7 Jan 2011
Ingredients of Transition: Personal Resilience
The concept of resilience works on a range of levels, not just that of community resilience. Personal resilience is vital to sustaining both our own and our initiative’s MOMENTUM (3.6) and helping us to deal with POST PETROLEUM STRESS DISORDER (1.1).
In an increasingly isolated and consumer-driven world, we are under constant pressure to value ourselves by what we consume, rather than by the quality of our relationships. Our lives are busy, stresses are multifold, and look set to increase as the economic impacts of peak oil and the realities of climate change really start to bite. Without the qualities of personal resilience, or the ability bounce back from shocks to our lives and our expectations, it will prove difficult to support ourselves, never mind our communities, through the coming years of energy descent.
In Transition, we look at the question of resilience on a range of levels, from the personal to the community to the national. What resilience means in the context of our personal lives is one of the lesser explored aspects of resilience. I asked Dr. Chris Johnstone, author of ‘Find Your Power – a toolkit for resilience and positive change’ for his definition of ‘personal resilience’. He told me that he sees it as being “our ability to face and deal with adversities in ways that help us get through them or even become strengthened by them”. Clearly, in the context of peak oil and climate change, and in the work that Transition initiatives are doing, this is a key capacity, both for those trying to catalyse and hold the process, as well as in terms of a quality that the process itself needs to be able to enable.
For Chris, what matters most in terms of resilience are the stories we tell ourselves about it. If the story we tell ourselves, or our community, is that some people are naturally resilient and other people just aren’t, and probably will never be, or that those who are resilient are the exception to the norm, then this is the wrong story, one that leaves us poorly equipped for times of uncertainty. If, on the other hand, the story we collectively tell is that resilience is something we all have, which can be damaged or impaired by our life experiences, but which is a learnable, rediscoverable skill, then that is a story which is far more useful and appropriate.
Child psychologist Ann Masten argues that human personal resilience arises from “the operation of fundamental human adaptive systems that have evolved over the course of biological and cultural evolution”, in other words, that resilience is our natural state. She also argues that there are a number of factors which affect our level of resilience, which, as it were, protect and boost our resilience levels. Based on a review of many studies on personal resilience, she suggests that these include:
- the strength of our bonds with others
- our experience of affecting change and of personal success
- our levels of intelligence
- our ability to self-control in highly stressful situations
- our feeling that we are part of healthy, functioning social groups
- the degree to which we feel part of the community around us
- larger overarching systems, such as culture, media and religion.
In my discussion with Chris, he described an approach to resilience training that starts by asking people to remember a challenging time in the past that they found a way through. Then he invites them to think back at what helped them do this by looking at four key areas:
Strategies they used, e.g. asking for help, using problem-solving approaches, meditation techniques, attention to diet and exercise etc.
Strengths they drew upon within themselves e.g. courage, foresight, determination, sense of humour, flexibility, ability to communicate etc.
Resources they turned to for nourishment, inspiration, guidance or support e.g. friends, mentors, self-help books, places they felt safe and calm, support groups etc.
Insights in terms of any ideas, perspectives or sayings they found useful. For example, the saying “I can’t, we can”, or the insight that personal and community resilience are powerfully interlinked.
While the letters ‘SSRI’ usually refer to a type of antidepressant, here Chris is using them to map out four key areas (which he refers to as our ‘self-help SSRI’s’) that support personal resilience. All of us will have developed our own ‘toolkit’ of strategies we’ve found useful, strengths we draw upon, resources we’ve discovered and insights that have made a difference to us. Chris suggests the Great Reskilling take these as a starting point, so that we can then learn from each other. There are also specific trainings, such as The Work That Reconnects, the empowerment approach developed by Joanna Macy, that help us cultivate many of the strengths, like foresight, courage and determination, that feed resilience.
It is my sense that Transition is an approach much more designed to enable personal resilience than straightforward campaigning organisations. Feeling part of a positive and constructive process, working with others, seeing practical manifestations emerging from the work, working with support offered should you feel you need it, with meetings and events designed to ensure that everyone’s voices are heard, these things design the notion of personal resilience into Transition from the outset. When we talk about resilient communities, it is important that we realise that we are not just talking about windmills and growing cabbages.
In terms of building your own personal resilience, it is, as much as anything, a case of making the time and space in your life to reflect on some of the issues outlined above, and perhaps finding a small group of people that can support each other in this. The initiative itself can try to keep an awareness of designing meetings, volunteering opportunities and events with this in mind too.
Make one of the core activities of your Transition initiative the supporting of increasing the personal resilience of those participating through a range of activities. Likewise, as an individual engaged in the initiative, try to ensure that you put enough time aside in your own life to focus on your own personal resilience.
Connections to other ingredients
Some of the things that can help to build the personal resilience of those involved in a Transition initiative can include RESPECTFUL COMMUNICATION (1.7), EMOTIONAL SUPPORT/AVOIDING BURNOUT (3.5), PAUSING FOR REFLECTION/”HOW AM I DOING?” (4.12) and regular CELEBRATING (3.4).
 Masten, A.S. (2001) Ordinary magic: resilience processes in development. American Psychologist 56 (3) 227-238.
 Reworded from Masten, A.S, Obradovic, J. (2008) Disaster preparation and recovery: lessons from research on resilience in human development. Ecology and Society 13 (1): 9. Retrieved from http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol13/iss1/art9/ on 25 March 2010.