No one escapes adversity. Yet some people appear much more resistant to the negative consequences of life’s traumas than others.
This question first captured the imagination of researchers in the 1970s. They believed that focussing on children who developed well in the context of adversity might provide an understanding of how trauma causes trouble. The implicit assumption was if we knew what allowed people to escape damage we could enhance everyone’s defenses against trauma. Their work launched the now crowded field of resilience.
Early reports suggested that resilience was an innate attribute of certain remarkable kids that made them invincible. This has been proven wrong despite its lingering presence in the press and popular culture. They are not invincible and it’s not just about them as individuals.
Rather than an attribute you are born with or even acquire during development, resilience is now considered by many theorists to reside as much in a social context as in an individual. A key psychological attribute of the resilient is their connection to other people. Psychologists call this attachment.
The stage for healthy attachment is set early. Numerous studies on the consequences of the quality of attachment of infant and caregiver have shown that secure attachment during the first two years predicts future resilient traits. These include adaptive social behavior, emotional regulation, endurance with challenging tasks, and cognitive resourcefulness. Resilient children appear to be securely attached children.
The theoretical explanation in simple form is as follows. Children develop expectations about relationships on the basis of an aggregation of early interactions with the caregiver. Over time, these patterns come to organize their behavior in all significant relationships. An internal model of relationships is established. This extends to adulthood.
In studying resilient adults, one particular mental function has been repeatedly observed. Again, it relates to attachment. Resilient individuals have a complex internal model of relationships.
This complexity is reflected in the way they describe their childhood and adult attachments. They tend to value intimate relationships. They can discuss them coherently and without distortion. If they describe a generally good childhood, they can also relate shortcomings of their parents. On the other hand, if they report a hard early family life, it is with some acceptance of their parents’ problems and an understanding of how it might have affected them. They welcome rather than resist the influence of close ties and can describe their role in relationships.
A complex internal model relationships provides resilient individuals with a capacity to reflect upon mental states, both their own and others. Such reflection allows them to make optimal use of the individuals available to them. It also enables them to modify unhelpful or erroneous internal relationship models. This expands their potential repertoire of relationships and arms them with an adaptive self-correcting function.
The popular image of the resilient as invincible individuals, unattached and unaffected by loss could not be more wrong. They have more interpersonal awareness and empathy than most.
Resilience is connection.
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