Resilience part 1: What does resilience mean?

Blog - Resilience part 1: What does resilience mean?

Robert Aurbach | Published: September 29, 2015
The trouble is that most of this advice, regardless of the qualifications of the speaker, seems of limited benefit in the real world.
Academics have done lots of studies, showing lots of correlations. If A happens then B happens too. It’s easy to take the next illogical step and say that A causes B… but of course, that’s not true. Famously, the number of priests and the number of prostitutes in Las Vegas has shown a strong correlation, although people are reluctant to say that one causes the other.
Resilience is correlated with higher self-esteem, better relationships, more self-confidence, lack of catastrophizing, acceptance, goal oriented behaviour, and hopefulness.  
I love that last one: saying you get resilient by being more hopeful is a bit like saying that you get wealthy by having more money. Not very helpful, since the person not tolerating stress  is unlikely to be characterised as being hopeful, and is rarely helped by being advised to be so. 
Correlations are useful if you have defined what you’re talking about. But resilience is not defined, except by its effects.  
We commonly understand that resilience is the ability to “bounce back” from adversity, but that doesn’t tell us much about what it is, or how it works.  When we start correlating other behaviour with such a loosely defined term, it is impossible to distinguish between those things that cause or support it and the elements of resilience itself – the things that make it up.
That’s where we are with regard to the published literature.  
What could we accomplish by defining resilience more meaningfully? 
For starters, we could get out of the “chicken and egg” chase of trying to distinguish what causes resilience from the components of resilience as it occurs in individuals.  That will lead to more clarity and, perhaps, more useful research. 
Second, a better understanding of resilience frees us to look at the issue of whether it is the “same” for everyone.  
The academic literature treats resilience as if it’s one skill that all people share to one extent or another. Unfortunately, that view doesn’t match up well with what we observe in real life. It should be noted that resilience in organisations is not being analysed here, and may be a somewhat different concept. What we are speaking of is the resilience behaviour of individuals.
Finally, it should clear up the misconception that people who are not very resilient are lazy or somehow less virtuous.  
We don't say that people who can't frame a house are lazy – we just note that they lack some skills or knowledge. Similarly, resilience is a skill that some people have developed more consciously, rather than a trait of character.
Lots of different people are resilient, but they can look very different from one another.  
There is the accepting, peaceful and serene person, who nothing bothers, the person of deep faith who believes that they will be looked after.  There’s the single mum, working two jobs and studying on the side while doing well by her children.  And the person who invariably sees the glass as “half full”.  
All “bounce” well with regard to life’s challenges, but they may not use the same mechanisms.
If there is more than one “style” of resilience, might we be able to distinguish between people in ways that are helpful?  Can we build the style of resilience that someone already has? Can we offer someone with an existing style of resilience training in other resilience strategies to give them more tools in their personal resilience toolbox?
If we have a genuine operational understanding of resilience, we can make people stronger and better able to resist the stresses of everyday living. Some important steps have been taken in this direction.  Follow these pages for more to come….