Lessons in Resilience: The Stories We Tell and Why They Matter

Have you ever wondered what makes it easier for some to bounce back after a tragedy than others? Or why hundreds facing the same life-changing event wind up on drastically different paths? Imagine a young woman whose childhood was rife with trauma: perhaps she grew up in impoverished conditions, where she experienced chronic abuse, and lacked a proper support system. Now imagine this same young woman went on to earn an advanced degree and developed a nonprofit organization to help youth living in poverty.

Though not often so cut and dried, stories like this are not uncommon. But unfortunately, neither are their counterparts. Imagine this woman had a sister, who began using drugs at an early age, and struggled with addiction and homelessness throughout her life. What about these two women led them to have such strongly contrasting outcomes?

The answer lies not only in the development of resilience in its many forms, but in our personal narratives, or the stories we tell ourselves. Each of these concepts has tremendous impact on the shape our lives take, and what differentiates those who bounce back from those who never fully recover. Let’s unpack them, one by one.

Resilience has taken on many meanings throughout its long history, but scientists who study stress and resilience say it’s helpful to think of it as an emotional muscle that can be strengthened at any time. The American Psychological Association defines resilience as, “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress – such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors”. Resilience is not a trait that is either present or absent, but consists of behaviors, thoughts, and actions that experts agree can be learned and developed by anyone. It’s therefore not our exposure to potentially traumatic events that determines later functioning, but how we respond to them.

Resilience has been historically difficult to measure, largely because it emerges, or fails to do so, only in the presence of adversity. If you’ve been fortunate enough to face few challenges or obstacles, it may be difficult to gauge just how resilient you are. Furthermore, the types of stressors we experience vary widely, in both duration and intensity. While the intensity of acute stressors, such as experiencing or witnessing a violent crime, is often high, more chronic stressors may produce less stress, but their cumulative impact is far greater.

So just how can you strengthen your resilience muscle?

So just how can you strengthen your resilience muscle? Having a loving and caring support system, both in and outside the family, is one of the key components, or protective factors, in building resilience; as are maintaining a positive view of yourself and your surroundings, the ability to manage intense feelings and impulses, problem-solving and communication skills, and the capacity to develop realistic plans and see them through.

Another well-researched protective factor is maintaining an internal locus of control, or believing that you, rather than your life circumstances, impact your successes. In fact, a more internal locus of control is tied to perceiving less stress and performing better, while shifting from an external to an internal locus results in improvements in psychological well-being and work performance.

Building resilience is not a one-size-fits-all journey, but unique to each person’s personal identity and development, and may hinge on one’s cultural practices and beliefs. Therefore, it’s important to understand that not all approaches work for everyone. Similarly, as not all individuals respond the same way to a traumatic event, the strategies they adopt will vary depending on their given response style.

Some common strategies for building resilience include: establishing strong social ties within your family, circle of friends, or community; accepting change as a natural part of life; viewing crises as obstacles to be surmounted; seeking opportunities for self-discovery; and taking care of yourself through engaging in activities you enjoy and find relaxing.

While ruminating on negative experiences is often not adaptive, you can use these experiences to gain insight into the strategies for building resilience that have been most helpful in the past. You might ask yourself, what kind of events have been most stressful for me; what have I learned about myself and my interactions with others during these times; what has helped me feel hopeful about the future; and, how have I been able to overcome obstacles before?

It’s helpful to keep in mind that resilience can be developed or strengthened at any point in one’s life, and is not out of the ordinary. Most individuals demonstrate extraordinary measures of courage, flexibility, and adaptation in the face of extreme setbacks or difficulties. If you’ve struggled to rebuild after a life-altering event, that doesn’t mean that you’ll continue to struggle in the future. Moreover, the traits exhibited in children who are resilient will likely look different from those in resilient adolescents or adults. By mid-life, for instance, you will undoubtedly have more events on which to reflect than a child of 5 or 6 might.

Common strategies for building resilience…

We can all learn something from resilient children, who tend to use whatever skills they have to their advantage. In a study published in 1989 that followed a group of 689 children over 32 years, these children were also shown to demonstrate a high level of autonomy, independence, and openness to new experiences.

It’s adults, however, that have an advantage in demonstrating a capacity to write, and rewrite, their life stories. One’s life story is not simply a rehashing of events and experiences of one’s life, but something far more profound: it’s a sort of retelling based on how such events are incorporated internally, pieced apart, and woven back together to make meaning. They become incorporated into our identities, a living piece of art that is significant not just for what it includes, but for how and with whom it is shared.

“A life story doesn’t just say what happened, it says why it was important, what it means for who the person is, for who they’ll become, and for what happens next,” writes Julie Beck. Crafting our life story is hardly an easy task. Rarely do our lives unfold in the typical narrative fashion, with a beginning, climax, and happy ending. Instead, our lives are often messy and unpredictable, and leave us longing for the logical progression a good story follows.

Yet stories can help us make sense of our existence, and instill a sense of order in the midst of unanswered questions and inevitable chaos. You may craft a narrative around your work life, your romantic relationship, your role as a parent, and your spiritual relationship. These narratives might simultaneously converge with and contradict one another, while revealing fundamental truths about the self.

Our stories are influenced not only by the details of which they’re composed, but by the way we tell them to others. We may recount a story differently to a close friend than to our boss, or around the dinner table than during a job interview. This not only impacts the way we remember them, but retelling our stories serves to reinforce them and strengthen their salience in our lives.

Crafting our life story is hardly an easy task.

Culture, too, plays a significant role in the types of stories we tell. For instance, in a culture that values independence, education, and financial success, our narratives will tend to reflect that. Conversely, when our stories fail to adhere to such values, we may feel a sense of personal loss or inadequacy.

Two story themes in particular – agency, or a sense of control over your life, and feeling like you have a good support network – tend to correlate with better well-being. In a longitudinal study of 47 adults, increased agency appeared in participants’ stories before well-being improved, suggesting that a sense of agency was a driving force behind gains made.

But how accurate are the stories we tell ourselves and others? Biases, personality differences, and emotions all influence the way we perceive and interpret events. Experts say that it’s not necessarily the accuracy of our stories that matters, but the deeper meaning they evoke. ‘“What really matters is whether people are making something meaningful and coherent out of what happened. Any creation of a narrative is a bit of a lie. And some lies have enough truth,”’ says Monisha Pasupathi, a professor of developmental psychology at the University of Utah.

As for the pieces of your life that don’t fit neatly into your construed narrative, they’re still worth including. Our stories are flexible, not fixed, and continually evolving. They’re not intended to eliminate what doesn’t fit, but to make room for it, and come to terms with it in a way that yields understanding, perhaps even comfort.

Story editing, or making small tweaks to your stories, can have profound benefits for emotional health. For instance, after performing poorly on a test, imagine a student telling himself, “I’m stupid.” Now, imagine this student were to change his narrative to, “Everyone struggles on exams sometimes.” Such a minor shift can have major implications on how this student views himself, his capacity to do well in school, and how he performs on future exams.

We may not always choose how the plot of our life unfolds …

Expressive writing can help us gain new perspective on the challenges we face. Simply writing about a troubling event for 15 minutes each day for 4 days has been shown to decrease mental anguish, improve physical health, and increase work attendance. As you write about the troubling event, you begin to make sense of it, and can quiet the thoughts around it that consume your mind.

Similarly, a number of studies have shown that writing about oneself and one’s experiences can improve mood disorders, symptoms among cancer patients, and health after a heart attack; it can also reduce doctor’s visits and even boost memory. Some researchers believe that by writing and rewriting our life stories, we can alter our perceptions of ourselves, while addressing obstacles that stand in the way of better health. ‘“Writing forces people to reconstrue whatever is troubling them and find new meaning in it,”’ says Timothy D. Wilson, a University of Virginia psychology professor.

If you’re looking for help in rewriting your story, Tris Thorp of the Chopra Center suggests that you frame your future in the positive. You have a choice in how you interpret your life’s circumstances. “You can choose to focus on the negative by looking at all that is wrong, which leads to more pain and suffering,” Thorp writes, “or you can choose to look for what’s right – to find the gifts or the opportunities – which leads to more potential, and more joy, happiness, and fulfillment.” As you shift the way you think about your future, you begin to reimagine and rewrite your past.

We all have a story within us, that is continually reshaped by our struggles and victories, our tests and triumphs. We may not always choose how the plot of our life unfolds, but we can choose whether we see a tragedy as a beginning or an ending. We can choose how we stand up to our villains, and make peace with battles we’ve lost, and those we continue to fight. We can tell our stories in a way that empowers us, rather than diminishes our strengths. Most of all, we can use our stories for good, to lift ourselves up, and to help those around us who are still learning to stand, and stand again.

Writing Exercises:

1.Write a letter to your future self, and reflect on what you might tell yourself about your present struggles. Include how you overcame them, what the hardest part was, and how you’ve grown.

2. Write what you expect your future self will have learned from this chapter of your life, and how you can use this wisdom the next time you face a difficult situation.

3. Make a list of 5 ways you hope to strengthen your resilience muscle this year. Be specific. For instance, instead of writing “expand my social network”, try “begin volunteering with my church group”.

4. Think about one area of your life story you’d like to rewrite. Perhaps it revolves around a relationship, a loss, an experience from your childhood, or a present worry. Write 3 sentences that reflect your current narrative, and 3 sentences that reflect the new one.

5. Write about a recent time when you exhibited resilience. What was the experience like for you? How would you describe it to a friend who is going through a difficult time?

This article originally appeared on DailyGood