Resiliency and success

In my field of PTSD research, the word resilience comes up a lot. Why are some people resilient after trauma while others develop PTSD? I often question whether PTSD represents a lack of resilience or is just a normal response, given an individual’s resources, that allows one to survive life-threatening trauma.


Merriam-Webster defines psychological resilience as “an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.” I would expand this definition to say “an ability to adapt one’s functioning in the face of adversity—and to return to healthy functioning in the absence of adversity.”


But what does adaptation look like? Some people say that hiding any signs of pain or struggle to keep forging on is adaptation. Much of our society embraces retaliatory reactions to someone showing signs of struggling. Those who express their struggles may be seen as weak, get fired, or lose relationships. This is disempowering and counterintuitive to true resilience. Suppressing emotions is unhealthy and not sustainable for long-term survival, so how does one truly remain resilient and successful in a culture that stigmatizes struggle?


Hiding struggles and suppressing emotions is, in some instances, adaptive. If you’re in an environment that is unsupportive and unsafe, being vulnerable enough to experience things like anger and grief may just lead to more pain. Sadness won’t help you survive a combat or abuse situation. PTSD symptoms like hypervigiliance and dissociation can be necessary for survival in traumatic situations, but once you reach a place of safety, they are no longer adaptive and interfere with relationships and healthy functioning. Resilience is being able to focus on survival instincts when needed, but also being able to experience vulnerability when safe.


For me personally, when I speak publicly about my experiences with sexual trauma, I’m often largely emotionally disconnected. I have to be in order to get through that. But once I get to safe place (home, my car, etc.) I’ll let myself cry or scream or do whatever I need to do, because I know that staying emotionally disconnected like that leads to all kinds of problems like substance abuse and relationship problems. This is a way in which I remain resilient and successful–by learning when/where/how to be vulnerable and when/where/how to protect myself. But for me, it took many years before I found anywhere that was safe. Knowing where I was safe and how to express my emotions and struggles were things I had to learn, they didn’t just come naturally to me. Resiliency isn’t necessarily an innate characteristic that you either have or don’t have—you can learn to be more resilient—and it often depends on having supportive people around you who know your struggles and don’t see you as weak.


My ability to be resilient also depended on a shift in my definition of success. I’ve certainly been denied opportunities because of my openness about my history of addiction and mental illness and my quickness to express my emotions in a professional setting, but in being open about these things and honest with myself and those around me, I found profound healing that I wouldn’t have otherwise, and to me, that is my greatest success. And in those lost opportunities, I realized that I wouldn’t have been able to thrive in those environments anyway because of that stigma of being “weak.” In being more open, I found both professional and personal environments that I could thrive in. But I know those are few and far between, so I hope we can continue to encourage true resiliency and mental health instead of shaming people for their struggles.


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