What is Resilience?

This post is for the June 2015 Carnival of Aces on Mental Health. It is cross-posted to the Resources for Ace Survivors blog.

[tw: invalidation, gaslighting, vague mentions of abuse and compulsory sexuality]

If you spend much time around survivor spaces, you’ll see a lot of talk about resilience. What does it really mean, though?

Basically: resilience is the ability to recover quickly from really tough, painful situations. But there’s so much more depth to it than that. This isn’t the kind of thing that you either have or you don’t. If you’re dealing with PTSD, you may be tempted to blame yourself (as I did) for not being resilient enough, for not recovering on the timeline that others think you should, or for even having PTSD at all. But don’t. Or at least, try not to. Because it’s not your fault. And you are resilient. If you didn’t have resilience, you wouldn’t even be here at all.

Everyone has some degree of resilience. And it’s something you can always improve. It’s like how in World of Warcraft, you have a base percentage of the Resilience stat, and then you can add onto it. Unlike in WoW, however, it’s not as simple as putting on a different set of clothes.

Resilience is a complex abstract idea that doesn’t mean much until you break it down into the factors that make it up, and concrete practical applications of them. There are several components that are thought to contribute to overall resilience. Each of these is a skill that can be developed, or a practice that’s built up based on skills that can be developed.

In one of my first sessions with my current therapist, she gave me a little notebook, and had me write down these components of resilience:

  • adaptability
  • creativity
  • ability to manage affect
  • support network
  • tenacity
  • discernment
  • ability to develop a positive framework for life’s issues

Looking over this list, I realized that I’m a lot more resilient than I tend to think I am. I’ve always been habitually creative, and have used that as a coping skill—in fact, my blog was created as a way of coping creatively, sorting out issues (discernment), and developing positive frameworks for them. It allowed me to access a support network, at a time when my other avenues for support were suffering.

These are things that not everyone has equal access to, though. Support networks in particular seem to be one of the most important factors in ease of recovery, but it’s also the component of resilience that most heavily depends on other people, and can be very severely affected by any kind of fallout from abuse affecting friendships, or complicating needs due to intersectional aspects of oneself that others may not understand or be willing to accommodate.

Of that list above, I think my support network and (confidence in my own) discernment have been hit the hardest—by constant gaslighting and social pressure due to being ace. And the way that others just… don’t get either asexuality or abuse.

When (nearly) everyone is telling you, over and over again, that you can’t possibly know your own sexual orientation, that it must be because of some medical or psychological issue that can be fixed, that you’re missing out and oh what a waste… well then, how can you expect to be treated any better by a partner?

And where can you go when something happens, if it’s just expected that you should be treated that way? When behavior that erodes or crosses your boundaries is considered to be “just trying to help” you “discover” yourself?

I’m fortunate to have never had any therapists who overtly tried to change me—although I had one session with one who might have, had I ever gone back (more on that another time). I’m fortunate to have found the asexual community early in life, too. So I at least had that much support. But I’ve lost a lot of friends (or simply become distant from them) who just have no idea how to support a survivor (or an ace person), and frequently rely heavily on places like Facebook to communicate, which has become inaccessible to me. The ace community itself is sometimes hostile to survivors, sometimes ableist, sometimes just hard to engage with because the whole internet is scary and triggering. So sometimes, I’ve had to disengage and just stay offline for a while.

It’s better, sometimes, to build what Laura calls a Fortress of Solitude, or to just unplug and get out into the wilderness for a while, well out of cell phone range. It may not do anything for (and might have a detrimental effect on) your support network, but going to a nice quiet place where everything is more peaceful is a fantastic way to manage your affect (emotions), and that’s part of resilience too.

One thing that I think we tend to collectively excel at in the ace community is in building positive frameworks. We are truly obsessed with analyzing, and way over-enthusiastic about creating new models and ways of thinking that just work better for us. I mean, even last month’s Carnival topic was Identity, Labels, and Models.

We’re that way largely because we have had to adapt. The existing social scripts and frameworks just don’t work, and are often used against us. So we fight them by creating something different, and adopting existing alternative models from other places as well (there’s a reason why polyamory is so common in the asexual community!). Queenie’s Five Factor Model of Relationships is a really good recent example of this, and I highly recommend trying it. It can help you discern aspects of your relationships, and find ways to bolster your support network. As you can see, it builds up several different components of resilience at once!

I think we’ve also all been pretty much forced to develop some level of tenacity just by existing in the world as ace people, because we face constant invalidation, marginalization, erasure, and compulsory sexuality. It’s exhausting! But we still have to get up every day and face more of the same, to a greater or lesser extent.

I think, more than anything else… resilience is a practice of each of these things, and practicing resilience amounts to a form of self-care. Here are some questions that may be helpful for you to think about your own resilience:

  • In what ways do you demonstrate each of these components of resilience in your own daily life? (Don’t tell me you don’t, because I assure you, you do!)
  • Which areas do you excel at? (Are you very good at dealing with change? Very creative? Stubbornly tenacious?)
  • Which area do you feel needs the most work, and can you think of any small steps to build that up?
  • What little things can you do every day to practice each part of resilience?
  • Are there any big things that you want to work towards, that you’d want to set as a goal? What realistic steps can you take towards achieving that?

You don’t have to answer these here, although you can share if you’d like. Writing it down privately or even just thinking about it can help a lot.

Remember also that resilience is something that is important for everyone, and everyone has it to some degree. It’s ordinary, not extraordinary. You may not have nor ever develop any mental illnesses, but pain and grief are part of life. Building resilience as part of a wellness practice is just as important—it’s as much preventive care as it is a key part of recovery. Not “prevention” as in “bad things will stop happening to you” or anything like that… prevention as in, you’ll be able to bounce back more quickly when it does, and the severity of the effects on your mental health will be reduced.

Remember that whatever has happened to you, it is not your fault. You are already resilient enough to have survived to read these words! Focus on that as you go through your healing process. And remember that we’re always here for you.

10 thoughts on “What is Resilience?

  1. One of my first reactions to the components of resilience:

    ability to manage affect
    support network
    ability to develop a positive framework for life’s issues

    Was to think “wow what do a lot of these things even really mean in this context?”. :P The vocabulary level seems high and the first step, before you can even begin to decide which components you’re “Good at” and which you could work more on, seems to be really breaking down and understanding what each one really means. Some might seem clear on the surface, like “support network” or “creativity”, but even so I think those things might mean very different things to different people in this context.

    Wonderful post here, though, Elizabeth. You’ve given me a lot of good food for thought. And you’re right, we’re all resilient in our own ways, to varying degrees. ;) And the “And remember that we’re always here for you.” link at the end was great to see. I hadn’t explored the RFAS site much yet and hadn’t seen that yet but it’s truly gonna be so helpful to so many people, all of those warm lines, and that blog post about how to reach out for help when you have a mental illness… so much good stuff there.


    • That’s true, they are possibly pretty difficult to understand right away, and they could mean so many different things. I could probably do a series of posts explaining each term more in depth, if that would be helpful. I would guess that discernment (perception, insight, seeing the truth of things even while being lied to) and managing affect (ability to deal with emotions, tolerate negative feelings, self-sooth, etc.) are probably the most difficult to understand? Affect management is especially difficult to pin down, I think, because there are just so many different strategies you could use to manage emotions. One example is a wonderful piece on art therapy we have coming up, which I think tackles managing affect by being creative really really well. And also shows other aspects of resilience, too.

      I do hope it helps! It’s still very much a work in progress, of course. I always feel like I’m forgetting things to add to that page! There are so many things we just don’t know enough about to recommend, like resources outside of the U.S. We have at least two more pages to add to the help section, too. It all feels pretty skeletal compared to the vision in my head thus far!

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  2. This is a really great post and I found it useful to think about the different areas that you mentioned. I use writing for so many of these, both privately and (increasingly) publicly. For private writing I have a writing journal where I create fictional situations that often address things I’m dealing with in my life; getting it out of my head and looking at it from the outside in this way often helps me to get a better perspective.

    I find that tenacity and adaptability are a difficult balance. I can be very tenacious, but if I get too stubborn about sticking with the status quo, I’m not good at adapting to change. My mom likes to tell stories about me as a small child being both tenacious and slow to adapt to new things, so clearly this is a very persistent part of my personality!


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