Put Down the Self-Help Books. Resilience Is Not a DIY Endeavour


From The Globe and Mail: “Mindfulness, neuroplasticity, trauma-informed cognitive behavioural therapy, psychoanalysis, career coaching, Kripalu yoga – the list of ‘cures’ for our lack of resilience and related problems is endless. If you are overweight, alone, miserable at work or crippled by stress or anxiety or depression, there are hordes of gurus and experts chasing you with books and quick fixes. With their advice, guidance, motivation or inspiration, you can fix your problems.

But make no mistake: They are always your problems. You alone are responsible for them. It follows that failing to fix your problems will always be your failure, your lack of will, motivation or strength. […]

I, too, wish life were as simple as it is described in the first chapter of Eckhart Tolle’s bestselling book The Power of Now. It opens with the story of a beggar sitting on a box. A stranger comes along and asks the beggar what’s inside. The beggar, who has sat on the box for years, has never thought to open it. When finally he does, it is full of gold. Thus we are all beggars seeking something from someone else when everything we need is already there inside us.

But stories such as this are misleading, if not dishonest. Personal explanations for success actually set us up for failure. TED Talks and talk shows full of advice on what to eat, what to think and how to live seldom work. Self-help fixes are like empty calories: The effects are fleeting and often detrimental in the long term. Worse, they promote victim blaming. The notion that your resilience is your problem alone is ideology, not science.

We have been giving people the wrong message. Resilience is not a DIY endeavour. Self-help fails because the stresses that put our lives in jeopardy in the first place remain in the world around us even after we’ve taken the ‘cures.’ The fact is that people who can find the resources they require for success in their environments are far more likely to succeed than individuals with positive thoughts and the latest power poses.”

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  1. Lost Cause mythology, when it came to the reasons why the Old South didn’t win the war between the states, had something to do with the same excuse, that is, lack of resources. I feel that if one is going to start anywhere, usually that anywhere is with oneself. Letting others do it all, isn’t that usually an outcome of pathos? Expecting everything from another is magical thinking while expecting everything to come from oneself is simple realism. I’m not saying there isn’t a world out there, I’m only saying that it is necessary to separate the necessities from the luxuries when dealing with it. Your resource salespeople would, economically speaking, consider themselves more necessary than they actually are as a rule.

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  2. There is a DIY part of self help- what you eat. You aren’t going to successfully DIY anything (unless you think DIY going bananas eating junk food is a key to better health) constantly eating stuff that gives you interludes of being too buzzed to think straight.

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  3. I got an awful lot out of Eckhart Tolles, Power of Now , as did so many other people.

    But I think the young girl the writer is talking about is coping in a traditional Japanese way, which is influenced by Buddhism.

    Irish Catholics might survive great trauma as well under the influence of Catholicism, but maybe not as effectively as Genuine Buddhists.

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  4. Very much agree with this. Additionally, “resilience” is also used as a way to normalize adverse conditions that result from destructive social and economic policies. Instead of addressing these policies and how they create the detrimental impact on people’s lives and mental health, the focus is on being “resilient” and toughing it out, implying that the negative conditions result from an act of God or some sort of natural law that can’t be changed rather than human agency and deliberate choices made by policy makers.

    It is a kind of covert disempowerment disguised as empowerment that uses neutralizing euphemisms and other language tricks to offload all responsibility for mental health issues and other problems caused by destructive public policies onto the affected individuals.

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  5. The main problem I found in Ungar’s example of the Japanese tsunami survivor Aikiko as particularly resilient is that he only observed her eighteen months after her ordeal. Many trauma survivors don’t present with traumatic stress for many years after the traumatic event(s) took place. It can take fifteen to twenty years for the effects of traumas to surface. This was discovered by those who were trying to help and to understand combat veterans. My own experience with repeated traumatic events in childhood bears this out. I didn’t even begin to recall the traumas I survived till twenty years after the last one occurred. Alcoholism and drugs addiction interfered with my memories and emotions and after I sobered up it took me an additional six years of recovery before I was able to begin recalling the traumatic events I survived.

    This happens to many trauma survivors and for Ungar to neglect this in his article is a serious error. He focuses so much on the glow of resilience rather than the true costs of trauma. I was told I was resilient all my life. It wasn’t till I began to finally recover from all the traumas that I fully recognized the actual toll they took on me. I think this notion of resilience saving people from the effects of trauma is Pollyanna looking through rose colored glassses.

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