As a therapist my job is to help improve a person’s quality of life in the present day and beyond. While exploring a person’s past can provide context for present day functioning, remaining focused exclusively on the past can hinder progress toward a desired treatment goal. Through the years, I have journeyed with people in therapy who have experienced some difficult pasts-things that most of us couldn’t even fathom. With time, many of these individuals experienced gains in treatment that generalized to their lives, resulting in improved relationships, better coping strategies and a healthier way of perceiving and engaging their world. A few individuals, however, were not able to make such progress even with years of treatment. Why is that? What makes the difference in people who get better and those who seemingly don’t? In a word, “resilience.”
The American Psychological Association (APA) defines resilience as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress… It means “bouncing back” from difficult experiences.”(http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/road-resilience.aspx ) . Resilience is not a trait possessed by some people and not by others but rather it is a process involving thoughts feelings and behaviors that can be learned and developed in anyone. APA goes on to note in its online pamphlet on resilience that resilience is demonstrated by most people and is not an extraordinary ability. According to APA some factors contributing to resilience include:
- Having caring and supportive relationships within and outside the family
- The capacity to make realistic plans and take steps to carry them out.
- A positive view of yourself and confidence in your strengths and abilities.
- Skills in communication and problem solving.
- The capacity to manage strong feelings and impulses.
All of these traits can be developed by the individual who has experienced the adversity. The fact that APA indicates that resilience can be developed by the individual, suggests that action must be taken on the part of the individual. While reflecting on the past can be helpful in letting us know how we got to where we are and may provide ideas about how to get where we are going, the past cannot actually take us to our destination of emotional and mental well being. Acting in the present is the only way anything can change. The past has already happened and no action can be taken to alter past events. Our only point of intervention is in the present to improve our future possibilities.
APA notes that there are several ways to build resilience and it can be unique to the individual. The strategy that helps one person may not be the same strategy for the next person. Spiritual practices have also been noted to build resilience in that they promote social connections and restore hope.
Are you forward bound or are you allowing the pain from the past to paralyze you? What are the interventions that need to happen to move you forward? Is it greater social support? Increased self-confidence? Better management of your emotions and impulses? What about your faith? What role does your faith play in your life? Is it at the center or in the periphery somewhere? These are all questions designed to challenge us as we seek to exercise resilience in order to move forward in 2018.