There is too much to say about resilience in the context of affect regulation than our space here allows. So I decided to break this subject down into two installments. In this first installment I want to lay out what I mean by resilience and how I think it can and should be a more useful and subtle concept for clinicians than it traditionally is. I want also to link different manifestations of resilience to the range of affect regulating capacities that people may or may not possess. In the second installment, I intend to explicate ways in which the therapeutic relationship dyadically regulates both partners, deepening both relational security and connection to self, thereby leading to more solid, reliable, and adaptive expressions of resilience that do not require real compromises of self, other, or relationship.
The term “resilient” carries a heavy burden. It seems to have become the repository of our fantasies of perfect balance, unflappable strength, exuberance for life despite its many challenges, and, most of all, our will to be invulnerable. Even when we use the word with slightly more measured connotations, we still tend to equate resilience with full a capacity for affect regulation, or the return to a steady-enough state after a disruption.
But clinicians’ equating of resilience with not getting knocked down has several consequences. First, not many of our patients look very resilient, suggesting that patients in psychotherapy are almost by definition not resilient. Second, we may fail to recognize that resilience is a process; or that there are many processes and much growth involved in attaining that rather advanced and secure capacity to regulate one’s affective state that we call resilience. And finally, an either/or understanding of resilience does not account for the appreciation, even awe, that we feel for our patients, who may thrive in certain ways despite having survived so much adversity, while also still bearing adversity’s scars.
Clinicians know that “bouncing back” often looks like being “tough” or unaffected, something our culture glorifies, and which I call the Teflon phenomenon. Being ‘tough’ is a legitimate, though very limited, way of regulating one’s affective state; limited because it often involves massive use of psychological defenses such as denial, isolation of affect, projection, repression, etc. People pay a price for this kind of “resilience” and affect regulation, whether in their connection to self, to others, or in their ability to function smoothly in society. To be a “survivor” and to be truly resilient in a healthy way are not the same.
It is useful to separate the outcome of resilience from the processes that lead to it. I define what I call resilience potential as “an innate possibility and force existing in all people that works on behalf of the self to recover, bounce back, heal, or, at the very least, protect oneself from adversity, hardship, and even trauma” (Russell, 2015, pp. 35-36). On the other hand, resilience as an outcome can be understood as resilient capacity, or “an individual’s maximum ability to bounce back, recover, heal, or protect the self at any given moment of time” (p. 36). Finally, I think of the essence of resilience, the nugget of gold that all forms of psychotherapy are trying to mine, consciously or not, is the “Self’s differentiation from that which is aversive to it;” the space between the Self and that which happens to or intrudes on the Self. It is the “I” that exists before and beneath whatever is done to diminish, humiliate, terrorize, shame, or annihilate the Self. We all have this uncontaminated I, and we all have a right to be in conscious connection to it. As we get healthier, we even have a hope to lead more and more of our lives from this foundation.
This working on behalf of the self, that is the motto of all resilience processes, can take many forms. We have traditionally thought, spoken, and written a lot about the more obvious, and potentially negative, ways in which this manifestation of resilience expresses itself: resistance and defense mechanisms. The avoidant child has developed an adaptive, and therefore, resilient strategy to be on his own behalf in relation to a critical or intrusive parent. The person being molested or abused resiliently preserves her self in fantasy dissociation when she is being violated or hurt.
The hope is that, once in new environments in which these resilient, but very limiting, strategies of self-regulation are no longer necessary, the person naturally evolves new, more open ways of being on behalf of the self that do not involve so much compromise. In my therapeutic home, AEDP (Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy; Fosha, 2000), we recognize that this force toward growth, development and expansion is always at the ready and on the lookout for opportunities to express itself. We refer to this as transformance (Fosha, 2008). But this transition is not usually so natural or magical. In fact, it is often at this point, when people’s habitual ways of self-regulating are no longer working so well and they need help making a shift, that they come in to therapy. What once seemed like resilience no longer is.
From the perspective of restoring resilience, the shift in any therapy that is going well is from resilience and self-regulation expressed as resistance (conservation, preservation, pulling in) to resilience and self-regulation expressed as transformance (expansion, growth, risk taking, vitality). Through dyadic affect regulation and secure therapeutic attachment, we gain more access to our emotions, our bodily states, our core needs, as well as increased safety in both owning those and expressing them in good-enough relationships. We learn to regulate and be on our own behalf, not by cutting off affective experience, but by engaging it, learning from it, and using this important emotional information in decision-making processes and in connecting with ourselves, others, and the world.
Dr. Eileen Russell is a clinical psychologist in private practice in New York City and Montclair, NJ. She is Senior Faculty and founding member of the AEDP Institute and is a part-time Clinical Instructor in the Department of Psychiatry at NYU Medical Center/ Bellevue Hospital where she worked with people with addictions for 5 years. She is also on the Faculty of the National Institute for the Psychotherapies’ (NIP) Integrative Trauma Studies Program.
Dr. Russell is author of Restoring Resilience: Discovering Your Clients’ Capacity for Healing, published by W.W. Norton & Co. in June 2015. In it she integrates AEDP with other experiential approaches and modern psychodynamic thinking, expands our understanding of resilience to include clinical populations, and argues for the power of a resilience-oriented approach to depth-oriented therapy.
Dr. Russell has lectured and trained people in AEDP nationally and internationally for many years. In addition to training, she is interested in expanding and elaborating AEDP theory and to learning from what works in other approaches. Her research and writing interests include the development of AEDP theory and practice, resilience, positive psychology and psychodynamic practice, and spirituality in psychotherapy.