Resiliency: The Drive to Thrive

Book Review:  Bonnie Benard: Resiliency, What We Have Learned.

I came across this book while staffing a LifeRing table at a conference of teachers and other educators devoted to prevention and treatment of tobacco, alcohol and other drug use among students. The book was displayed on a neighboring table. The publisher is an education specialist, and the author has twenty years of background in youth development, focusing in recent years on resiliency.

Resiliency, like Shiva unfolding his arms, is many things; just how many becomes apparent as the book unfolds. In its most condensed form, resiliency is the answer to the question of how people recover from bad experiences: divorce, brutal parents, death of a loved one, developmental deficits, mental illness, delinquency, homelessness, cults, gang life, violence, sexual abuse, substance abuse, poverty, and so on. The mileage varies, but the dashboard of many studies persistently shows that the majority of children who are exposed to these “risk factors,” as the lingo has it, manage nevertheless to put together stable marriages and jobs, have satisfying relationships, and are responsible citizens in their communities. In other words, they recover; and the shorthand answer to how and why they did it is resiliency.

Much money has been spent on exploring the causes of addiction. Whether this has been on the whole a wise strategic investment in view of the slender returns, is open to debate. For purposes of lighting the path of those who struggle to emerge out of addiction, the urgent counsel of historian William White deserves a greater hearing, namely that we ought to put more energy into researching the causes of recovery. Of course, so long as recovery is thought to be a miracle, a divine act of grace bestowed according to the inscrutable logic of a higher power, recovery research appears to be not only futile but blasphemous, as if Man could classify and quantify the will of God. Fortunately, the 12-step paradigm has made little headway in the field of education, so that progress here is not only possible, but has been made – albeit against other, not unrelated barricades.

Benard opens with a brief survey of the past twenty years of resiliency studies in the US and Europe, and takes aim at three widespread misconceptions.

  • One myth is that “risk factors” predict negative outcomes. Wrong. Anywhere from 50 to 80 per cent of a population “at risk” survive and recover; in their lives, the “protective factors” make up a more powerful determinant than the stressors.
  • A second misconception is that the difference between young people who recover and those who succumb is due to hardwired variations in their brains, frozen at birth or in early childhood. Wrong. Contemporary neuroscience centers on the discovery of plasticity, the capacity of the brain to rewire itself with experience. This capacity is innate in all persons, and is not the special gift, or its absence the special doom, of a few. Benard deplores what she calls a “non-developmental, medical model” that focuses on defects and deficits and fails to see “the self-righting tendencies” that help people move toward recovery.
  • A third error is to conclude that the propensity of most young people to recovery excuses inaction in the face of growing global poverty, abuse, violence and other threats. On the contrary, the growing body of knowledge about the elements of resilience compels the adoption of deliberate policies aimed at strengthening these factors, because people are resilient, but not invincible.

Benard begins unpacking the concept of resiliency in the second chapter. Resiliency consists, very broadly, of four main characteristics, which she calls (1) social competence, (2) problem solving, (3) autonomy, and (4) sense of purpose. Different researchers use different vocabularies to describe these areas, but there is consensus that wherever resilience is found, regardless of ethnicity, culture, gender, geography, and time, something like these four headings will be present.

(1) Social competence in turn has several different facets. At its core, it is the ability to elicit positive responses from others. Emotional intelligence (as described by Goleman et al.) is a foundational skill, as is social communication, empathy, caring, compassion, altruism, forgiveness of self and others.

(2) Problem solving skills are many and diverse. Planning, flexibility, resourcefulness, inventiveness, critical thinking, insight, the ability to think things through and figure things out are all involved.

(3) Autonomy is a catch-phrase for a large subset of attributes revolving around development of one’s sense of self, one’s identity, and one’s power. Research of successful recoveries from adversity suggests that none of the other strengths, alone or in combination, will suffice unless there is also autonomy. Autonomy fosters a sense of interest, dedication, motivation, and commitment, and in its absence, these qualities wither. Autonomy enables a positive sense of identity, including identity as a close-knit member of a group. Essential to achieving a sense of autonomy is development of an internal locus of control and initiative – a sense of being in charge or having personal power. Its opposite, the sense of powerlessness,”has a long history in stress research, experimental psychology, social psychology, and social epidemiology as a major risk factor for disease.” A sense of self-efficacy (Bandura) is the key ingredient to success. Research has shown that “enhancing self-efficacy beliefs is crucial to successful change and maintenance of virtually every behavior crucial to health,” including recovery from addictions. Autonomy also includes adaptive distancing and resistance, self-awareness, mindfulness, and humor.

(4) Sense of purpose embraces a range of strengths such as goal directedness, optimism, creativity, a sense that one’s life has a meaning and that one has a place in the universe. A sense of hope is a key ingredient here. For some, religious or quasi-religious explanations provide this strength, but religious affiliations with a controlling or rigid orientation tend to foster antisocial behaviors. A sense of faith that is anchored in relationships with other people, or confidence in some center of value, rather than any specific religious affiliation, is associated with positive health and relational outcomes.

I was struck, in reading this chapter, how closely this tracks the approach that LifeRing has championed in the addictions recovery field. The “eliciting of positive responses from others,” which Benard identifies as the core of social competence, is also the core of what we do in LifeRing meetings.

(1) Social competence. We posit, and we structure the meeting on the axiom, that everyone present has a positive characteristic, which we call the Sober Self, and our foundational purpose in being there is to empower that characteristic in ourselves and others. Hence the radically positive nature of our group interaction, the embrace of crosstalk, all of it based on caring and empathy and contributing to the growth of emotional intelligence. It is not unusual to hear people say – and this is also my own experience – that a period of time in LifeRing meetings brings people out of the isolation into which their addiction so frequently drove them, reawakens the social skills they once had, and allows them to engage in normal, meaningful conversations with others not only within the support group, but out in the all-important “real world.”

(2) Problem solving skills. Our “How was your week?” meeting format is nothing if not a workshop in problem solving skills. Here people bring up the challenges of staying clean and sober that they are currently experiencing, and tell how they are solving or intend to solve them; and here others with similar experiences chime in. The extension of problem solving is planning: solving problems before they occur. The LifeRing project of building a Personal Recovery Plan, rather than fitting oneself into an algorithm designed and frozen 70 years ago, is exactly a mode of exercising and developing one’s problem solving skills.

(3) Autonomy! This foundational force of all resilience is the core of the LifeRing approach. We choose group support, we actively participate both as producers and consumers in a group process, not in order to lose ourselves in the group, but rather to find ourselves. The whole group process is a workshop for developing our autonomy. We build Personal recovery programs, with a capital P, because matching the program to our individual characteristics is not only good medicine, it makes for deep emotional investment and enduring motivation. We work to empower our sober self – an innate natural force that is always with us – because we dwell inside the protective exoskeleton of treatment and support group meetings only briefly, and we must develop within us the strength and smarts to survive as clean and sober people out in the world. We must not merely trade dependence on drugs for dependence on treatment or groups. We must be, and we can be, clean and sober autonomously.

(4) Sense of purpose. People spontaneously search for the larger meanings of things, and some of them will frame this quest in a religious vocabulary. Our secular environment allows LifeRing participants complete freedom to pursue their private quests for meaning; we do not attempt to impose any particular teleology on them. This freedom of belief is much appreciated. Its fans include some who already have firm theological persuasions that are not congruent with God’s job description as laid out in 12-step programs. Participants whose private quest for meaning focuses on service to others find a wide open avenue with LifeRing in the role of convenors.

In short, the LifeRing approach is excellently fitted to foster the four key qualities that make for resiliency.

Benard emphasizes, in the chapters that follow, that the component elements of resiliency are not personality traits that some children have, and others not. They are hardwired into all human beings, but (like genes themselves, in the modern understanding) their expression varies dynamically and with context. The motivation to engage with others, to solve problems, to be autonomous, and to make sense of life is intrinsic and universal, but the healthy development of these qualities depends on the presence of opportunities, resources, support, and other protective environmental factors. Among these protective factors, research identifies caring relationships, high expectations, and opportunities to participate and contribute as paramount. Interesting chapters on the role of parents (they are important, but not exclusively so), schools, and communities fill in many details in this broad outline.

Benard’s conclusion, while addressed to educators, maps rather nicely onto addiction recovery. She writes:

“I suggest that we need to begin with belief in the innate resilience of every human being and with the metaphor that all of us who work with youth are gardeners, whose young people are flowers in our care. Such gardeners understand that, like seeds, children have with them everything they need to be healthy and successful. In our role as gardeners, we do not need to tamper with the seed – the flower is in there. But we must understand the importance of providing a nurturing environment, one that responds to each individual. … If we can focus on our belief in young people’s innate resilience and developmental wisdom, we are in a position to find what allows each one to thrive.”

That is, we need to begin with belief in the innate sober self within each addicted individual. If we hope to be of use to such a person, we need to act as a gardener, knowing that the individual has within them everything they need to recover. Our job is not to tamper with them, but to provide a nurturing environment, responsive to the individual, where their inborn drive to survive can thrive.

This is, after all, only another way of phrasing the thought with which William White sums up the proper role of the addictions counselor in his masterwork, Slaying the Dragon, namely “to create a setting and an opening in which the addicted can transform their identity.”

It may be objected that Benard’s book is based mainly on research with young people, and that its lessons are inapplicable to people in later life, when brains (it is believed) are set in concrete. Yet modern neuroscience is well on the way to debunking this myth; the healthy brain, we now know, retains its ability to learn and to adapt indefinitely. (See, e.g. “This is Your Brain. Aging” by Sharon Begley, Newsweek, June 28 2010 p. 64.) The drive to connect with people, to figure things out, to be autonomous, and to make sense of life may well be as vigorous, or more so, in people who have many years of life experience than in those who are just beginning. Resiliency is within reach of all ages.

Resiliency: What We Have Learned, by Bonnie Benard, WestEd, San Francisco 2004. ISBN 978-0-914409-18-2.