasons someone might have become dysfunctional. Rather, we have to keep our awareness high about the things people truly need to overcome their misfortunes and become healthier and stronger in character. Showing a client the right kind of care and concern and guiding them through the process of necessary skill development can make the difference between a damaged, once-dysfunctional individual who recovers and thrives and one whose past wounds continue to scar them for life.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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