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Resilient and still struggling: Why you'll need more to move forward.


Resilience is an extremely important skill, but if you're still having a hard time despite having this tool, there's a good reason.



As I was completing some certification work recently in trauma and resilience, I was struck by a reading that defined resilience as the ability to 'return to a normal state' after a significant setback. I've spent a lot of time reading about and studying resilience and I view it as an essential tool in the re-invention toolbox. But this particular definition was new to me: 'return to a normal state'. I think our tendency with the idea of resilience is to view it as an endpoint in the journey. You can be resilient and if you are, you survive, you achieve. I know when I tell my own story, the word 'resilient' is often used to explain my survival and my emergence from a terrible situation. That tracks with the standard definitions of resilience: the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; or even, the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape. Resilience = elasticity (but please don't tell my skin that!) In some ways, this second, less 'human' definition of resilience tracks more closely with the one I was reading in the certification program. I find it fascinating in my studies on these topics, and the connections I make to my own experiences and those of others, that so many facets of critical human/psychological development lack a certainty to them. That these definitions are still emerging and evolving are equal parts energizing and maddening.

But after spending some time with this new definition - I am more and more certain that it's the correct way to view resilience. A return to a 'normal' state after setback. Elasticity in the face of a trauma or major struggle. The ability to go back to what was and what you were.

Except - and here's the real issue - a lot of times you can't go back to what was and what you were. Resilience will simply set you back at the starting line. It will not propel you forward.

After the journey of my marriage and divorce, steeped in domestic violence, shelter-living, and survivorship through some untenable choices, all I wanted was my resilience: my elasticity, so that I could return to the beginning. I tried to go back to my former career, I even dug out my old clothes, cut my hair like I used to wear it, and attempted to re-construct my starting point. It was like trying to live in a burned-out house. There was nothing for me there and I couldn't quite understand why I was still only surviving when I was trying so hard (I thought) to thrive.

Thinking about our post-COVID lives, while of course acknowledging that we are also still in our present-COVID lives, I know resilience is simply not going to be enough to thrive on the other side. Because resilience will bring us back to a 'before' that no longer exists. The burnt out houses of our social lives, our workplaces, the ways we engaged in our community, and the ways we related to the world are no longer inhabitable. We have to rebuild, reinvent, transform. Resilience is only the starting line and we must not stay there.

So where do we go?

We go to post-traumatic growth. Post-traumatic growth is the ability to turn a significant setback into an opportunity for change. It's been studied for only a couple of decades but psychologists Dr. Richard Tedeschi and Dr. Lawrence Calhoun came up with an inventory for change that covers 5 areas called The Post-Traumatic Growth Inventory. This inventory measures significant, permanent, change from the pre-traumatic mindset of an individual in the areas of: 1: Appreciation of life 2: Relationships with others 3: New possibilities in life 4: Personal strength 5: Spiritual change (Source: Richard Tedeschi, PhD, and Lawrence Calhoun, PhD, Journal of Traumatic Stress, 1996)

You don't have to be there today and you don't have to start with all 5, or go in order. In fact, you should ignore all that you've ever been taught about 'lists' and simply pick the category here that seems to most attainable for you, in this moment. Then, running, walking, crawling if you must, recognize the importance of resilience as the beginning of the race, and post-traumatic growth as the journey. For me, there is no finish line - our destination is life and the paths are many - it's not where you're headed or how long it takes you to get there, it's only important that you keep going.

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