Matthew Burns

What Resilience Means and Why It Matters

Written by Sedbergh School Wellbeing Coordinator, Ms Dee Adamson

Resilience is a crucial ingredient to a happier, healthier lifestyle. More than anything else, it’s what determines how high we rise above what threatens to wear us down in some of the harshest setbacks: from battling an illness, coping with grief, financial implications to name a few, yet we carry on and navigate ourselves, and others, through this COVID crisis.

Everyone needs resilience as it gives us the capacity to cope with change so we can continue to evolve in a positive way. The concept of resilience, the definition and its variables is what science tells us are critical in building a focus on optimism and its importance on wellbeing.

As Fredrickson/Tugade (2005) put it; “There are individuals who seem to ‘bounce back’ from negative events quite effectively, whereas others are caught in a rut, seemingly unable to get out of their negative streaks. Being able to move on despite negative stressors does not demonstrate luck on the part of those successful individuals but demonstrates a concept known as resilience”.

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Personally, I find optimism the foundation for managing. I use it in a strategic way down to my day-to-day decision making. To do that, I had to embrace a deliberate adjustment to my thinking process, as it wasn’t always that way! I was brought up with my intellectual, older brother, I spent a huge amount of time with him up until my mid-twenties. He had a considerable impact on my thought process but was a master of pessimistic humour with a carefree vision. As fun and cool as that was, it didn’t fill my void or give me balance. I needed to explore a different attitude to life. I had to visit the variables, go through a broad lexicon to look at my sensitive nature, thoughts, emotions and behaviours. It wasn’t the easiest journey, but in my experience as a recovering pessimist, optimism definitely does contribute to resilience.  

Applying resilience requires an understanding of how the resilience of any system is changing over time, what is causing that change and where and how to intervene to influence its future direction. At Sedbergh School, we do incorporate thinking and practice from across traditional resilience styles, but also adapt to address change. By building a capacity to apply resilience concepts and influence the way the staff and our organisation think about the future and their role in shaping it. Our adaptation is usually driven by the need to deal with known changes; to changing contexts and our circumstances within the current climate it is even more apparent.

During my own adaptation, mindfulness and meditation did, and still does, play an important role in my personal growth. Plus, living in the environment I do, in such a close community, I trust in my robust interpersonal relationships. I have an attachment to spirituality/faith, a deep connection to nature and a value of my current circumstance and purpose. I am proud of some of my achievements, I also laugh at myself a lot, take risks, fail miserably at times, pick myself up, analyse my mistakes and try and be better.

Additional evidence suggests that high-resilient people proactively cultivate their positive emotionality by strategically eliciting positive emotions through the use of humour”. (Werner & Smith, 1992)

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For young people, we need to allow them to make mistakes and fail, despite the possibility of falling flat on their faces, just like toddlers do, and we don’t always rush over to pick them up or they would never walk! To be more proactive, we should obviously praise our young people when they try. Be careful about what you praise, though. If you praise only success, children learn to think that failure is bad. But failure isn’t good or bad, it’s just a possible outcome and that’s okay!

For resilience building, go back to the old saying, “When at first you don’t succeed try, try again”.  It’s easy for young people to throw in the towel: “I am not good enough”, “I can’t do it”, “It’s too difficult”, “They don’t like me!” Reinforce it’s okay to fall and get back up! That way we are gently building achievable expectations thus reliving anxieties.

Working with teenagers is about helping them during their dark times: the anxieties, fears, high dramas, anger, tears and frustrations. To getting them through that other side: to hope, optimism and laughter. Giving them some basic tools to overcome can be very difficult, but hey, we are all in this together so let’s bolster optimism, take chances, and embrace life!  On that note I will leave you with the words from Henry Rollins; “My optimism wears heavy boots and it is loud.”

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