[Paleopsych] NYT: Get a Grip and Set Your Sights Above Adversity
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Sun Apr 17 15:50:45 UTC 2005
Health > Personal Health: Get a Grip and Set Your Sights Above Adversity
By JANE E. BRODY
Resilience. Call it what you will - the ability to weather stresses
large and small, to bounce back from trauma and get on with life, to
learn from negative experiences and translate them into positive ones,
to muster the strength and confidence to change directions when a
chosen path becomes blocked or nonproductive.
Or you can sum it up as actualization of A.A.'s serenity prayer:
"Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the
courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the
Dr. Wendy Schlessel Harpham, a Dallas physician, wife and mother of
three, is the epitome of resilience. Struck with a recurring cancer in
her 30's that required a decade of debilitating treatments, she was
forced to give up her medical practice.
She turned instead to writing books and lecturing to professional and
lay audiences to help millions of others and their families through
the cancer experience.
Dr. Jennifer P. Schneider of Tucson is another classic example of
resilience. Also a physician, she has a lifelong history of emotional
and physical traumas.
Her mother left her at age 5. Dr. Schneider weathered two divorces, a
child with a mild form of autism, a broken leg that required two
operations and took more than two years to heal, and most recently the
most horrific trauma of all, the death at 31 of her daughter, Jessica
Wing, after a two-year battle against metastatic colon cancer.
To cope, Dr. Schneider said, she focused on things she could control,
her patients and her writing.
Dr. Schneider's recent book "Living With Chronic Pain" was an
inspiration to me, as I mentioned in a column last month, during my
bout with intense and seemingly endless pain after knee replacement.
Growing Up Resilient
Until recently, resilience was thought to be an entirely inborn trait,
giving rise to the notion of the "invulnerable child," now recognized
to be a mistaken idea.
Resilient children are not invulnerable to trauma or immune to
suffering. But they bounce back. They find ways to cope, set goals and
achieve them despite myriad obstacles like drug-addicted parents, dire
poverty or physical disabilities thrown in their path.
As Dr. Robert Brooks of Harvard and Dr. Sam Goldstein of the
University of Utah put it, being resilient does not mean a life
without risks or adverse conditions but rather learning how to deal
effectively with the inevitable stresses of life.
Herein lies an important concept: learning. To be sure, some of what
makes up resilience is inborn.
But resilience can also be learned, say experts like Dr. Brooks and
Dr. Goldstein, psychologists and authors whose newest book, "The Power
of Resilience" (Contemporary Books), provides lessons in "achieving
balance, confidence and personal strength."
They are lessons of considerable importance, as there is no such thing
as a life free of losses and setbacks. People who lack resilience are
less able to rise above adversity or learn from their mistakes and
move on. Instead of focusing on what they can control and accepting
responsibility for their lives, they waste time and energy on matters
beyond their influence.
As a result, the circumstances of their lives leave them feeling
helpless and hopeless and prone to depression. When things go wrong or
don't work out as expected, they tend to think "I can't do this" or,
even worse, "It can't be done."
Children learn to be resilient when parents and guardians enable and
encourage them to figure out things for themselves and take
responsibility for their actions. When Ray Charles lost his sight at
age 7, his mother insisted that he use his good brain and learn how to
make his way in the world. In the movie "Ray," she watched silently
after the newly blind boy tripped over furniture, cried for her help
and then struggled to his feet unaided.
It's Never Too Late
Children need to learn that they are capable of finding their way on
their own. Parents who are too quick to take over a task when children
cry "I can't do this" or don't insist that children learn from their
mistakes are less likely to end up with children who can stand on
their own two feet, take responsibility for their lives and cope
effectively with unavoidable stresses.
The same applies to parents who provide children with everything they
want instead of teaching them limits and having them earn their
rewards and to those who make excuses for their children and
repeatedly defend them against legitimate complaints.
But even if these lessons are not learned in childhood, experts like
Dr. Brooks and Dr. Goldstein, who also wrote "Raising Resilient
Children" and "Nurturing Resilience in Our Children," say it is
possible to learn to be more resilient at any age. The trick lies in
replacing what they call "negative scripts" that may have been written
in childhood, but are not cast in stone, with more positive scripts.
People who harbor negative scripts expect that no matter what they do,
things will not work out well; they assume that others must change for
circumstances to improve.
'Authors of Our Lives'
So lesson No. 1, Dr. Brooks and Dr. Goldstein write, is "to recognize
that we are the authors of our lives."
"We must not seek our happiness by asking someone else to change,"
Rather, we should ask, "What is it that I can do differently to change
the situation?" Identify your negative scripts and assume
responsibility for changing them.
Nurture your self-esteem. Be true to yourself rather than trying to be
what someone else expects of you. Focus on what you can do, tasks you
can achieve, situations you can influence. Take an active role in your
community or in an organization or activity that helps others.
Develop a new skill: learn a language or a new sport or how to fix a
car; take up knitting, cooking or woodworking; join a book club; try
out for an amateur production; become a docent at a museum; help
organizations that feed the elderly and infirm; volunteer your
services at community groups like the local Y, school, library or
There are myriad opportunities; just look or ask around and you will
Take a chance on change if jobs, habits or activities you've long
pursued are no longer satisfying or efficient.
Change is frightening to people who lack resilience, but those who try
it usually find that they land on their feet, and that fosters
And if a new path does not seem to be working out well, change again.
Take a long, hard look at the people in your life and consider
abandoning friends who drag you down or reinforce your negative
scripts. For those - like family members - from whom you can't escape,
practice ignoring their put-downs and not taking them so seriously.
Seek out activities that elevate your spiritual life and nurture your
inner strength: for example, art, music, literature, religion,
meditation, the great outdoors.
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