Negative and Positive Resilience – a Lens to Understand
|Negative resilience||the ability to withstand|
|Positive resilience||the ability to overcome|
The Terrible Cliché
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
God won’t give you more than you can handle.
Everything happens for a reason.
Each is a cliché – something we’ve promised ourselves amid a terrible night, or another’s reassured while watching us undergo an unbearable pain. They’re meant to comfort and assuage… but they aren’t true. Sometimes what didn’t kill you, just didn’t kill you. God or life has given too many people more than they could handle. That’s why they’re gone. And for every terrible event we’ve made mean something, it’s never just happened for a reason – we’ve often made our own reason. I know that’s how it’s always worked for me.
I’ve watched too many loved ones, too many of the strongest people I know survive the hell in their lives, only to be told they’re weak for not surviving better. My mother spent most of her childhood abused by her mother and step-father. Now, she struggles every day with depression and panic disorder – waves of panic and terror beat at her ceaselessly. Most days even the choice to live is an incredible feat. My sister has lived a difficult life. She suffers from anxiety and depression. She’s had to fight every day of her life. Most days it’s hard for her to believe it will ever be better. Despite that, she fights anyway. She chooses to live, and because of her relentless hope, her life is getting better.
It’s in watching this happen again and again with so many loved ones that I’ve learned an undeniable truth: Resilience is not merely the power to overcome, sometimes it’s simply the ability to survive (to withstand). Too often, that’s a much greater achievement than overcoming.
Negative and Positive Resilience
Two concepts have been useful in helping me understand this idea: negative resilience and positive resilience. Usually, when people use the term negative resilience, they mean dark or bad resilience, i.e. using harmful action(s) or characteristic(s) to cope like masochism or drugs. I don’t mean that at all. If resilience is the ability to cope with losses, impacts, or circumstances, then negative resilience is the ability to withstand that impact or terrible event. The idea is something terrible or difficult happens (a loved one dies, a hurricane destroys an entire community, violence spreads across a region) and resilience is the ability to cope with that. If you have negative resilience, you withstand the event. This is different from positive resilience which is the ability to overcome or recover from this terrible event or impact. Positive resilience is a set of characteristics, ideas, skills, or circumstances that lead someone to deal with the terrible event in a way that improves (meaning to be better than the status quo) their life. With negative resilience, you’re lacking those characteristics, ideas, skills, or circumstances. Regardless of why, the result is you stay at your new, harder status quo. You survive, you withstand, but you don’t overcome.
To me, withstanding is sometimes far more significant than overcoming. This is the one we need to understand first. There were so many days of my life when choosing to live, to keep breathing each day was in itself an act of resilience. Life was hard. I had no reason to believe it would ever get better, and I didn’t. I wasn’t kidding myself. I honestly didn’t think my life would ever not hurt. So many days, I awoke wondering if that was the day I should stop, if today was the day I chose to stop hurting. Each of those days, I chose to live despite knowing each breathing second would be agony. That is negative resilience. Refusing to commit terrible violence against yourself. Refusing to give up. The absence of suicide. Choosing to breathe knowing each one for as far as you can see will hurt. Choosing to have hope when you’ve known light and happiness, when you’ve seen life can be without pain, is nothing compared to having hope when you don’t even know what light is. More than any person I’ve met, my mother embodies this idea.
Before I get into the story of my mother, though, I want to make an important statement. At no point am I implying that people who are depressed or feel hopeless have no reason to live. Far from it, I know things can get better. I’ve gone from a person living in negative resilience – hopeless and depressed and angry, clinging to my ember of belief – to a person with positive resilience – who has hope, has a purpose, and fights every day to help others find theirs. It’s because I can understand both sides that I know how significant it is to keep fighting when life looks hopeless. We have to try to understand that strength and decision.
My Hero and Her Struggle to Live
My mother is my hero. She has been for most of my life. She was my light and my greatest defender growing up. She was an artist, a writer, and an activist – everything I wanted to be. Now, she suffers from paralyzing panic disorder and depression. Having panic attacks daily for over five years has withered her body and forever hindered parts of her mind. She isn’t the same person I remember all those years ago, and because she doesn’t have enough money, resources, or support the likelihood is she will never get better. Every day she has attacks that make her feel like she’s dying, and every day she wakes up knowing she’ll have another tomorrow and the day after that and for as long as she can foresee. She has no reason to believe it will get better because it probably won’t, at least if you define better as being without panic disorder and depression. However, each day she chooses to keep breathing anyway. I won’t pretend on some of those days it’s not an impossible choice, or that she hasn’t often considered ending her life. Yet, given no possible hope for believing her life will get easier, she chooses to live, to endure, to withstand, and I think it makes her the strongest possible person I know. It makes her a kind of hero I never knew she’d be – the kind of hero that keeps fighting even if it hurts, even when breathing feels an act of god.
I believe we need to stop looking at people who withstand pain, trauma, and suffering like they’re deficient or lacking for taking a bullet and not running ten miles afterwards. That’s the equivalent of what we’re asking. They’ve been shot, they’re losing blood, their lungs are filling with fluid, the bullet has nicked essential arteries, but we say they should be happy they’re alive, ignore the pain, and keep walking. Finding hope amidst hopelessness is the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen. For some people, choosing to live is an act of resilience. Can we get better and improve our lives more? I believe we can, but I also have the privilege of believing in something I’ve already seen. Negative resilience is believing in something you’ve never seen at all, knowing you may never reach it, and fighting for it anyway.
When Breath is an Act of Self-Harm
A few years ago, I read a story about a dolphin. I can’t tell you whether it’s true, but I think the sentiment is beautiful. It goes something like this (obviously copyrights go to whoever wrote it)…
Once there was a dolphin so deeply in love with another that when his mate died he fell into a terrible depression. Each day was a terrible pain. Unlike humans who are wired to stay alive at all cost and breathe by default, dolphins choose to live, each breath is a choice to continue forward. One day this dolphin in his place of terrible pain and loss chose not to take the next breath. Just like that, he stopped because he couldn’t live without his love.
For people with negative resilience, I think their choice is a lot like that dolphins at the start. They choose to take the next breath despite all the suffering and pain they know it will bring. They choose to breathe knowing how much and how long it will hurt, and just like that dolphin, I think it’s incredible. I am in awe, and hopeful they’ll continue to make that choice because things can get better. I won’t for one second judge someone for wondering if it’s worth it because I can’t from a place of purpose and painlessness judge you for wanting to be without pain. But I can ask you to hope it will get better for one more day, and one more day after that, and one more after that, and promise that hoping is half the battle. If you take a leap, I’ll meet you half way. If you believe things can be better, then I promise to understand that your believing is the hardest, most courageous thing anyone will ever do, and maybe from there we really can make a change.
Don’t ever let anyone say negative resilience isn’t a real thing or is somehow less significant than overcoming or building a better life. I’ve seen people who have no reason to hope, hope anyway. That sort of resilience is the hardest part. After that, it’s just about support, characteristics, ideas, and skills. Those things can all be built or improved, but hoping when things are hopeless – that’s priceless. I’ll never stop being in awe of that sort of strength. As a person who found positive resilience, I can promise we have it easy in comparison.
Daily, I am reminded of the strength it takes to persevere, and daily I am humbled by the things I learn people choose to live through. Every story I hear about abuse, assault, loss, and trauma and find that person still surviving, I’m reassured negative resilience is real. From my mother, father, sisters, brother, and myself, I ask remember: living is sometimes the most courageous choice of all.
The Recovery Poet
I have a tattoo across my foot that says “live;”
honoring the truth that sometimes choosing not to end your sentence is the hardest thing in the world.”