Practice and Resilience

Practice and Resilience June 13, 2017

Right now I’m fascinated by resilience. It seems to be popping up in reference to all kinds of things, including how to practice and excel.

Photo by Jared Erondu. In public domain from Unsplash.
Photo by Jared Erondu. In public domain from Unsplash.

With all the life changes going on, and me struggling to navigate them, it’s no huge surprise that I’m interested in resilience. It’s a theme that has emerged in my trauma research too, but right now I’m mostly trying to hold my shit together as I get settled back in Indiana.

So of course I found the throwaway resilience reference in this essay by Penelope Trunk, What it’s like to audition at Juilliard. When you’re 11. It’s good piece, and I really like a lot of the pointers about practice (how to find engagement in repetition without getting bored; how to break down the process into bite-sized, achievable, and enjoyable steps).

And then there’s this line:

Resilience is about being able to get back up on your feet on your own, so I teach him not to rely on other people to prop him up. “You don’t need a teacher to tell you how great you are. Tell that to yourself. Right now.”

I agree with that definition of resilience. However, the paradox that fascinates me is that we only build this sense of “Things are going to turn out okay; I can rely on myself to get through this” through the support of others.

Let me explain.

Trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk defines resilience as the capacity to bounce back from adversity. This is also a solid definition. In his book The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, van der Kolk describes the research linking resilience to early childhood experiences:

[Alan] Scroufe also learned a great deal about resilience… By far the most important predictor of how well his subjects coped with life’s inevitable disappointments was the level of security established with their primary caregiver during the first two years of life.  (163)

In other words, we can predict how people will develop a sense of resilience that correlates to them getting their basic needs met early in life. Feeling helpless and like you won’t be taken care of is thus inimical to growing a sense of resilience. This makes sense; one of the other ways van der Kolk describes resilience is as a “product of agency: knowing that what you do makes a difference” (357).

People who didn’t form a solid sense of resilience early in life can work toward it, and this is what links us back up with practice. Van der Kolk discusses some strategies in his book, but from what I gather, it basically come down to this: people need to feel supported and cared for to develop the sense of independence and it’ll-be-okay-ness to take care of themselves in tough situations. So, we practice forming bonds with others, and using that sense of being supported to sustain us in situations where we need to rely on ourselves. It’s annoyingly paradoxical, but it is what it is.

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to developing resilience. But having just been through a bunch of situations requiring it, I remain interested in cultivating it even though I think my upbringing contributed to me already having a healthy dose of it. As a dancer, I guess I’m not surprised that the answer to this issue, as with many, is both practice and community.

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