Even if a cup breaks, don’t forget the picture on it.
(Gyonpo Tshering, The Bhutanese Guide to Happiness )
Often, we come across persons who have grown up in difficult circumstances and, like in the saying above, they talk about the picture rather than the broken cup.
There is no pain or heaviness in their narration and instead we hear them tell a story about how they were resourceful, determined and helped themselves to face the world.
According to Steven Wolin (a family therapist) who has done extensive research on resilience among youth in the West, this process called reframing is something that can be learnt and is a strengths-based approach. The idea is to develop a mindset that has a habitual way of seeing and thinking about things. Dwelling on the negatives can induce despair and leaves us feeling worn out and stuck.
He talks about a Challenge Model of human psychology that grew out of research with people who lead satisfying lives despite their suffering as children in various forms. Final end points of success such as graduation from college with high grades or total recovery from alcohol or drug issues, or from family problems are not equated as resilience. Instead, accumulation of small successes that occur side by side with failures, setback and disappointments is what matters.
Wolin adds that strengths-based behaviours can be taught or modelled and learnt through concrete guidelines to help us with the ups and downs of life. Like becoming aware and talking about our strengths and resources is important during tough times and recognising that we have potential for developing resilience. We can shift from thinking that we are bad or helpless and cannot change a situation. Over time, these self-protecting behaviours develop into lasting clusters of strengths called resiliencies.
Reframing is a way we share stories about ourselves, and some are constructive. For example: ‘I am careful about whom I want to hang out with in college. As a child I was choosy and used this skill to stay away from the local gang that bullied kids in our building. Today I do the same thing and choose my friends.’
Some may frame their life story a bit differently. For example: ‘I can’t trust anyone today. I was neglected as a child and I can’t get over it. I find it hard to believe what someone says or does.’
The above techniques of reframing are about how we uncover themes that are often hidden in our stories — from being unhelpful or to arrive at an authentic and helpful story. Remember, reframing does not undermine or eliminate the pain of the hard times but instead it uncovers the strengths that helped us.
Caring relationships can also help us during troubled times, build our confidence and help us distance ourselves from difficult situations and come up with better ways of managing our lives. It can be a caring relative, teacher, or friend.