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Thriving in the face of adversity | A series on personal resilience

David Chrisinger GAO
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: David Chrisinger is a Foresight and Strategic Planning Analyst at the U.S. Government Accountability Office. (Full bio below blog)

If you have any doubt that, in the words of Ben Okri, “The most authentic thing about us is our capacity to create, to overcome, to endure, to transform, to love and to be greater than our suffering,” than you haven’t met Sgt. 1st Class Greg Robinson, a combat engineer who became the first soldier with an amputated limb and prosthetic to complete the Army’s Air Assault School—a course so grueling his prosthetic broke twice.

Robinson lost his lower right leg in October 2006 during a firefight while deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan.

“My biggest thing today,” Robinson says, “is to let that someone who is laying there wounded in that hospital bed know not to get down on yourself. You can continue despite missing a limb. A disability is only a disability if you let it hold you down.”

Robinson’s ability not only to survive, but to thrive in the face of adversity is a perfect example of resiliency—a trait that fortunately can be learned and strengthened.

What Is Resiliency?

The United States Army defines resiliency as, “The mental, physical, emotional, and behavioral ability to face and cope with adversity, adapt to change, recover, learn and grow from setbacks.”

In other words, resiliency is a character trait that helps us both act and react in appropriate and productive ways.

Resiliency as an Active Quality:

Resilient people:

  • take risks and seize opportunities.
  • don’t dwell on setbacks; they find ways to move beyond them.
  • don’t shy away from pain.
  • are not afraid of embarrassment or failure.
  • find ways to manage their pain and move beyond it.
  • know that anything worth accomplishing will be difficult and painful.

Resiliency as a Reactive Quality:

Resilient people:

  • know that defeat comes not from failing, but from giving up.
  • take personal responsibility for their actions, yet they do not paralyze themselves with shame and guilt.
  • do not run away when things stop being easy.

And perhaps most of all, resilient people try not to let themselves feel helpless.

Learned Helplessness

Beginning in the 1960s, Dr. Martin Seligman, who is now a professor of psychology and the director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, began a series of experiments to test the hypothesis that clinical depression and related mental illnesses result from a perceived absence of control over the outcome of a situation. Seligman studied animal responses to a series of stressors, some of which the animals could control and some they could not.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, animals that had no control over their stressors learned to feel helpless and exhibited symptoms consistent with clinical depression. When a second stage of the experiment gave all the animals control over their stressors, the animals who had been given no control in the first part of the experiment again demonstrated passive acceptance. In the years since this experiment was first conducted, it has been repeated on other animals and adult humans as well. The results were always similar.

Ultimately, Dr. Seligman concluded that when we begin to believe there isn’t anything we can do to avoid pain, we will eventually stop trying altogether and instead behave as if we have no control—even when opportunities to escape are presented.

We can see evidence of this phenomenon in the war in Iraq. “At first you are jumpy,” says one Iraq war veteran. “But after a while you become numb to it. You can’t maintain that high state of vigilance that long. You just accept it. You are going to get hit or you are not, and there is not much you can do about it.”

IED blasts in much of Iraq are so random and that few soldiers or Marines feel that they have any control. Many, like the one quoted above, simply accept their fate and push on.

Fortunately, having experiences in which we lose a sense of control over our lives does not guarantee that we’ll develop “learned helplessness.” Through the course of his research, Seligman noted that about two-thirds of the participants who experienced a situation over which they had no control developed learned helplessness, while the remaining one-third did not.

Unlike the majority, the minority of participants who did not accept their fate were able to see the helpless situation as an isolated event. They did not carry the feeling of helplessness over to new challenges.

Why not?

Your Explanatory Style Dictates How You Will Respond to Adversity

Dr. Seligman discovered that the difference between those who were susceptible to learned helplessness and those who were able to bounce back was rooted in their explanatory stylethat is, the way in which they explained to themselves what had happened.

Seligman argues that our perception of events can be divided into three categories:

  1. Personal (Internal vs. External): This involves how you explain why something happened to you (Is it your fault or someone else’s?)
  2. Permanent (Stable vs. Unstable): This involves how you explain the extent of the cause (For example, “I always fail at everything.”)
  3. Pervasive (Global vs. Local/Specific): This involves how you explain the extent of the effects (For example, “I’m never going to succeed.”)

In 2002, Dr. Karen Reivich and Dr. Andrew Shatte, authors of The Resilience Factor: Seven Essential Skills for Overcoming Life’s Inevitable Obstacles, renamed Seligman’s categories:

  1. Me/Not Me
  2. Always/Not Always
  3. Everything/Not Everything

A “Me, Always, Everything” person will, for example, believe that he caused the problem (Me), that nothing can be done to resolve the problem (Always), and that it will undermine all aspects of his life (Everything).

A “Not Me, Not Always, Not Everything” person, on the other hand, will face a problem by believing that other people or circumstances beyond his control caused the problem (Not Me), that the problem is fleeting (Not Always), and that it will not affect much of his life (Not Everything).

People with a “Me, Always, Everything” explanatory style are prone to pessimism, while people with a “Not Me, Not Always, Not Everything” style are more likely to be optimistic.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, studies have shown that those with a pessimistic explanatory style are more likely to experience depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem.

Without ever having spoken with Greg Robinson, I’m willing to bet that he is a “Not Me, Not Always, Not Everything” kind of person. Let’s examine—using Robinson’s situation—how a “Me, Always, Everything” person would react to losing a limb compared to a “Not Me, Not Always, Not Everything” person:

  • If the person tends to be a “Me, Always, Everything” person, then he might explain losing a limb in combat by saying, “I’m so stupid. I wasn’t paying attention. I should have never jumped into that ditch when we started taking incoming fire. I had no business being out there in the first place (Me). Now I’m never going to be able to lead a happy and successful life (Always). My wife is probably going to leave me because I’m such a burden. My life is shit (Everything).”
  • Now if the person tends to be a “Not Me, Not Always, Not Everything” person, then he might explain losing a limb in combat by saying, “I did everything I could. There was no way I could have avoided that IED (Not Me). With advances in medical technology, I’ll eventually be back on my feet. It will take time, but I’ll still get to live the life I want (Not Always). I’m going to turn this ‘disability’ into an opportunity. And thank God I have a good wife who can help me get through this (Not Everything).”

In the end, if you approach life and its setbacks with a sense of possibility and the expectation of positive results, study after study show that you’re more likely to lead a life in which possibilities are realized and results are positive.

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David Chrisinger is a Foresight and Strategic Planning Analyst at the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Prior to joining GAO’s Office of Strategic Planning & External Liaison Office in 2017, David was a Senior Communications Specialist for seven years in GAO’s Education, Workforce, and Income Security Team, where he helped write research reports and testimonies for the U.S. Congress. For six years, David also taught public policy writing at Johns Hopkins University, and in 2017, Johns Hopkins University Press published David’s book PUBLIC POLICY WRITING THAT MATTERS. The opinions and views expressed in this article are the author’s and are not necessarily intended to reflect GAO’s institutional views.