7 Jan 2011
Ingredients of Transition: Personal Resilience
The concept of resilience works on a range of levels, not just that of community resilience. Personal resilience is vital to sustaining both our own and our initiative’s MOMENTUM (3.6) and helping us to deal with POST PETROLEUM STRESS DISORDER (1.1).
In an increasingly isolated and consumer-driven world, we are under constant pressure to value ourselves by what we consume, rather than by the quality of our relationships. Our lives are busy, stresses are multifold, and look set to increase as the economic impacts of peak oil and the realities of climate change really start to bite. Without the qualities of personal resilience, or the ability bounce back from shocks to our lives and our expectations, it will prove difficult to support ourselves, never mind our communities, through the coming years of energy descent.
In Transition, we look at the question of resilience on a range of levels, from the personal to the community to the national. What resilience means in the context of our personal lives is one of the lesser explored aspects of resilience. I asked Dr. Chris Johnstone, author of ‘Find Your Power – a toolkit for resilience and positive change’ for his definition of ‘personal resilience’. He told me that he sees it as being “our ability to face and deal with adversities in ways that help us get through them or even become strengthened by them”. Clearly, in the context of peak oil and climate change, and in the work that Transition initiatives are doing, this is a key capacity, both for those trying to catalyse and hold the process, as well as in terms of a quality that the process itself needs to be able to enable.
For Chris, what matters most in terms of resilience are the stories we tell ourselves about it. If the story we tell ourselves, or our community, is that some people are naturally resilient and other people just aren’t, and probably will never be, or that those who are resilient are the exception to the norm, then this is the wrong story, one that leaves us poorly equipped for times of uncertainty. If, on the other hand, the story we collectively tell is that resilience is something we all have, which can be damaged or impaired by our life experiences, but which is a learnable, rediscoverable skill, then that is a story which is far more useful and appropriate.
Child psychologist Ann Masten argues that human personal resilience arises from “the operation of fundamental human adaptive systems that have evolved over the course of biological and cultural evolution”, in other words, that resilience is our natural state. She also argues that there are a number of factors which affect our level of resilience, which, as it were, protect and boost our resilience levels. Based on a review of many studies on personal resilience, she suggests that these include:
- the strength of our bonds with others
- our experience of affecting change and of personal success
- our levels of intelligence
- our ability to self-control in highly stressful situations
- our feeling that we are part of healthy, functioning social groups
- the degree to which we feel part of the community around us
- larger overarching systems, such as culture, media and religion.
In my discussion with Chris, he described an approach to resilience training that starts by asking people to remember a challenging time in the past that they found a way through. Then he invites them to think back at what helped them do this by looking at four key areas:
Strategies they used, e.g. asking for help, using problem-solving approaches, meditation techniques, attention to diet and exercise etc.
Strengths they drew upon within themselves e.g. courage, foresight, determination, sense of humour, flexibility, ability to communicate etc.
Resources they turned to for nourishment, inspiration, guidance or support e.g. friends, mentors, self-help books, places they felt safe and calm, support groups etc.
Insights in terms of any ideas, perspectives or sayings they found useful. For example, the saying “I can’t, we can”, or the insight that personal and community resilience are powerfully interlinked.
While the letters ‘SSRI’ usually refer to a type of antidepressant, here Chris is using them to map out four key areas (which he refers to as our ‘self-help SSRI’s’) that support personal resilience. All of us will have developed our own ‘toolkit’ of strategies we’ve found useful, strengths we draw upon, resources we’ve discovered and insights that have made a difference to us. Chris suggests the Great Reskilling take these as a starting point, so that we can then learn from each other. There are also specific trainings, such as The Work That Reconnects, the empowerment approach developed by Joanna Macy, that help us cultivate many of the strengths, like foresight, courage and determination, that feed resilience.
It is my sense that Transition is an approach much more designed to enable personal resilience than straightforward campaigning organisations. Feeling part of a positive and constructive process, working with others, seeing practical manifestations emerging from the work, working with support offered should you feel you need it, with meetings and events designed to ensure that everyone’s voices are heard, these things design the notion of personal resilience into Transition from the outset. When we talk about resilient communities, it is important that we realise that we are not just talking about windmills and growing cabbages.
In terms of building your own personal resilience, it is, as much as anything, a case of making the time and space in your life to reflect on some of the issues outlined above, and perhaps finding a small group of people that can support each other in this. The initiative itself can try to keep an awareness of designing meetings, volunteering opportunities and events with this in mind too.
Make one of the core activities of your Transition initiative the supporting of increasing the personal resilience of those participating through a range of activities. Likewise, as an individual engaged in the initiative, try to ensure that you put enough time aside in your own life to focus on your own personal resilience.
Connections to other ingredients
Some of the things that can help to build the personal resilience of those involved in a Transition initiative can include RESPECTFUL COMMUNICATION (1.7), EMOTIONAL SUPPORT/AVOIDING BURNOUT (3.5), PAUSING FOR REFLECTION/”HOW AM I DOING?” (4.12) and regular CELEBRATING (3.4).
 Masten, A.S. (2001) Ordinary magic: resilience processes in development. American Psychologist 56 (3) 227-238.
 Reworded from Masten, A.S, Obradovic, J. (2008) Disaster preparation and recovery: lessons from research on resilience in human development. Ecology and Society 13 (1): 9. Retrieved from http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol13/iss1/art9/ on 25 March 2010.
7 Jan 11:10am
Resilience is an interesting link between health and sustainability, which I explore in a little more depth in my blog below.
The recent public health white paper for England; ‘Healthy Lives, Healthy People’ refers to personal resilience in the same sentence as self-esteem. This sounds a little like a new word for personal responsibility – i.e. individuals are responsible for public health issues.
I believe personal resilience is a useful concept, if it is combined with community resilience and balanced with control of corporate marketing of ‘non-resilient’ products (eg. from the health perspective; tobacco and fast food). Without this balance these words are just new ways to say ‘pull your socks up’ (sort yourselves out).
7 Jan 11:54am
Personal resilience is an important issue for me… as an artist attempting to envision new futures and current actions to get there (mainly through my love of permanent forestry – I know, a bit odd) it is often difficult to look head on into the abyss that is our current situation.
One small book I keep nearby is Thich Nhat Hanh’s ‘Peace and Ecology’ – his overview that civilizations always come and go are hugely reassuring as is his ideas that all of us concerned with the earth and all that it supports must not lose either our heart or minds in the process. I keep meaning to do a post about this and will but have given away my copy, so must get a new one 😉
Thanks for this post and the rumour is Hahn maybe coming to Ireland in 2012 … not to be missed and I’m not a buddhist by the way
7 Jan 6:08pm
Very much agree with Neil that resilience is a word that can bridge the personal and planetary. I think Rob’s presenting of resilience as something existing on a range of interrelated levels, including personal, community, societal and ecosystem, is an important frame that helps avoid the ‘pull your socks up’ mentality linked with victim blaming.
I see resilience training as the basis of an approach to therapy that combines improvement of personal wellbeing with strengthening our capacity to address issues like peak oil and climate change. I wrote something on this for the Journal of Holistic Healthcare (Resilience, Recovery and the Self-Help SSRI) that can be downloaded from my website at http://www.chrisjohnstone.info/writing.htm
(see article 4).
7 Jan 8:41pm
A very important Ingredient (aka Pattern).
One resource that is often overlooked is History. An awareness of those who went before can give us courage and an emotional depth.
It also keeps us from self-pity and narcissism.
I’m particularly interested in the European Resistance movement and World War II. Reading about that period makes one realize how much we human beings are capable of (for good or evil).
7 Jan 9:32pm
“Effecting change” not “affecting change” perhaps? Sorry to be pedantic.
7 Jan 11:35pm
Personal resilience conveys a fluidity and grace that is needed as we interract with diverse personalities. I continue to be amazed at the differences between people.
In the outreach and engagement of community organizing I sometimes meet individuals who push my buttons and thus set into motion a whole series of reactions — if I let them.
These individuals are my teachers and give me the opportunity to learn to self-regulate my emotions, thoughts and language in order to bridge the gap, heal the rift or dis-engage. Being resilient I get to choose the quality of my responses.
Our inner story is reflected in our outer story both individually and collectively. The more personal response-ability we can take for our own emotions, thoughts, words and actions the healthier…and happier…we will be. As will others around us.
Ego is not resilient and digs in its heels. The higher road is to evolve to another level of Being/Feminine and Doing/Masculine. Resilience is cooperation and partnership between these two opposites.
8 Jan 12:46am
I think personal resilience is fundamental if transitioning is to succeed. I whole-heartedly applaud Chris’s book and have found it hugely useful and encouraging.
Finding a supportive group or network or even one collaborator helps enormously. I celebrate my own support network which is Co-Counselling International, http://www.co-counselling.info . I’d like to encourage other transitioners to explore co-counselling skills to help you remain strong and positive in your transitioning work.
8 Jan 5:41pm
This is fantastic work, Rob, and the comments here are also very exciting. On Fridays, I will be posting at The Permavegan on the topic of Enhancing Family Resilience in the Midst of a Global Climate, Credit, and Energy Crisis. I got the ball rolling with my first post in the series yesterday, for readers who may be interested. I think family resilience occupies a critically important level between personal resilience, on the one hand, and community resilience, on the other. Indeed, so much of personal resilience, from a family systems perspective, is really about the immediate interpersonal context; and so much of energy descent community organizing, as I see it unfolding in North America, is about a return to extended families, that the lines between all three of these levels (person, family, community) can be hard to draw.
I’m still mulling Transition, for reasons discussed elsewhere, but you are putting out such high quality resources, and accomplishing such wonderful global results, my ambivalence is deep and genuine.
10 Jan 11:46am
Here is an August 2010 discussion from ABC (Australia) Radio National, on “Resilience Science” as a productive paradigm spanning the personal and the social-ecology. There are other useful links on the subject on this page too.
As Rob noted, Joanna Macy’s work is importer here too: http://www.joannamacy.net
15 Jan 9:33pm
My own sense is that we cant have community resilience without personal resilience…and so on throughout our planetary system.
Rob’s discussion with Chris Johnstone put in mind of Appreciative Inquiry where we look to learn from our past experience of personal resilience (in whatever context) and use that learning to plan our future…This creates a virtuous circle of feeling capable and wise and energised for a even more capable and wise future…I think this approach has huge potential for building resilience at a personal and a community level across the Transition Movement. In Lancaster Uk we are aspiring to take this Appreciative Inquiry approach into a community dialogues initiative across the community…
Charlotte Du Cann
20 Jan 1:52pm
I don’t feel personal resilience is best understood psychologically, as the frame of psychology is very me-based and introverted where Transition is we-based and explicit in its actions and culture. Psychology can be faceless and impersonal, and make you feel as if you are a malfunctioning unit, or somehow ill, rather than a person with a name and abilities amongst others who are deliberately (and nobly) reforging themselves within a new paradigm.
As Jeremy Rifkind suggests in “The Empathic Civilisation” we’re moving away from psychological consciousness towards the dramaturgical and bio-spheric, so the qualities required for Transition may be best understood within the frame of a creative endeavour, such as a band or play, set within the greater ecological whole (the planet). I don’t think we can rely on outside experts, no matter how perspicacious they are, as the inner shifts required for Transition will only be fully understood by those working within an initiative and undergoing the process themselves. No one has got this down.
We ran a week on Personal (Inner) Resilience on the Transition Norwich blog in August and the qualities that appeared were an ability to communicate and express what is going on, a warrior attitude, physical endurance, mental clarity, lack of self-pity and self-importance (negative ego!), full consciousness, flexibility, openness to new ideas, friendliness, boldness, desire to join in and work with others.
For me the greatest of these is the willingness to face reality (and not cling to cultural illusions and dogma)
Eco-systems are resilient because they are in communication with all parts of themselves, and because they flourish in diversity. To be able to work within a group successfully you have to have a strong sense of self, an awareness of your own capabilities, skills and experience, be able to hold your own tune, rather than merge with the dominant sound, or behave like a pea in a pod (monoculture). At the same time you have to be able to listen and harmonise with the group. So qualities such as self-value, independence of mind, courage, awareness of others and their values, good communication, generosity, co-operation and inventiveness are all important here. Neediness (or support as it is sometimes known) is not personally resilient. This is a parasitic I that needs a You (up there or down there) to feel OK, rather than a symbiotic We.
A successful group “functions” like a good working orchestra or ensemble act. Everyone is a part of the whole and the whole doesn’t work without that part (in fact unless we start doing our thing within the group, we won’t even find out what that part is). So everyone has to be aware of the tempo and take responsibility for the show – actor, technician or director. Transition doesn’t happen without us.
21 Jan 12:33am
Has any one else thought about the ways in which ethnic culture affects resilience. Many of us come from families for whom the idea of success involves the sort of atomized individualism that is toxic to both the family and the person…
Success as it is constructed in some places or cultures really harms the ability of all to live sustainably in abundance.
What’s the balance between independence and interdependence?
21 Jan 9:31pm
I’m new to the world of Transition and really appreciate the discussion here! I do have a background in ecological science and thought I’d bring some ideas over from that perspective. The Canadian ecologist C.S. Holling introduced the idea of resilience into ecology in 1973 and distinguished two types of resilience in social or ecological systems. The first is “engineering resilience” (the way he said engineers think of it) and is the amount time it takes a system to return to normal after being disturbed (perturbed, upset). It seems that what is being discussed here as personal resilience seems to be of that sort. Something stressful is happening in our life and we want to know what are the resources we have to cope and how successfully can we return to our previous emotional baseline. In that sense community really helps! The other type is “ecological resilience” (the concept more appropriate for ecosystems) which is the magnitude of disturbance or stress it takes to change the ecosystem from one state to another. The greater the resilience the greater the magnitude of stress needed to change. In that sense the Transition model is somewhat of a paradox. Transition -by its very name- aims to move our current food and energy systems into another state. The extent to which that does not happen in our local community or only on a small scale is the extent to which the old system is resilient. The status quo is also resilient. In terms of the personal, I haven’t made a full personal Transition but I am chipping away at it! In Transition we need skills to maintain our balance but also be open to transformation. I think two concepts of resilience may be useful. Remember ecological resilience goes both ways.
22 Jan 5:56pm
Thank you for this discussion of resilience. It’s so important in dealing with crises. As a rehabilitation psychologist, I have had the good fortune to accompany many individuals in their journeys through crisis and change. I’ve found that queries such as those Chris described to be very helpful in facilitating these journeys. I’ve been grateful for these journeys, and for the opportunity to share the wisdom gained from them with the medical students with whom I work.
I would like to share a resource that many will find helpful. Dr. Barbara Friedrickson is a research psychologist who recognized the limits inherent in pathology-oriented psychology and psychiatry, and and who developed this recognition into a science-based exploration of personal resilience. Her 20 years of empirical exploration have been compiled into a book titled “Positivity”. It is clearly written, and has many insights and practical tools that can be readily applied in resilience-building efforts of individuals and groups.