What Motivates Resilience, Even on Minor Things

My Thanksgiving table has several seams resulting from makeshift extensions to accommodate many guests. After attempting several solutions to eliminate the ridges between sections, I finally succeeded by taping the seams on the first layer of cloth before adding a second tablecloth. Should I apologize to my guests, warning those who are sitting in the vicinity of a lumpy junction that their glass may tip sideways if placed upon it?

Given all the small or large challenges of human life, lumpy seams on a table are a minor issue. Yet in light of Thanksgiving approaching, I began considering whether or not we should be grateful for some of the lumps, bumps, or lemons that come our way. Certainly, challenges help us learn as we navigate through them.

The notion of resilience—sometimes described as “grit”—refers to determination in the face of hardship. Psychological resilience is a measure of one’s ability to adapt to stress and adversity. Resilience involves our adaptation to change, attitude toward coping with stress, ability to achieve goals despite obstacles, capacity to think clearly under pressure, resisting the discouragement of failure, and an ability to handle painful or unpleasant feelings. [1]

An expectation that people can successfully adapt or even profit when faced with stress, trauma, or forms of adversity may, at times, be misguided. The concept of resilience introduces the possibility that those who experience enduring hardship may become resourceful and develop a greater sense of agency, rather than become passive victims who only suffer as a result. [2] British researchers have noted that the concept of resilience if understood in isolation from the social conditions within which it may or may not arise, can result in a misidentification of the coping mechanism, an inability to explain its intermittence, and ideological exploitation of the term. [3] In fact, the construct of resilience has been considered to be unhelpful as an analytical tool for exploring the experiences of people living in economic hardship. [4]

The use of adaptive coping strategies, including the pursuit of meaningful activities, reaching out to others for support, taking action to improve a situation, or viewing a challenging condition more positively, have been promoted by mental health professionals as a means to increase resilience in people. [5] The most extreme rationalization for hardship may be the adage, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” These cognitive approaches to reframing an experience, diverting attention away from it, or finding support around it, may work in some situations and for some people.

What I find problematic about the construct of resilience, as well as attempts to develop it in people, is that resilience is associated with cognitive and personality factors, rather than with emotional experiences, including how they motivate us and how we learn from them. Resilience as a show of strength does not necessarily lead to learning. The motivation to learn, regardless of the lumps, is beyond resilience. This can allow one to profit from challenges (big lumps) rather than just enduring them.

Personality traits, such as resilience, are not devoid of emotion. Innate affect is a significant component in the formation of personality and, therefore, personality represents an adjustment to the emotions that accompany life experiences. [6] Behavior that involves habitual patterns is generally considered a personality trait. Yet emotion and personality are systematically related to one another, and emotions, because of their fundamental adaptive role, become expressed in personality. [7] When emotions occur in persistent or repeated forms, we consider them as dispositional characteristics of the individual.

As a result, we tend to use the language of personality traits rather than the language of emotional states, to define a person. [8] In this regard, individuals may be characterized as phobic, anxious, depressed, or as being resilient. Describing people in terms of a personality trait may be confusing because it obscures the emotions that motivate their behavior, including memories of emotional experiences that script current responses to the activation of emotion.

Resilience is not only a way we think, but it is motivation based on the ways we feel. My solution to the ridges on my table involved thought. Still, it was motivated by the emotions I felt in the present and the anticipation of emotions I might feel regarding the comfort and satisfaction of my guests. Life gives us both minuscule and enormous lumps. How we are motivated to deal with them has everything to do with our emotions.

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[1] Connor, K. M. and Davidson, J. R. T. (2013). Development of a new resilience scale: Connor-Davidson Resilience Scale (CD-RISC). Depression and Anxiety, 18, 76-82.
[2] Frost, L. and Hoggett, P. (2008). Human agency and social suffering. Critical Social Policy, 28: 4, 438- 460.
[3] Dagdeviren, H., Donoghue, M., and Promberger, M. (2015). Resilience, hardship, and social conditions. Journal of Social Policy. DOI: 10.1017/S004727941500032X
[4] Hickman, P. (2017). A flawed construct? Understanding and unpicking the concept of resilience in the context of economic hardship. Social Policy and Society. DOI: 10.1017/S1474746417000227
[5] Feder, A., Schmajuk, M., Charney, D., and Southwick, S. (2016) Resilience: Psychiatry. In Asher Simon, Antonia New, and Wayne Goodman (Eds.), Mount Sinai Expert Guides. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley-Blackwell. DOI: 10.1002/9781118654231.ch41
[6] Nathanson, D. L. (1992). Shame and pride: Affect, sex, and the birth of the self. New
York, NY: Norton.
[7] Plutchik, R. (2000). Emotions in the practice of psychotherapy: Clinical implications of affect theories. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
[8] Plutchik, R. (2000). Emotions in the practice of psychotherapy: Clinical implications of affect theories. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Originally published at Psychology Today