One of our most persistent psychological myths is that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. Abuse and disadvantage in fact have the opposite effect. We are weakened, and in some cases permanently diminished by significant traumas.
But some of us fare better than others in the lottery of endurance and renewal, and employers have recently set their sights on how to train us to be more competitive in the challenge of rolling with life’s punches.
Companies including NAB, BP and Royal Dutch Shell are now offering “resilience training” to their employees, and in line with recent studies of similar programs across a number of companies, it appears to be working.
Like the army, police force and schools, which have been delivering programs to help soldiers and their families accept and adapt to the horrors of war, the trauma of policing and the impact of bullying, corporations are having some impact on their workers’ ability to continue to be productive within a culture of hard knocks.
The idea of resilience holds great fascination for anyone interested in how some people manage to survive the most terrible circumstances. Resilience is used to describe a human quality of internal elasticity; a psychological and physiological flexibility that allows us to bend and not break under pressure. We know quite a lot about resilience and what promotes and destroys it.
Their ordeals have taught us a great deal about coping and thriving under unspeakable conditions and about the nature and circumstances of those who thrive in spite of them.
And we also know something about those of us who are most likely to have our resilience stolen, eroded and destroyed. The most significant risk factors for a lowered capacity to bounce back from difficult times are environmental. Poverty, racism, sexism, social exclusion, sexual, physical and emotional abuse, and limited access to services and supports all impair our resilience.
In other words, it is the most vulnerable among us that are the most wounded by adversity and the most likely to be increasingly impacted by subsequent painful life events. These are the people who are likely to break and not bend. Self care strategies that increase resilience can be acts of creative survival for those living on the brittle margins; even, as author Audre Lorde once stated in A Burst of Light, “an act of political warfare”.
But as part of an overall corporate productivity plan, resilience training comes pre-packaged as just another way to ask the most overburdened to take on even more in the service of the institution; in this case more responsibility for the care of themselves. This sort of strategic training basically assumes the conditions that are impacting their employees’ resilience are either inevitable or desirable.
If this were truly so, then we might confidently view workshops on enhancing our resilience as a kind of unquestionably good exercise. A sort of bircher muesli for the psyche. But in this case, rather than simply asking whether these strategies work, we need to question what it is we’re being trained to bear and who it is we’re being asked to bend for.
In the case of the most prominent organisations currently accessing resilience training, it’s the misuse of power we’re being trained to bear. The killing of other humans. The arrest and incarceration of the most disadvantaged members of our society. The bullying of children and the destruction of the environment. And we’re being asked to bend for the corporation and the institutions of education, warfare and law enforcement.
Building resilience can truly be a creative act of survival. Every week I work with people who have lived through all manner of terrible things. Part of our work together always involves strategies to stretch to bear the unbearable. How to exist with untimely death, violence, trauma and abuse of all kinds and still keep living with some vibrancy and direction. How not to be broken by what has happened.
But there is a second, crucial part to supporting people’s internal flexibility; the development of a capacity to refuse to squander energy and personal resources on the people, communities and institutions that are draining them. Without this step, the environment remains unchanged and unchallenged, and the conditions that often unfairly demand their disciplined attention to shoring themselves up, continue to flourish.
The best example I have of this second step is in my supervision of counsellors who have worked in our detention centres. Some of this supervision is by necessity education in resilience building. They have to survive the experience after all. But it is not enough to survive, and it’s arguably impossible in the long term.
The next step is always to speak, to challenge and to refuse to participate again. Resilience is always a circular relationship, a looping interaction between the individual and their environment, each affecting and changing the other.
When we keep training the same people to withstand the same pressures, how to manage the increasing stress of the workplace, the pain and fear of war, the inequality of the schoolyard, we simply reinforce the same systems that cause the same distress in a never ending and self-perpetuating cycle. And it’s always the same people who are being asked to take better care of themselves, needing to become more and more flexible as the pressures mount.
The study of human resilience began with observing people in situations we hoped would never happen again and circumstances we wanted to change. If the structures that erode our strengths go unchallenged, then training in resilience becomes just another efficient way to get the most vulnerable to continue to prop up the system that wears them down.