What makes a person resilient? Is the ability to endure and thrive found within us, or something that must be learned and developed? Clinical psychologist and author Meg Jay has dedicated her research and practice to exploring the ways adversity and resilience shape our lives, and how we can help ourselves — and each other — to adapt to difficult circumstances and carry on.
Jay will be the keynote speaker for Washington University’s fourth annual Day of Discovery & Dialogue, scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday, Feb. 13-14. Jay’s talk, “The Untold Story of Adversity and Resilience,” will take place Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. at the Eric P. Newman Education Center on the Medical Campus. The event is free and open to the public, and will be followed by a panel discussion and reception with Jay, who will sign complimentary copies of her book, “Supernormal: The Untold Story of Adversity and Resilience,” while supplies last.
Space is limited, so those wishing to attend are strongly encouraged to register for this and other Day of Discovery events on the WashU Voices website.
In advance of her address, Jay shared with us some of her thoughts on adversity and resilience, and how we can find strength to carry on when times get tough.
What is resilience?
Let me start with what it isn’t: it isn’t bouncing back. In everyday conversation, we talk about how resilient people bounce back from hard times almost as if nothing happened. Now, we might bounce back from the flu or from a hard day at work but, in my 20 years of working with people, no one has ever said they bounced back from a significant adversity such as the death of a parent or growing up with an alcoholic parent or having a parent in jail.
The untold story of resilience — or the one that I hear about in my office, but until quite recently was not talked about much in public — is that resilience is more of a battle than a bounce. It is a hero’s story — a courageous, powerful, often perilous lifelong journey. This is something that, if you listen to the women and men of the “Me Too” movement, for example, you can hear in their words as they say things like this: “I was not going to let this defeat me. I am fierce. I am brave.”
That sounds like it’s not for the faint of heart. Do you have to be “tough” to be resilient?
Rather than “tough,” I would emphasize “brave.” It takes a lot of courage to get out there and fight for a better life than the one you have, to fight for a better life as an adult than the one you had as a kid, or to fight for a better world than the one you’re living in. And research shows that fighting those fights can make us stronger as we go along — there is what is called a “steeling effect.” But, in my experience, not enough people give themselves credit for how brave and strong they have been in their lives. They may be more likely to see themselves as damaged rather than as strong.
Resilience is often a very personal process, but sometimes we need to work together to overcome our problems. How can people come together to help and support each other and make a difference in creating a stronger community?
Through events exactly like the ones you are hosting. Two of the best predictors of good outcomes after tough times are: whether there is someone to talk to and whether there is someone who cares. Sometimes that “someone” is a friend or partner or teacher or professional, and sometimes public events help forge these connections or begin these conversations.
Psychoeducation by way of talks or movies or panels that shine a light on the reality of various adversities — from sexual assault to racial microaggressions to having a mentally ill sibling — helps listeners realize they are not as alone or as different from others as they think they are. They see that what they are going through can be named and understood and shared. The power of not feeling alone cannot be underestimated: that is what is underneath “Me Too,” for example.
Why is resilience so important to consider when dealing with issues like diversity and inclusion?
In “Supernormal,” I write about the most common adversities that we face by the age of 20: loss of a parent through death or divorce; mental illness or substance abuse in the home; having a parent in jail; physical, emotional or sexual abuse; poverty or neglect; witnessing domestic violence. When we think about these adversities individually, each one affects only a minority of the population. Considered collectively, however, an estimated 75 percent of us grow up with one or more of these hardships. These common adversities cut across race, class and gender, meaning that adversity can unite us rather than divide us — none of us are as alone as we think we are as we fight the good fight, as we look for ways to survive and thrive.