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Aurbach: Recalibrating Resilience, Part 3

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Editor's note: This is the third of a three-part series on resilience. The first and second parts were posted on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Robert Aurbach

Robert Aurbach

Look around at resilient people. They don't look the same. There's the entrepreneur, who lost a fortune but is unconcerned because he or she can always make more money. There is the Zen master, for whom none of the troubles of this world are of great concern. They are both very resilient, yet their approaches are significantly different. The single mom, working two jobs and studying at night, is resilient, too. Yet she doesn't look at all like the entrepreneur, the Zen master or the eternal optimist who is sure that something good is just around the corner.
Different people have different styles or strategies for their favored way of calming adverse self-talk. The preferences and mix of resilience skills that they possess are a function of what life has taught them — lessons learned from the person's upbringing, formal training, life challenges overcome and failures experienced. There are no "right" or "wrong" preferences among these styles, and most people have some skill in more than one style. An understanding of our preferences among these skills is merely a guide to what is comfortable for us at this life stage. If we try to build a skill that is in the "preferred" range there is a better chance that it will be practiced enough to become habitual. Try to learn a resilience strategy that doesn't appeal, and the chances of practicing it enough to “make it your own" are diminished.

The listing of resilience "styles" that follows is not absolute. It is a convenient way of understanding and classifying resilience skills that appears to lead people to better understanding.   

There is also a continuum of focus within each skill category. Each skill can be focused internally, where someone relies on her own resources. An entrepreneur has great belief in his or her ability to master a business situation. Strong belief can be focused externally, as in a person of great religious faith. Each of the styles described has a range of approaches differentiated by this dimension of "internal" and "external" focusing, which can lend additional assistance in selecting a suitable new resilience skill to build.

Believer Skills

Strong belief can calm or drown out negative messages from the world, allowing the possessor of that belief to continue as if the negative message were not present.  Entrepreneurs and politicians are classic examples of people who appear to have great faith in their own abilities. They often can shrug off, or fail to credit, external criticisms. People with this preference may assess a wide range of life challenges as being well within their capabilities, with varying degrees of accuracy. Internally focused believer skills can quiet self-doubt, allowing decisive action.

Believer skills can also be externally focused. Strong spiritual faith, or strong belief in a cause or ideal, can allow people to persevere in the face of nearly overwhelming opposition. The focus on an external belief does at least two things — it creates a confirmation bias, where we interpret events as confirming what we already thought would happen. If William has a belief that the insurer is going to act inappropriately, he will see every decision that doesn't favor him as confirming that belief. He has no need to look for another explanation, so there is no inner doubt or conflict. Where the belief is in an external source of intervention or protection, it can provide strong reassurance in the face of doubt and anxiety.

William suffered a shoulder injury while working. Through a combination of circumstances the injury left him with permanent limited use of that shoulder. The work that was known to him is now unavailable, and he has gone through a difficult period where he lost his identity as a worker, and his sense of purpose. William became able to let go of the experience and move on with his life when he realized that he had a deep and abiding belief in the power of individuals to help others. He now runs a food bank for injured workers and their families, has established a memorial for deceased workers and actively counsels injured people the system has "thrown on the scrap heap of life." His own life is now full and fulfilling, and when there are dark days they are quickly lightened by the recollection of the importance of his work.

Reframer Skills

Sometimes the negative message from the world can be tamed if there is a way of understanding what is happening that makes sense. For people relying on reframer skills, the ability to find an explanation or a lesson to be learned puts them comfortably back in control of the situation. The externally focused reframer will replay an unpleasant event for the purpose of finding a meaning. Once having found a "silver lining" to the cloud or a lesson from the event, the inner voice is quieted and the event can be safely filed away without a disruption of the reframer's sense of self or place in the world.

The internal manifestation of reframing is optimism. Stability is achieved by focusing on the best of people and the unfolding of events in the face of adversity. When something unpleasant happens, the internal reframe holds on to the underlying principle and creates an explanation that explains the event as an aberration. If an optimist is disappointed by someone's behavior, she can quiet the concern by saying that "people are still good, but that person must be having a bad day." With the explanation in place, the belief system remains and the optimist's sense of control over his or her life is unshaken.

Margret was having a meeting with several colleagues when she mentioned the point of view of the claimant with regard to an action. One of the colleagues virtually yelled the word "irrelevant!" in response. A few moments later Margaret tried to raise the issue again and got the same vehement response. She lost sleep that night, playing the scene over and over in her mind, trying to understand what had gone wrong. When she realized that she had inadvertently triggered in the colleague a set of established associations that included significant anger, she was able to get to sleep and seek help for the colleague the next day. It turned out the colleague had herself been previously injured and harbored a lot of anger toward the treatment she had received. Margaret was able to regain her personal control in the situation and quiet her reaction to the confrontation.

Achiever Skills

The achiever uses constant activity to remove the opportunity for negative messages to be considered. While engaged in activity, planning or preparation, the achiever can push out concerns about success, consequences and appropriateness. The externally focused achiever may fill her time with work, study, parental duties, activities or a combination of them. The single mom, who works two jobs, takes care of her children and studies in the evening, simply leaving no room or energy for rumination about anything but the tasks at hand.
Achievers who are internally focused tend to set aside their concerns when engaged in activities that have been determined by primarily internal motivations. People "driven" to achieve their own goals, such as amateur musicians, sportsmen and craftsmen, can ignore their concerns and regain a measure of their sense of control while engaged in their activity.  People who have retired from working life are told to "get a hobby" to deal with their sense of lost purpose.  

There was a female bodybuilder in the news recently. She didn't start out with bodybuilding in mind. In fact, she was an injured worker who detested the gym. Her injury required physical rehabilitation after healing, and the gym her therapist utilized had a strong emphasis on physical development. The social situation got her to try to fit in. One day she realized that the "hated" exercises had resulted in a positive change in her physical appearance. Suddenly, the gym sessions were more rewarding and became a motivating force in her life. Her sense of doubt and desperation concerning returning to work disappeared as she threw herself into her exercise and the social aspect of gym participation. After recovery and return to work she continued her new routine and eventually became a competitive bodybuilder at a sufficiently high level to attract media attention.

Distancer Skills

The distancer is able to avoid the negative messages of the inner voice by selectively focusing on something else. The quieting of the inner voice, relative to the object of focus, creates a "breathing space" allowing the restoration of a sense of control. By creating this "time out" the distancer is able to get perspective and act going forward in a more considered manner.

A distancer focused on inner resources presents an outwardly calm image, although he or she may be expending significant effort in maintaining the state. Images of the Zen master, or the yoga practitioner in the savasana pose, come to mind. The practice of mindfulness meditation is a more common manifestation of internal distancer practice. Internal visualization practices used by athletes and others also fit into this category, and they are shown to have to positively impact performance, suggesting that visualization is a form of neuroplastic repetition. In this way, the practice of internal distancer techniques also serves to train new pathways and engrain new behaviors.

The external distancer uses outward focus to achieve the same sort of result. Computerized video games are designed to provide a focus for attention, and are addictive precisely because they allow the creation of space between the person and the messages that self-talk is attempting to deliver. More benign forms of external distancing include many hobbies and activities such as golf, gardening and fishing.

I moved from the American Southwest to a climate that could best be described as "maritime," with long periods of cloudy, cool and wet weather. After a period, I developed signs of seasonal affective disorder, with mood alterations during the extended winter months. One day I stopped and noticed a particularly beautiful landscape and took a few minutes to appreciate it. I noticed that my mood was lifted, and that the effect lasted the entire day. After practice, I learned that "stopping to smell the roses" was more than just a saying. I practiced it enough to make it part of my resilience toolbox, and the seasonal mood swings can be easily tamed when they occur by using that technique.

Now, what do we do with it?

The key to understanding individual resilience skill development is that people's individual experience and personality organization gives them a natural "preference" for some styles over others. Telling Margaret that she needs to do mindfulness meditation is unlikely to be helpful. She considers herself too busy to fit it in, and she isn’t likely to really try. It’s not bad advice, but it’s bad advice for Margaret because she will resist practicing the technique to the extent necessary to create the facilitated neural networks that make it a viable approach to increased resilience.

You’ll detect a conflict between the resilience skill offered and the individual's resilience skill preferences by their responses. Margaret might just say that she's too busy. William will react to positive psychological approaches by saying that it's too "touchy-feely." Some will simply deny that they need additional help. What is being expressed is discomfort with the approach being offered. One size truly does not fit all when it comes to resilience skills training.

The trick then is to individualize the approaches offered and give the individual something comfortable enough to practice and internalize. Once the preferences of the individual are known, training for specific skills can be offered that builds their "resilience toolbox." For most of us, life will have taught us one or more skills fairly well. The trick then is to pick a secondary preference among skill sets and build that approach. Then, when life overwhelms our usual defenses, we have a developed skill to fall back upon. Development of these backup resilience skills yields the "defense in depth" that we value when observing highly resilient people.

Fortunately, it is fairly easy to ask a few questions and get a good indication for the current preferences an individual has among resilience skills. With that knowledge, it’s much easier to offer William or Margaret a skill-building program that is more likely to be successful because it is chosen to work within their existing preferences.

That isn’t to say it’s easy or automatic. A new skill must be practiced, with focused attention, on a consistent basis over time to be internalized. Making new resilience habits is no harder, and no easier, than the development of any other habit or skill. It takes practice and commitment to learn to recognize the signs of failure of normal resilience techniques and to automatically reach for the appropriate skill set for the circumstance.

Achieving Balance

Resilience isn't a universally positive skill. We have words for unhelpful resilience — "stubbornness" “obsessiveness” and "lack of insight." When an injured worker is consistently misinterpreting the attempts of the system to provide high quality and necessary care, they are tenaciously holding on to their beliefs and drowning out the positive messages that the workers' compensation system is trying to send. The writer of long, detailed complaining emails may be using achiever techniques. The belligerent claimant may be reframing what was presented to them in a way that "twists the words" of the claims manager. The disengaged claimant may be using distancer techniques.

Disability can become a way of life and a new identity to replace the identity that the former worker lost. The probability of return to work diminishes as neuroplastic changes replace the habit of being a worker with the habits associated with a new reality. Resilience in such instances may become an active blocker to efforts to resumption of the worker's former identity.

Fortunately the brain engages in what the neuroscientists call "competitive neuroplasticity."  That is, an old engrained pattern can be recycled and a more adaptive response engrained in its place. This is the equivalent of breaking an old habit and replacing it with something better.  The old behavior becomes less automatic as a new behavior becomes increasingly engrained and takes its place. It's not easy and takes focused attention and practice over time. The point is, practice makes perfect, even in giving up old maladaptive behaviors.

The point is that there is hope, even for long-term claimants who have solidified networks of association that hold them in a state of needless disability. The science is there. We just have to break through our old habits of thought and learn to use it.

What’s Next?

The next step is discovering your own personal style preferences. Do you find a silver lining to every cloud? Do you rely upon your beliefs or activity to separate yourself from troublesome thoughts? Do you have ways to just shut the outside world out when you need to?

Determining your resilience style preference is easy. It takes about five minutes, and it’s free. From there, you must choose a new skill that will appeal to you enough to use it. The final step is to practice, practice, practice. Learn to recognize when you’re feeling overwhelmed by the challenges you face and make the conscious decision to use your new skill. Keep at it and it will become a habit, and you will be better able to deal with what life throws at you.

A free Resilience Styles preference profiling tool can be found here.

Robert Aurbach is owner of Uncommon Approach, a consulting firm, and former chief legal officer for the New Mexico Workers' Compensation Administration.

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