What’s the secret to coming out of a crisis stronger than before? This all-important factor is often referred to as resilience. Resilience refers to the ability to respond to negative life events in a way that preserves and strengthens a person. Resilience is not a single characteristic but instead is the grand sum of all of your protective factors. Researchers often identify several elements that add to someone’s resilience (protective factors), as opposed to the risk factors that we all face in life that can potentially break us down. A person with more protective factors will fare better under stress or during a crisis than a person with fewer protective factors.
Resilience is not like a superpower. One’s resilience changes depending on the particular situation and the prolonged effects of the stress (risk factors) the person is facing. In many ways, resilience is like a muscle. The more you activate it, the stronger it gets. One area of activation is in the category of social supports. Whether that is from family, friends, religious or civic institutions, co-workers, helping professionals, support groups, etc., we are all surrounded by people who can offer help when we are in need. Whether we ask for help is an entirely different story.
In our individualistic culture, much importance is placed on individual achievement, hard work, independence, and “making something of yourself”. While there are many advantages to these values (personal responsibility, creative differences leading to new innovations, reward resulting from hard work), there is also potential disadvantages as well. When we focus too much on individual achievement, we start to believe that we can make things happen on our own. While it might feel empowering when things are going well, relying solely on yourself can feel isolating (and very stressful) when things are going poorly. Social supports are key to being resilient in the face of struggle.
In terms of social supports, there are two important categories of supports to be aware of; 1) Perceived Supports, and 2) Enacted Supports. Perceived Supports are the resources you feel you have if you needed them. For example, if I think about my friends and family, I might take a quick inventory of who could help me out on short notice if my car broke down. As I identify the friends and family who would have the ability to help, I come up with a list of “maybes” since I have not actually asked them for this specific support. Perhaps my neighbor could pick me up from the garage; perhaps I could borrow my friend Steve’s car to go grocery shopping while my car is fixed; and so on. Being able to identify multiple potential sources of support in a hypothetical situation can lower your overall level of stress. The more options you have, the more opportunities you have to successfully navigate an unexpected life event.
Enacted Supports are the resources you have actually used during a time of need. These are not “maybes” but actual instances of certain supports in your life providing you with help. The only way you increase your list of enacted supports is to ask for help. Asking for help can be a difficult thing to do, especially if you pride yourself on being self-sufficient, independent, and competent. Yet, asking for help is one of the most important things you can do throughout your life. You not only create a network of enacted resources, you also learn and grow from the help of others. The whole idea of the “self-made man/woman” is a terrible lie to believe. No one is self-made. However, there are many people who think that it is all up to them to fix all of their troubles. Those people are often stressed out and feel alone.
So if you can identify with feeling like you have to solve all of your troubles on your own, consider trying something new.
- Make a mental list of your possible supports in your life. Be creative and exhaustive with your list.
- Start asking those supports for help. Start with small requests to get comfortable. Even if they cannot help all of the time, the act of practicing asking for help is a very valuable experience.
- When significant difficulties arise, ask for help from multiple supports in your life. You might be surprised at how willing people are to help you out when you are in need.
And remember, asking for help is not an indication of weakness or incompetence. It is an indication of humanity. You are already a part of the club, so embrace your humanity and get more connected with those around you.
Shawn Healy, PhD