Do you think you are resilient? Able to bounce back quickly from life’s ups and downs? Tough maybe? Or with an inner strength? If so, were you born resilient? Did you get lucky in the gene pool lottery? Or, is it a conscious choice you are making? Do you overcome difficulties with the power of your mind? The fabled “willpower”? I bet it’s that one, a choice, if you’re honest, because being resilient is a good quality and, if it says something good about you, then you’re damn sure you’re going to take the fucking credit, right?
Some people aren’t resilient are they? They just take life’s knocks really hard, can’t seem to get over them or move on. Now, I guess if resilience is a sign of strength, then these people must be what? Weak presumably. And if you are resilient through choice, through effort, through willpower, then the non-resilients could try a bit harder? Stop wallowing? No, no, of course we don’t think that Jack, we are compassionate people, we understand it is not their fault, we’re not blaming them. We understand they need help, but resilience is a good thing, and they need more of it, we need to promote it and build it. We are definitely not saying it is their fault. Although, we have had bad experiences too and we’re okay…so…you know…
As babies, if we are lucky, we are protected from the vagaries of life as much as possible and will have a primary carer (usually, let’s be honest, our mother) who will respond quickly to our needs – for food, for comfort, for physical affection and so on. If something frightens us, a sudden noise say, she will calm and reassure us. Through this, we learn that life is basically okay and difficulties can quickly be overcome.
Over time, gradually, in manageable amounts, our needs will not be responded to quite so quickly all the time, life will become slightly less predictable, we will experience tolerable, proportionate stress. We’ll be in pretty good shape to cope with this because our experiences as a baby taught us that the world is basically okay, difficulties can be overcome and our needs will be met. This slow exposure to stress means we will eventually be able to handle even very difficult life events. Although, never entirely on our own, because humans are an interdependent species and we all need help from time-to-time.
However, if we are unlucky, we will not be protected as babies, our needs will not be met quickly enough, or maybe not at all. Perhaps because our mum is too worried about money or food and how we are going to survive. Perhaps she is depressed or has other mental health issues. Perhaps she is frightened all the time because of an abusive partner. Perhaps she has no one to help her. Whatever it is, she is simply unable to meet our needs. So, we will not develop a sense that life is basically okay and that difficulties can be overcome.
The likelihood too, is that we won’t gradually be exposed to manageable amounts of stress as we get older but more stress than anyone can reasonably be expected to cope with. If we are really unlucky, outright abuse and neglect. Very difficult life events, that others overcome, will not be isolated incidents but day-to-day reality. No one, in these circumstances, will be resilient. However much a well-meaning other tries to encourage it with put the past behind you, strength-based, solution-focused approaches.
All is not lost, because some of those earlier deficits can be made up – but only if you are provided with the close, empathetic, understanding and responsive care you missed out on when you were younger. Gradually you may begin to believe the world is basically okay and difficulties are survivable. But even then, you may never be as “resilient” as someone who had good enough care during infancy. You might always need more help and support than other people, but that shouldn’t be too much of a problem, because you live in a wealthy, industrialised nation in the 21st Century, which comfortably has the means to provide it.
If “resilience” is seen as a character trait that people need to “learn” and in someway make an effort to develop, then this is perilously close to victim blaming. It also means no one will notice the, fairly obvious, causal relationship between, for example, the closure of Sure Start centres today and “unresilient” teenagers in 12 years time.