Updated: Jan 24, 2022
In our last post, we talked about putting our traumas in perspective. This meant understanding that we’ve all had traumatic experiences. Most of us have had bad ones. All of these experiences leave us with bad memories. But they don’t usually damage us, not even the bad ones. And that’s because we’re resilient.
So what does that word resilient mean? And what good is it in practice? If someone is feeling shattered because of something that’s happened to them, you can’t just say, “Be resilient.” It’s like the word healthy. Most of us are healthy most of the time. But if I get sick, you can’t just tell me, “Be healthy”!
And that’s the key to understanding this. There are two very different parts.
The first part—and it’s essential—is for you to know that you are resilient. Now I get it! Right now that does you no good at all. But in a way it does do us all good to know this. It says we’re not doomed. We’re not damaged in the factory—if your traumas happened when you were a kid. We’re not in a hopeless situation.
Instead, the picture is very different when you assume you are resilient. Suppose you get sick. That sucks. Now suppose you assume you don’t have an immune system. Now you’re going to feel doomed! But if you get sick and assume you have a functioning immune system, your attitude will be completely different. Still it sucks to be sick, but now you know that all the forces in your body are working to help you get better.
And this will motivate you to do things to help yourself get better.
Well, resilience is the immune system of your whole being. It’s there to counteract the downward-dragging forces of the trauma you’re dealing with.
Take the death of a loved one. This is one of the commonest traumas. Now we all know that, first of all, the loss of a loved one can be a horrible emotional assault. Leaving many of us feeling we’ll never be the same. But second, we also know, somewhere deep down, that grief is not the end of the story. We all know people who’ve lost a loved one two, five, ten, fifteen years ago, and we see how they’ve recovered. How their lives are okay now. The loss may still be a real presence in their lives, but their resilience has made it possible to avoid staying stuck in the land of grief.
That’s why when someone says, “Hey, this terrible thing happened to you X months or years ago, but you really CAN move beyond it. It may be part of the story of your life, but it’s not your life. It’s something that happened to you, but it’s not who you are,” you can at least believe that moving on is possible.
There’s one more part of this that we all have to understand. Recovering from a bad thing that’s happened to us is a form of learning. Whatever’s happened to us, we have to find a way to take it on board in our minds and lives so we can thrive in spite of it. That’s the learning.
Now a learning experience—any learning experience—has a very special shape. It’s like this, the famous learning curve:
Now this curve tells us one huge thing. Whenever we try to learn something—whether it’s learning to speak Spanish or play the flute, whether it’s learning how to get past the loss of a loved one or the experience of being assaulted—in the first part of the process nothing much happens. We don’t seem to be making progress.
And what we too often do with that is...stop learning. Spanish is too hard. The flute is a more difficult instrument than we’d thought it would be. Millions of dropped projects are dropped for this reason. So are millions of recoveries from trauma. And when it comes to trauma, we invent a story about how our lack of progress is about the full extent of our damaged: we’re too damaged to recover.
NO! We’re just on a learning curve. And because our expectations for how quickly we might progress have outstripped our actual progress we’ve told ourselves there’s something wrong with ourselves, when in fact we only have to hang in there and we WILL bounce back.
That’s one huge part of doing resilience. Believing that it’s real and can work and can work for you.
Now what’s the second part? What do you actually do? There’s a lot of helpful advice out there, books and articles. Like this from the American Psychological Association. But material like this (even this article!) often includes advice that’s not all that helpful. (Like, in the article, “maintain a hopeful outlook.”)
In a way, it’s pretty simple. Maybe not easy, but, yes, simple. How do you be healthy? Do what healthy people do. It’s the same with resilience. How do you capitalize on your resilience? Well, there you are, not bouncing back. Fine. But what would you do if you were bouncing back? Even if you thought you weren’t resilient, what would you be doing if you were resilient? You, the person you actually are now?
Well, if you were someone for whom it’s normal and healthy to get together with other people, you’d get together with other people. So why not do that now?
If it’s normal for you to be in a relationship, and you’re not in one now, why not proceed with trying to find a new one now? And if you were terribly hurt in the previous relationship—maybe that was your trauma!—then maybe you need some help getting perspective now on whether most relationships turn out the way your last one did.
If it’s normal for you to have projects and move forward with things, but your pre-occupation with your trauma has prevented that, maybe it’s time to start some new things going.
Now these are just a few examples. But the point is that you are using what’s been normal and healthy for you as a reference point for what to do now.
Do you not feel like doing these things? Of course you don’t. But that’s why I always invoke the rehab model. If you’ve had a leg injury, you may not feel like getting out of bed and starting to walk. And when you do start, it may feel crappy. But it’s healthy, and you know it’s good for you, and you know it’ll put you in a much better place.
The people who’ve stayed stuck in their traumas have acted as though the trauma was a lesson in how the world is now: it’s a place where traumas like this are the rule. It’s a world of traumas. But the people who’ve done the best at successfully moving out of being embedded in their traumas have said, “This thing happened to me. But I’m not going to let it define the world or how I live my life or how I see myself. Yes, I can’t let go of the knowledge that these things happen. But life is for living and mostly it’s okay, and I’m going to move forward acting as though things are going to be okay.”
Notice I said “...acting as though...” That’s the last lesson here. You don’t “heal” and then move on. It doesn’t work that way, any more than you stay in bed until your leg heals and then you start walking! Instead, you move forward, doing what you know is healthy for you, and the healing will come. It’s life, and living life, that heals us all. And the resilient part of us knows this.