We have all likely observed individuals who seem to chronically struggle in life even with seemingly minor challenges and setbacks. Conversely, there are people who have undergone severe difficulties, childhood neglect, or significant losses who manage to recover and live satisfying, meaningful lives. Most people fall somewhere in between the two extremes on this continuum of coping. Circumstances alone cannot explain the differences.
Psychological resiliency is the quality of being able to experience a challenge or change and to tolerate this without being psychologically disrupted in a way that reduces one’s psychological health or functioning. This does not imply that resilient individuals do not get upset. They may grieve deeply over a significant loss or find themselves struggling with difficult decisions. But ultimately they accept the loss or make the decision. And even during these difficult times they are often able to help themselves cope.
Certain beliefs or the ways someone thinks affect how resilient they are. Individuals who use cognitive distortions are less psychologically resilient. Cognitive distortions are false beliefs that often generate feelings of guilt or failure, unrealistic expectations or other unhealthy states of mind. One such cognitive distortion is “all-or-nothing-thinking”. In this case the individual views things in extreme, discrete opposite categories with no in- between. For example, they see themselves as either a success or a total failure. They believe that someone likes them or they are hated or rejected. Another cognitive belief is “personalization.” With this one sees oneself as related to the circumstance or responsible for some negative event when that is untrue.
Being able to face and accept things as they are leads to better psychological resiliency. This seems self-evident. Yet what may not be so obvious are the various ways that people distort or avoid reality in order to cope with anxiety, stress and discomfort. Some of these are called psychological defense mechanisms. Some well-known examples are denial, repression or rationalization. There are different levels of defense mechanisms based on the degree to which they distort reality and how effectively they allow a person to function in the world. Higher levels of psychological defense mechanisms also are associated with a person’s greater awareness and comfort with their internal experiences.
Higher levels of psychological defense mechanisms are associated with greater psychological resiliency. Altruism, humor, self-assertion, and affiliation are all of a higher level. Each of these qualities brings gratification and also does not rely on distortion of reality nor inhibit the person’s awareness of their thoughts, feelings and actions.
Individuals employing low-level defense mechanisms can only tolerate a limited rigid type or degree of reality without feeling unmanageable anxiety or conflict. Denial, dissociation, repression and psychotic distortion are examples of these low-level defenses. The need to chronically ignore information, to be unaware of one’s own internal thoughts and feelings or to have a break with external reality inherently inhibits one’s psychological resiliency.
Another component of psychological resiliency is self-esteem. Belief in one’s self- worth and valuing one’s intentions is especially supportive when going through a difficult time. Rather than blaming or turning on themselves, people with high self-esteem can soothe and reassure themselves. They can feel sadness or regret while still valuing themselves and enjoying other positive aspects of their lives. Feeling worthwhile also makes it easier to reach out to others for support and company, which is conducive to health and happiness.
There are various additional activities and practices we can do that are conducive to psychological resiliency. Having self-esteem and valuing our well-being increases the likelihood that we will embrace some of these. Feeling connected to our bodies and sensing integration between our emotional and physical self can lead to a feeling of wholeness. This wholeness enables us to feel strong, aware and able to handle things that come up in life. Practices such as yoga, meditation, regular exercise and even massage can strengthen and maintain this connection to and trust in ourselves.
Many psychologists believe that our early-life experiences and parenting significantly shape our personalities and psychological health. Research and individual accounts repeatedly show this to be true. One outstanding finding is that a consistent, emotionally-attuned relationship with at least one adult during a child’s formative years greatly enhances the child’s trust in self and others, view of oneself, and ability to have healthy relationships. Emotional intimacy both during childhood and later in life can be greatly enhancing to a sense of security, self-worth, happiness and emotional resiliency.
While several of the factors conducive to psychological resiliency may appear ingrained and not easily changed, it is possible to grow in these areas. Cognitive distortions can become known and challenged in psychotherapy or on one’s own. Psychological defense mechanisms are necessary to the degree that the individual cannot tolerate the anxiety or sense of danger that arises when they are not intact. But if one is willing to look at and work on the underlying fears, emotions and conflicts that feel threatening, then less restrictive levels of psychological defense may be adequate.
Change and loss in life is inevitable. Life is not fair. Sometimes we do not get rewarded for what we deserve. We sometimes suffer pain and hardship through no fault of our own. Developing a philosophy or belief system that helps one deal with such existential realities strongly contributes to psychological resiliency. Some people find that religion or spirituality answers these questions. Others feel that nature and the universe itself helps them feel part of the greater whole and puts things in perspective. Having a sense of purpose or meaning in what a person does or is also helps in the face of existential uncertainty.
The ability to know and think about oneself, to self-reflect and to have a relationship with one’s inner life greatly adds to psychological resiliency. Having a narrative or a cohesive story to explain and understand oneself is emotionally and cognitively beneficial. Writing in a journal or diary or a memoir can aid in this effort. Candid conversations with a trusted confidant can also be helpful. Professional psychotherapy is designed to help deepen one’s knowledge about oneself and one’s inner life as well as to make changes. It can also address the other factors associated with one’s psychological resiliency.
Without a doubt there also are unalterable genetic or physiological qualities related to psychological resiliency. Accepting this reality is also important in being realistic about oneself. But this does not diminish the value of recognizing and attending to the numerous aspects of psychological resiliency that we can affect.
Dr. Stoll is a Clinical Psychologist with offices in Redondo Beach and Glendale. She is a member of the Independent Psychotherapy Network. Dr. Stoll can be reached at (310) 375-3607 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2019 by Margaret L. Stoll, Ph.D.