Resilience and Mental Health, Northern Ireland, Oct 07

Saturday, 02 April 2011 01:56

The Meaning of Resilience.

Psychologists who want to make a name for themselves have found that they can achieve this by taking some word and claiming that it stands for an aspect of human behaviour that has not been recognised until then. For instance, about ten years ago, some American psychologists discovered self-esteem. We were told that it was a new idea and that it was very important. But we soon discovered that self-esteem was just another name for self-confidence.

More recently the same process has been applied to the word ‘resilience’. Just as some people don’t have much self-esteem and others have lots, so resilience is something that some people have and some people don’t. For Mental Health Week I’ve been asked to talk about how people can acquire resilience.

When I looked up the word ‘resilience’ in my dictionary I found that it was defined as ‘the quality of being resilient’. ‘Resilient’ comes from the Latin ‘re, meaning back’ and ‘salire meaning to jump’. So the first definition of ‘resilient’ is ‘springing back into shape or position after being stretched, bent or compressed’. The second meaning the dictionary gives is ‘recovering strength, spirits, etc quickly’.

In this second meaning, resilient is what observers might see in a person who has suffered some disaster. When that person is back at work, leading an ordinary life, being cheerful and not complaining, we remark, gratefully, that the person is resilient. But what is going on inside the person might be something very different. Most of us are very good at presently an acceptable face to the world and not showing the turmoil inside ourselves. However, the way we feel when we’re on our own can be very different.

If we want to understand ourselves and other people we need to remember one Golden Rule. This is what determines our behaviour isn’t what happens to us but how we interpret what happens to us.Thus three people might suffer the same disaster but each interprets the disaster in his or her own individual way. One person can interpret it as a total defeat, another as punishment for his wickedness, and the third as a challenge to be mastered.

Thus it is that some people can feel utterly defeated and hopeless but pretend to be resilient because they don’t want others to despise or pity them. Some people can blame themselves for the disaster that has befallen them, lock themselves in the prison of depression and each day, as one depressed person told me, ‘put on a face to face the day’. Some people can not only appear to be resilient but actually be resilient because they have interpreted the disaster as a challenge to be mastered.

When we interpret a disaster as a challenge to be mastered we have chosen to draw on two wonderful qualities, courage and perseverance.  Courage means acknowledging that you are afraid but choosing to act as though you were not. Perseverance means that you have recognised that the situation is not going to be put right through one courageous act but that, by keeping on being courageous no matter how long it takes, you might be able to achieve your goal.

How can we acquire the qualities of courage and perseverance?

Before I go on I want to tell you something about myself that relates to what I’m going to say. I was born in Australia in 1930. The Australia I was born into was Northern Ireland without the Troubles. Australian society was divided into two groups, Catholic and Protestant. There were two totally separate educational systems, and two horrible mythologies which each group believed about the other. There was no socialising between the two groups. The only reason we didn’t have the Troubles was because both groups had the same economic and political advantages. When I arrived in England in 1968 and began making visits to Northern Ireland I felt I had stepped back in time to my childhood. Australia ceased to be like Northern Irelandwhen the Catholic school system could no longer cope with the influx of migrants from predominantly Catholic countries. The rules were changed. Catholic parents were now allowed to send their children to state schools and Protestant parents could send their children to Catholic schools. Educated together, the children failed to learn the mythologies which had dominated their parents’ lives.

To return to courage and perseverance.

We all know what it is like to be afraid. We live in a world where terrible things can happen at any time. The people around us, for no good reason, can be exceedingly unpleasant to us. There are few things which we can control, and so we often feel helpless. When we are humiliated, treated as an object of no importance, or when we discover that there is a serious discrepancy between what we thought our life was and what it actually is, we feel our very self shattering ,crumbling, even disappearing, and we are terrified. Sometime we wake during the night full of nameless dread. How can we live with fear and keep on going?

To live with fear and not be destroyed by it, we have to feel that we’re valuable simply as a person. We don’t have to earn the right to exist. We exist, and so we have the right to exist. We have to feel that we are capable of acting and achieving our purpose. To live like this for all of our life we have to feel that we are capable of keeping on keeping on. In short, we are self-confident.

Babies are born full of unself-conscious self-confidence. You’ll never see a newborn baby wondering whether he’s acceptable or lovable. But within a few short months the confident baby has becomes a shy, self-conscious, diffident toddler. If he tries to be himself and do what he wants to do, the adults around him soon show him that this is unacceptable. Babies are born neither good nor bad, but the adults around them impose their ideas of goodness and badness on them. Small children learn very quickly that, as they are, they aren’t acceptable. They have to work hard to be good. Unfortunately, they’re not very skilled at understanding how their family actually defines ‘good’, and, even when they understand what the adults want, they’re not always able to meet the adults’ expectations. Unless the parents takes great care to separate what the child does from what the child is, that is, saying, ‘that was a bad thing you did’, and not ‘You are a bad child’, the child will grow up believing that he is, in essence, bad and unacceptable. Unfortunately, this belief is enshrined in Christianteaching that we are ‘born in sin’.

Over the last twenty years many parents have realised that the way parents discipline their children can destroy the children’s self-confidence. They understand how important it is to reward children for what they get right and to explain to a child, however young, why what he has done is wrong and how he can behave better. It warms the cockles of my heart when I’m out and about and I hear parents telling their children, ‘well done’, and ‘good girl’ and explaining why it’s not a sensible idea to step off the pavement without looking. Here in Northern Ireland, where both religious groups have traditionally been very keen on physical punishment, many people want the law changed so that children have the same protection against assault that adults enjoy. Unfortunately, there are still many people the world over who believe in the biblical adage, ‘spare the rod and spoil the child. Many of the children who were beaten by their parent will, in adult life, say, ‘I was beaten as a child and it never did me any harm’. They don’t realise that the harm they suffered was not to realise that they had suffered harm.

When young children are asked how they feel when they’re slapped or hit or beaten they all describe the event of one of intense pain and fear. Children who receive regular physical punishment have to find some way of defending themselves against the actual pain and fear they feel. One way of doing this is to deny that they feel any pain and fear. They refuse to feel any pity for themselves. However, acknowledging our own emotions allows us to imagine what other people feel. That is, we can feel empathy for others. Acknowledging our own pain and fear, and the pity we have for ourselves in this plight allows us to feel empathy for all other people who suffer. Denying our own pain and fear, and the pity we feel for ourselves, means that we deny other people’s pain and fear, and their need for our pity, and this denial allows us to be cruel to other people. Thus many of those who were beaten as children go on to beat their own children. It’s from their numbers come those who are willing to torture and kill. For instance, Gebhard Himmlerwas a high school principal who believed that sparing the rod would spoil the child. He regularly beat his three sons. The oldest, also called Gebhard, would describe these beatings ironically as being ‘liberally rewarded’. The middle son, Heinrich, went on to become the Reichsfuhrer of the SS, who organised the systematic murder of millions of people during the Third Reich.

In his years in power Heinrich Himmler appeared to be supremely self-confident. However, this self-confidence was built on two lies, the lie that being beaten by his father hadn’t done him any harm, and the lie that the group he belonged to, the German people, was superior to all other races. As always happens when we build our self-confidence on a lie, when Himmlerfaced disaster his self-confidence vanished. He lacked the courage to face his British captors. He swallowed the poison capsule he carried in his mouth and died.

When, as children, we learn to think of ourselves as being bad and unacceptable, we can try to overcome the problems caused by our diminished self-confidence by telling ourselves that, even though we are not acceptable at least we belong to the best group in the world. This may be a nationalist group, or religious, or racial group. We can build our whole identity on our membership of this group. It can be great fun to support a football team, or, if you’re an Australian, to tease the English about always beating them at sport, but, if you believe that it is an absolute truth that your group is superior to all other human beings, you have built your self-confidence on a lie.

Human beings differ in the way they look and in the ideas they hold, but genetically we’re not different from one another. Our DNA show different lines of inheritance, but, in terms of the genetic make-up of our species, we’re all the same. Moreover, all human beings want the same things. We all want to feel that we are acknowledged by others as being a person, not an object of no importance. We all want to feel that our life has significance, that we have a respected place in society, and that we have good relationships with other people. The more we learn about other people, the more we see how we all strive to achieve, and how we all sometimes fail, and sometimes succeed. We all make the same kinds of mistakes and long for the same things. We all want love and closeness, yet we want to be independent, and we all try to overcome our fear of death. No group has a monopoly on goodness, and no group is completely and irredeemably bad.

Parents describe the world to their children and most children learn to see the world through their parents’ eyes. In our teens we often rebel against our parents’ ideas, but we have already learnt these ideas and can easily fall back on them when it suits us to do so. If parents teach their children that they, the children, are, in essence, bad, and have to work hard to be good, and that the children belong to the most superior group of people in the world, then what self-confidence the children have is built on these two lies. As they get older some children are wise enough to recognise these two beliefs as lies and so discard them, but many do not. When faced with disaster, their courage may fail them. To be courageous we have to believe that in ourselves we are valuable as a person.

Where does perseverance come from? You may be following a television series called Child in Our Time which is presented by Robert Winston, the leading infertility scientist. In this a group of 25 children, born at the Millennium, have been filmed every year or so carrying out certain tasks. In the last programme the parents and children were asked to do the same task but separately, so that the children didn’t know what their parents had done. This particular task has been a favourite with psychologists for many years. Some poor hapless subjects are asked to plunge their forearm into a bucket of ice cold water. In some experiments the psychologist measures different physiological changes but in this particular experiment each person was asked to keep their arm in the water for as long as possible. One father, having ascertained that the maximum time a person was allowed to keep their arm in the water was five minutes, made sure that he kept his arm in the freezing water for fully five minutes. In contrast, one mother put her hand in the water, shrieked, and immediately pulled it out. Can you guess which child in the group of children kept his arm in the water for the longest time, and which child removed his hand the moment he felt the cold water?

Children learn from their parents, but what impresses children the most is not what adults say but what adults do. If you want your child to be courageous, you have to be courageous. If you want your child to persevere at difficult tasks, you have to persevere at difficult tasks. However, children do not just look to their parents to see how to behave. They look at all the adults they meet and observe how they behave. A child might not know the word ‘hypocrisy’ but they recognise it when an adult says one thing and does another.

Children, like adults, are always busy creating ideas about who they are, what the world is, and what their future will be. Ideas are things we create, and, as we created them, we are free to change them. Our Ideas change over our lifetime, but just how they change depends on not what we encounter but how we interpret what we encounter.

Some situations are so different from anything we have ever encountered that, sensibly, we should change our ideas. But changing our ideas creates uncertainty. Many people fear uncertainty, so they hang on to their old ideas, especially those ideas about themselves and the world they live in. If there was a Nobel Prize for having the courage to change your ideas, the people of Northern Irelandwould win it. You’ve been courageous, and you’ve persevered. I might even call you resilient

However, the word resilient worries me. As many of you have discovered, when we suffer a significant personal disaster and feel overwhelmed by grief and confusion, the people around us will, for a short while, give us comfort and support. However, witnessing another person’s grief is very difficult, and so, all too soon, those around us will want us to be ‘over it’ and ‘getting on with our life’. They want us to be resilient. They take no account of the fact that we have suffered a loss of something that can never be replaced.

Five weeks ago, in Essex, the body of a 17-year-old girl, Natasha Coombes, was found beside a railway track. Her mother Joanne was reported as saying that the loss of her only child was ‘unbearable’. Not long after Joanne’s body was found beside the same piece of track where Natasha had died. A few days later the Guardian published an article by Barbara Anderson whose teenage daughter had died from cancer a year earlier. She wrote, ‘To bury a child is to confront the reality that no matter how many suppers you cooked, how many stories you read, how many cuddles you gave, you have ultimately failed. Waves of guilt wash over the bereaved parent. I have never found that anything that anyone said made any difference to that acrid, unpalatable feeling. I just had to go with it. In time, the guilt has abated a little, to be replaced with more bearable emotions of loss and longing. . . . I eat, sleep, function and fight against undue negativity. But I remain deeply, profoundly sad, underneath a quite cheerful exterior. I know I am much less psychologically robust than I was.’

Over our whole life span all of us suffer loss. Some people suffer more loss than others, but no one escapes. We can try to be courageous and persevering, but the sadness never completely disappears. The people around us should not expect us to deny our sadness. Instead, we should all use our sadness to inform our talent for empathy, not just for the other members of our group, but for all people everywhere. There has never been a time in the history of our species when the barriers between our different groups have needed to disappear so totally and so quickly. Our planet is rapidly changing to a climatic state which will no longer support human life. To prevent this, the entire population of the world need to work together. The people in Northern Irelandare in a unique position in helping to achieve this. You can show others how to bring a conflict to a peaceful end through honesty, courage and perseverance.


Dorothy Rowe Beyond Fear third edition HarperCollins

Dorothy Rowe Depression: The Way Out of Your Prison third edition Routledge

Barbara Anderson Too Much to Bear Guardian 25.09.07,,2176481,00.html