The Trouble with Promoting Resilience

flower in the desert, among rocks, ilustrating the concept of resilience

In recent years we have seen a rise in promoting the idea that we need to focus on resilience when we talk about trauma. As someone who has battled the many symptoms of unresolved trauma, this has not set well with me because it often can induce a kind of guilt: by now should I be resilient and therefore no longer struggle with the many trauma-related symptoms I still experience?

In reading the outstanding new book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience and Healing by Dr. Bruce Perry and Opera Winfrey, Dr. Perry explains what is behind this push to emphasize resilience and why it is missing the mark for the realities of trauma.

He describes how he has heard so many times, “Kids are resilient—they’ll get over this.” It seems to be a common theme, this belief in the natural progression from trauma to resilience, especially in children but also with adults who have experienced significant trauma.

First of all, Dr. Perry emphasizes how hard it is for children to resolve trauma because they don’t have the adult brains that can help them more fully understand what has happened to them. Adults at least can process things using their cortex where children’s cortex areas are underdeveloped until their mid to late 20s.

So, what’s behind this need to believe that people have a natural ability to be resilient? Dr. Perry says, “We often use our belief in another person’s ‘resilience’ as an emotional shield. We protect ourselves from the discomfort, confusion, and helplessness we feel in the face of their trauma. It’s a kind of looking away; it lets our worldview go unchallenged and let’s our life continue with minimal disruption.”

He describes the common responses to trauma or grief experienced in the lives of individuals and families. “… often their family, friends, and coworkers begin to orbit a little further out, afraid of the powerful gravitational pull of traumatic pain. As the ‘check-ins’ get fewer, conversations get more superficial, interactions get briefer, and other people ‘move on’ with their lives, the grieving or traumatized person feels increasingly isolated and alone. The emotional bottom does not come in the first weeks following the traumatic event. In those early weeks, family, friends, and community generally mobilize to provide emotional support. Your own physical and mental reserves also help, often through the power of dissociation, but while each person’s experience is different, after about six months, you start hitting bottom. And then you drift along the bottom, rising and falling with anniversary reactions, evocative cues, and opportunities to heal. Some people will keep rising, others will drown. None will ever be the same.”

He says that people demonstrate the same kinds of rationalizations and tendencies to avoid the pain of others in the face of large-scale or community trauma, such as in war, famine, national disasters, shootings, etc. I think people have a natural desire to believe that if we focus on our resiliency, we somehow magically achieve it.

Diagram concept with Resilience text and keywords. EPS 10 isolated on white background

Dr. Perry says, “People grow tired of hearing about trauma; they want to talk about healing and hope. This is where the well-intentioned efforts to ‘do something ‘come in: T-shirts with slogans about strength; teddy bears for still-dazed children. Parents morning for the death of a child are ‘honored ‘at a football game. These awkward, kind gestures are part of our struggle to help – and to erase our sense of helplessness.

He continues, “In the wake of trauma, the hardest thing to understand is that nothing and no one can take away the pain. And yet that’s exactly what we desperately want to do— because we are social creatures, subject to emotional contagion, and when we are around people who are hurting, we hurt too. We don’t want to hurt. It is hard to sit in the midst of ruined lives and not feel their misery. It helps us regulate to try to undo or negate— to look away from—others pain. So we make arbitrary assumptions about people’s innate resilience. We make our sweeping declarations that allow us to marginalize traumatized children. We take our focus off the tragedy, move on with their lives, telling ourselves that they will be okay. But… the impact of trauma doesn’t simply fade away. We can help each other heal, but often assumptions about resilience and grit blind us to the healing that leads us down the painful path to wisdom.”

I think many of us are enamored with this idea of resilience but this emphasis can minimize just how hard it is to actually experience some degree of recovery from trauma. The pressure to be resilient I think, and I believe Dr. Perry agrees, is an unfortunate outcome in all the emphasis on understanding trauma.

As I watched the many documentaries one the 20th anniversary of 9/11, I think about how many people want to believe that our resilience as a nation has given us the strength to move on. While in many ways this may be true and we have put into place many ways to avoid another tragedy like this, the emphasis on resilience might be having some of the same negative effects that Dr. Perry talks about in his book about expecting resilience from trauma victims. Many of the people who lost family and friends on 911 are still profoundly hurting. They may be resilient in the fact that they have moved on with their lives, but somewhere in this is the need to acknowledge that some of the grief and pain from being traumatized does not go away.

Word 'Resiliency' written on wooden blocks.

While it may make us feel sad and less hopeful than when we believe resilience is some magical power we have to let go and move into, the kinder and more compassionate response to someone’s traumatic life experiences is to appreciate that significant wounds do not just heal over time. People find ways to cope and yes ways to move on, but the pain of their trauma and the grief associated with it often remains. By acknowledging, honoring and not pressuring someone to believe they have recovered, along with us learning to live with our own internal discomfort with them, is the gift we can give to those who have experienced significant trauma.

This realization can also be a gift to ourselves if we have a significant trauma history. We should not expect either others or ourselves to embrace this idea that we are automatically resilient and therefore should get over things. Yes, we can be resilient in that we can focus on our strengths and find healthy coping mechanisms. We can recover and resolve many things. We can use our understanding to help us appreciate what’s going on within us and within others. But I recommend we become much more sensitive to this push for resilience and discounting and hurting those who have experienced significant trauma.

Invitation for Reflection

  1. Does Dr. Perry’s information about the push to promote resilience change what you have believed is appropriate when interacting with someone with unresolved trauma?
  2. How can we balance efforts to encourage people to do their healing work without putting pressure on them to somehow embrace their “resilience?”
  3. If you are someone who has experienced significant trauma in your life, have you also experienced people believing you should now be resilient and therefore recovered?
  4. How does this information clarify how you might be feeling if the expectations by others is that you have the power to be resilient and therefore overcome the impact of your trauma?

Diane Wagnehals, Director, Lakeside Global Institute