Nature vs. nurture has been debated for essentially the entire history of psychology.
Intelligence, personality, and sexual orientation are typically hot topics that psychologists argue for or against nature or nurture; with various points that prove their cause.
Resilience, a trait that is discussed and studied amongst many areas in life: business, money, psychology, education, sports, family, and more, is a characteristic that some believe is nature, and some believe is nurture.
Recently, I spoke with a brilliant Harvard Business School alumni, business and life coach for business owners, professionals and executives, and author of new book Act from Choice, about how he views resilience.
Robert Goldmann’s experience is vast and those he’s taught, coached, and influenced have gone on to do great things.
Where does he believe resilience comes from, and how can we strengthen it? Read more below.
What is resilience?
Technically it seems to be used mostly to discuss the ability to bounce back or overcome—to get beyond the influence of past trauma (usually referring to something that has lasting psychological impact) so that one can make decisions and act in ways they would have absent the experience.
There is a short-term version of resilience, which is how fast one recovers from a near-term insult—not traumatic in the sense of creating a longer-term influence on attitudes and behaviors.
Where does resilience come from?
To ponder: Is there a meaningful conceptual distinction between having little resilience and being a pessimist; or of having a lot of resilience and being an optimist?
We’re shaped by genetics and experience. (It’s not about character!)
There’s no reason to think that resilience is formed any differently than many other personality traits or emotional styles.
Genes influence both of those sets of dispositions.
Those dispositions may influence how we react to life experiences from trauma such as PTSD to maybe not being popular in pre-school, growing up in a loving or angry household.
Why is resilience important?
Some people may not be sensitive emotionally.
For them, the term resilience would have no applicability any more than bravery or courage being a useful concept for people who have no fear.
When speaking about resilience, we’re asking: Can a person burdened by the emotional effects of the past, to the point of being less than fully objective or functional, get past those effects?
Can they erase the effects of the trauma or insult when making choices about how to be in each moment?
To the extent one is unable to see clearly, they are not in the appropriate mindset to react in their best long-term interests when confronted with situations, due to emotional reactivity—from long-ago, or the immediate past.
The results can be devastating—anger, aggression, drug seeking, habitual cowardice, self-aggression. Bad choices. Destructive behavior. The list is endless, unfortunately.
How do we build resilience?
I suspect that there is no way to build resilience—that the focus and success is on managing the lack of it.
For example, research shows that the brain never forgets past trauma. What happens is that the frontal cortex learns that the experience of things that trigger their reactivity trigger because of associations with past trauma: that is, that those triggers are, in themselves, innocent.
PTSD is the primary example; it takes skilled de-sensitization and similar therapies.
What happens in the brain is that the prefrontal cortex realizes the trigger is not dangerous. It reaches into the amygdala, the part of the brain that triggers the emotional reaction, and turns it off. So far, so good.
But other characteristics of the original trauma that stimulate the reaction, if unlearned, will continue to be stimulated, and the emotionality will be stimulated.
Moreover, if one no longer experiences the thing that they’ve become de-sensitized to, the desensitization is forgotten and the previous level of reactivity returns.
Where one has a short-fuse but long-acting, leading them to be hyperreactive, the Act from Choice Method will do nicely.
Maybe one can use the Act from Choice Method (Sentinels, etc.) to become more aware of one’s distorting emotions, so they can try to overcome them—that is, to use the Act from Choice Method in connection with cognitive therapy, for example, to overcome pessimism or similar distortions.
How can we increase our awareness and ability?
The Act from Choice Method for dealing with this low-resilience hyperactivity is this. First, there has to be motivation.
The person has to realize their reactivity tends to be high, their short-term resilience is low, and to be motivated to work with the situation rather than encounter the consequences of what they do in these situations.
If being motivated enough to manage these situations, one trains a Sentinel to wake them, to make them aware when they’re in the danger zone where their emotional profile may cause them to be reactive when others they’re engaged with are not.
A plan is necessary, and in this case, the most important part of such a plan is to have delaying tactics ready, ways to keep from responding until they are out of the reactive phase of their emotional profile.
The Resource Companion that accompanies Act from Choice has a list of delaying tactics one could consider, as well as ways to enhance their motivation in the moment and boost their willpower in the face of emotions that want them to do things that they find unwanted.
Motivation, training self-awareness to wake them to fraught emotional encounters, and having a plan of action prepared well in advance, all of those are essential to learning to manage their resilience.
With proper knowledge and practice, we can build and strengthen resilience over time. While Goldmann argues that any given person’s resilience trait is developed at birth, he firmly believes in the ability to build resilience through practice and therapies.
His book, Act from Choice, is out now and is a wonderful guide with tools on how to manage unwanted habits in order to act how you’re meant to be.