My life has not ended up where I thought it would...thankfully.I was one of those children who received messages, both verbal and non-verbal, that she was not going to be worth much. And I bought it, for a while. And then the course of my life changed, and then it changed again, and again. Until I reached a place where I was able to break free from the lies and fully embrace the realization that I am deserving and able to create a healthy, happy life for myself. This article is written to illuminate one of the most powerful principles I have discovered in my wellness process.
The universe has brought me a number of amazingly special people as I have navigated down my life’s path. Interestingly enough, these folks have always showed up at just the right time to help me overcome whatever was blocking my ability to be healthy and whole at that point in my life. One lady in particular, Mrs. V., came along at just one of these times. Mrs. V. was a very spunky, animated, fun-loving 75-year-old Vietnamese woman who came to the United States in 1955 as the bride of an American serviceman. To say she had a fascinating story would be an understatement.
I believe the gift I received from her was the infusion of the concept of “resiliency” into my way of thinking. Since early childhood, I have had a place inside of me that has always felt lost. It is the place where my sadness lives. Sometimes that place feels big enough to swallow me whole and sometimes it becomes so small I forget it is there. It is always a place desperate for hope. In Mrs. V I found a woman who was overflowing with hopefulness. She seemed to have enough for the both of us and I found myself being drawn more and more to her spiritual presence. No matter what came her way, she would declare it to be a cause for celebration. To her, obstacles were seen not as hardship but rather as opportunities for growth and spiritual strengthening. That concept was new to me. I mean, I would have a meltdown just trying to choose a type of breakfast cereal at the grocery store.
In May of 2006 Mrs. V allowed me to interview her for one of my Social Work classes. Her community underwent a complete cultural upheaval as hundreds of thousands of women found themselves suddenly head of their household, needing to find some way to provide for their families. I was amazed at the manner in which she relayed her stories. There was never even a hint of defeat. I did at one point try to move the conversation toward the idea of adversity. Mrs. V simply translated my statement into another example of resilience and continued to tell her story. Her story was not a story of victimization, but rather of determination. By the end of the interview I was hooked. I wanted what she had. I altered my direction academically and personally to incorporate the concept of resilience into my journey.
What I found is that resiliency factors can be divided into several distinctive categories:
Personality: Resilience is attributed to certain characteristics a person carries within their self that contribute to positive healthy outcomes in spite of external chaos. A number of personality characteristics have been identified as contributing to resilience, including humor, empathy, andan easy temperament. These personality traits lend themselves to the likeability of a person. A person who is likeable will presumably have more friends and therefore more support. This seems to be of particular importance during the adolescent years when peer support becomes developmentally vital, but it also holds true into adulthood.
Locus of control: Perception of self and the problem. People who see themselves as having control over their lives tend to be healthier, happier, and more able to overcome difficulties. Likewise, those who see the problem(s) as being outside of their control tend to become more discouraged, depressed, and less able to take corrective action. People who believe they can create changes in their lives will act in ways congruent to that belief, such as getting an education, seeking services, or calling on their support system for help. A closely related resiliency factor is determination. Someone who believes they are able to make changes in their life will be more inclined to override the desire to give up when things seem unbearable.
Cognitive abilities and education: A person who has the cognitive ability to think through life’s difficulties and then develop and implement a plan of action is much more likely to avoid becoming stuck and discouraged. Directly connected to cognitive abilities is education. Being educated either formally through an institution or therapeutically regarding the nature of one’s presenting problem can be beneficial in acquiring resilience. For many people, formal education is seen as the key to upward mobility and the overcoming of personal, cultural, and societal barriers. It provides a sense of empowerment and control over one’s future. Psychosocial education can provide the same benefit in regard to a person taking control of some barrier to success, such as recovering from an addiction or mental illness.
Spirituality and religion. While religion and spirituality are related, they are in fact separate, distinct constructs. Religion is an external, ritualized expression of spirituality. Religion can be an external protective factor which complements internal spiritual resilience. For some, finding a higher purpose has been a necessary component to their health and well-being. The term higher purpose can be defined as the ways and means whereby a person creates meaning in their life. A person with resiliency will find a way to create meaning out of adversity. In essence, spirituality empowers people to cope with stressors by transforming negative events into opportunities for personal growth.
Culture and Family. A sense of belonging and connectedness can result from having strong family support or a positive cultural identity. Besides providing support and structure, feeling connected to one’s family or community brings a sense of responsibility. It is common for a person struggling with seemingly overwhelming obstacles to find the determination to continue because to give up would bring sorrow to the people they care about.Communication. It stands to reason the effectiveness of other resiliency factors such as cognitive abilities, social support, and education would depend largely on one’s ability to communicate. Someone who can communicate their needs in a constructive manner is more likely to solicit a positive response from the environment.
Conclusion: Resiliency can be summed up as an individual’s ability to negotiate with the environment to get their needs met. Those who have healthy, positive negotiating skills are called resilient; those who do not are referred to as self-destructive. The good news is most resilience factors can be learned. It is common for someone, as part of their wellness journey, to return to school, receive cognitive-behavioral counseling, or join a support group or religious organization. However, I believe the most powerful ally in obtaining resiliency is the introduction of hope. As the consumer movement begins to come into full bloom in the mental health field, more people, myself included, are finding the strength to openly identify as persons with significant mental health struggles. In so doing we are able to become a living example of hope. We are able to show that we can and do recover and go on to live amazingly full, satisfying lives. I am continually amazed at just how far a person can go on just the tiniest bit of hope. Resiliency is a dynamic, fluid process that changes over time as a person grows and matures. All people, unless severely disabled, engage in this process. As with other lifelong processes, resiliency is always a work in progress. With individual willingness and appropriate intervention such as education and support, resilience can be acquired at any stage in life.
Tammy received her MSW from CSUS in 2007. She specializes in Mental Health and is committed to the Consumer Movement. She believes strongly in the Recovery Model and is committed to helping our community overcome misconceptions that lead to the stigmatization of persons with mental health issues. She is currently employed by Consumers Self Help as their Clinical Director where she enjoys teaching therapeutic classes. She is the proud mother of two adult sons. Her passion is photographing blossoms.