Secrets of Personal Strength and Resilience

Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D

"Life breaks everyone and afterwards, many are strong in the broken places." K. Ernest Hemingway.
What makes us bounce back?  Why do some never recover from their trauma and pain and why do some become greater than what they were before?  One's childhood does not necessarily lock one into some sort of lifelong prison.  "The first biggest surprise to me," says psychologist Emily Werner, "is that so many people recovered" from suffering and pain they experienced as children.  

Emily Werner should know it.  For thirty years she followed five hundred adolescents until they reached middle age. Many of them grew up in poor families, where alcoholism, anger, and abuse were the way of life.  One would have expected that by the time those children had reached adulthood, they would have simply sunk into still greater poverty, alcoholism, unemployment and crime.  
Actually, one third of them did well in school, followed promising careers, and became confident and self-assured adults.  Furthermore, when they reached their thirties and forties, they seemed more determined not to follow their parents' lives. Out of those who had fallen into a pattern of petty crime as teenagers, only one in ten females, and one in four males, committed crimes as adults.  Thus, the majority had struggled and stumbled, but picked themselves up and learned from it.    

Other studies also show that about one-third of children who grow up neglected, poor or abused, are capable of building better lives by the time they are teenagers.  By the time they reach adulthood, about eighty percent of them have transcended their troubled childhood.  
Having a bad beginning doesn't have to result in a bad ending.  Abused children don't necessarily grow up to be abusers.  There too, one-third of physically abused children grow up determined never to lay a hand on their children.  They seem to be proud of the life they are building for themselves and their children.  Survivors develop a "survivors' pride" from which they draw strength when they are challenged.  

Dr. Norman Garmezi of the University of Minnesota found that many children of severely depressed mothers were emotionally healthy and capable.  It appears that as they helped their sick and low functioning mothers, they felt proud and confident of themselves.  Likewise, Dr. Michael Rutter of the Institute of Psychiatry in London found that at least one-fourth of the children of drug-addicted mothers were confident and capable.       

Here are the secrets of strength and resilience of those who overcome the odds against them: 

1. They are determined to not let anyone crush their spirit.  Even in the face of aggression and adversity, they find a way to protect their spirit, their pride and their hope.  

2. They develop strong coping skills as children. For example, in spite of the adversity, they may continue to learn and excel in studies or sports, help their sibling, and earn extra money.  They concentrate on developing skills.  The ability to read at grade level by age ten shows that a poor and neglected child is most likely to transcend his background and do well.  Skills not only help to build a better future but they also provide a "safe house" in an otherwise painful and dangerous world.   

3. They learn the trick of "mental distancing," for example, they learn to escape into music, games, reading, etc.   

4. As adults, they have faith in the future, the world, or God.  For example, they always perceive bad times as temporary times, from which they believe they will come out stronger.  In a study by De Frain, 56% of resilient people hold to the idea that guardian angels or God will always love them.  

5. They don't do it alone.  If they don't have strong family support, they are able to ask for help or recruit others to help them. They are more likely to talk to their peers, friends or co-workers about events in their lives. 

6. They are better prepared to face problems.  For example, some in Werner's follow-up group, once experienced a powerful hurricane.  Those, who were previously identified as "resilient" in the group, reported less property damage."  Why?  Simply, because they were better prepared for such a likelihood than were others.  They knew from experience that bad things can happen. 

7. They believe in themselves and recognize their strengths.  When they can't change a bad situation, they better prepare themselves to cope with it.  They support and nurture themselves.  After all, they had learned that long time ago in order to survive, and now they are quite good at it.   
In the words of Laura Davis and Ellen Bass, in their book, The Courage to Heal, "There is more than anger, there is more than sadness, more than terror.  There is hope."  
file: newspaper/strength index: personal devpt, resilience, optimism,, healthy 5/31/98

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