After more than three decades of being thoroughly engaging in the therapeutic enterprise, it is exceeding clear that building strong internal resources is a core competency to build within therapy. I was first alerted and sensitized to the importance of developing strong internal resources through reading a one-page summary of a huge multi-factor analysis research study on satisfaction in married couples. It presented the case that only 35 percent of participating couples were satisfied, and further that only nine percent of couples, or one in eleven, were in the top category of couples, across seven groupings, that were highly satisfied or "vitalized" across all dimensions. I remember being impressed that one critical descriptor that distinguished these "vitalized" couples from the other six categories was having built strong internal resources.
Specifically, Marriage researchers Yoav Lavee and David H. Olson, in their 1993 study of married couples, found four distinct profiles of satisfied couples. These satisfied couples included the four groupings and percentages of "traditional" (10%), "balanced" (8%), harmonious" (8%) and "vitalized" (9%). Even here, traditional couples showed low-to-moderate adjustment in several dimensions of their interaction. Balanced and harmonious couples experience a positive, strong relationship, with vitalized couples having the highest satisfaction across all measures.
Couples in the "vitalized" group were characterized as highly satisfied across nearly every dimension of their relationship, interacted well and constructively resolved difficulties. These best adjusted, most satisfied couples had models of each of their parents staying married. Beyond this background of having extended stability and security with their parents, they also agreed in most external areas and tended to be in their first marriages. Most crucially, these vitalized couples had built strong internal resources and were personally integrated. Thus, members of "vitalized" couples group had built strong character qualities and had integrated them inside themselves.1
Consider a key distinction between couples in genuine relationships, deriving from the word related meaning to be deeply connected like brothers and sisters, and involvements characterized by being complicated, mutually entangled, enmeshed, and using each other. It would appear highly probable, reasonable and fitting that the 25% of couples described as balanced, harmonious, and particularly vitalized, would qualify for being in relationships and not merely involvements.
What does it mean to having built strong internal resources? Ego strength is competent adaptation to the environment, that is, build strong internal resources or being highly resourced in the fulfillment of this vision. The peak is Abraham Maslow's self-actualized person who regularly experiences satisfying peak experiences, has strong internal resources and a highly well functioning, adaptive and healthy personality in the relative world. This is a functional healthy ego as a set of skills, abilities, tools and strategies to appropriately use in adaptively working well in the world, or "self-mastery."
One can build resilience, hardiness and character, much like one builds antibodies by being inoculated with a small dose of an illness, by exposure to mild to moderate stressors and experiences of disillusionment that do not overwhelm the person's ability to face, cope and adapt. Resilience brings adaptive flexibility along with strong persistence in the face of apparent obstacles. Resilience researchers have distilled ten psychological characteristics or markers that can aid people to increase their resilience: optimism; cognitive flexibility; a solid moral compass of core values; altruism; a mentor or heroic figure or role model; facing one's fears; active coping skills; a supportive social network; physical fitness; and a sense of humor and to laugh often.2
Resilience is closely related to the positive psychology concept of flow coined by psychological theorist and researcher Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. Flow is sometimes referred to as being in the zone, on the ball, in the groove and the inner game. At root, flow is conceived as an optimal behavioral fit between the skills, abilities, talents and intelligences a person brings, and the demands and challenges environmental tasks require. He has identified nine factors that describe an experience of flow: clear goals; a high degree of concentration and focus; a loss of feeling self-conscious; an altered subjective sense of time; direct and immediate feedback; balance between ability level and challenge; a sense of personal control over the activity/situation; an intrinsically rewarding activity; and being absorbed in an activity yielding action awareness merging.3
Equanimity is the outstanding attribute for having grown emotionally into true maturity. One who has built strong internal resources, adaptive capabilities, and the ability to keep their emotionally-grounded balance, throughout life's up's and down's and ever-changing stressors, has built true equanimity. When essentially nothing can shake, quake or bake you, blow, boil or bowl you over, split, hit or have a fit over, then you stand your ground whatever may come. When you surrender your imaginary ego as a false identity and ever more inhabit your True Nature or True Self, you are imperturbable since nothing can throw you off course. This puts the disciple and the discipline into discipleship. When you embody in action what you espouse, then you are impeccable, beyond reproach. You exemplify and embody a whole being—yourself. You're free.
Many therapeutic approaches are used to build ego strength, including cognitive, cognitive-behavioral, psychodynamic, family system, interpersonal, transactional analysis, Gestalt, transpersonal, humanistic, inquiry and hypnosis among others. A key understanding to be able to draw upon and build any strength is that the specific strength to be built is one that is latent within the person, that is, one has been exposed in direct experience with someone, an animal, a celebrity, popular personality, athletic/music/ movies/political star or virtual characters (e.g., in literature, video games, animation) with the strength, and now consciously recognizes how installing it can powerfully serve them.
The mind-body approach of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), that has been so very useful for helping people move through and complete traumas among a wide variety of issues it can address, actively supports the installing of helpful resources to strengthen one's sense of a capable, functional, adaptive self in the world. Therapists trained in EMDR regularly install a handful of such strong internal resources in active support of their clients, although there are a multitude of such resources available to form-fit for any one. Certainly, all the above qualities that are articulated for resilience, flow and equanimity qualify. All virtues, positive attributes and character strengths in general also qualify, as the need arises for a given individual.
The format for installing strong internal resources with EMDR is straightforward. Attune yourself to anyone in your life, whether presently alive or not, whether someone you know or someone you've seen, whether a celebrity movie, sports, music, political or personality star, whether a literary, videogame or made-up role, whether an animal or pet, that exudes and exemplifies the quality you want to install within yourself. For instance, take wanting to install a safe being in a safe place. I've had people mention their spouse, grandfather, dog, best friend, Yoda from the Star Wars films and their parents among others in setting ranging from home to anywhere they are. It's also perfectly fine to choose more than one example as well as change what you pick.
Bilateral stimulation (BS), that is, alternating stimulation of each side of the body using eye movement, lights, sounds, tapping or a light buzzer in each hand, is the intervention method used during the processing of a traumatic event in the EMDR format. This is the principle approach used in EMDR to install key resources.
Other internal resources I regularly install include who are the most nurturing, the most protective and an inner wise advisor to offer good judgment and counsel. Clients call upon therapists to be resourceful in meeting their legitimate needs in building what is called ego strength to be able to face and handle whatever challenges come up in the world. Meeting these needs has called for a wide variety of resources that would be helpful for a particular person's growth and individuation.
What can be installed is only limited by your imagination and how clearly you can discern the legitimate needs, appropriateness and timing of helping build these strong internal resources. Installing the abilities to be assertive, firmly set limits, and say "No" have been helpful for some people. In reverse, some can install the ability to be flexible, not speak, remain silent and listen to their deep self. Installing the strengths of being able to speak, act, move and leave (instead of freeze, tune out or dissociate) has been helpful for others. So has installing the ability to stay, take responsibility for one's actions and face the consequences of behaviors is important for some, especially those who habitually leave, escape and run from responsibilities, relationships, work and commitments.
Installing the skill to pause, look and see what the reality of a situation truly is (instead of distract, leave, escape and abandon) has been crucial for still others. Given how dangerous it is for many to feel, installing the ability to be warmly empathetic in giving permission to feel a little at a time has been helpful. One can install the strength to take essential actions even in the face of conflict, uncertainty and conflicting information.
Some people seem to find the installing of the quality to tell the unvarnished truth to be a watershed ability. Other people find the quality of using tact and diplomacy in telling the truth equally helpful. Still others find the quality to lighten things up with humor (speaking truth to power) enormously supportive of their continued development, especially to their spouses, bosses and authority figures. On the other hand, installing the quality of being able to take serious matters seriously can be most productive at times.
For others installing someone who the person deeply trusts and always can be relied upon to "have their back" is important. Some people welcome the installing of someone who they can have as a confidant or confessor who will not judge them in any way, stay clear of any guilt or shame and even call anyone aiming to lay these judgments on them. Others are well served by installing confidence or a take-charge personality that can confront procrastination, hesitation, anxiety, doubts and fears in oneself and others.
Actually, all these resources and more are ones that therapists regularly model, encourage, give permission, and yes loan to clients. With this process of installing tailor-fit strong internal resources, the therapist is having the client gift themselves with these abilities. Empowerment means to rely upon yourself as your own authority, not in any egocentric or narcissistic way, but rather as a healthy, interdependent and whole being. This does not preclude drawing upon whatever useful and astute resources outside of you, including consultants, research and educated opinions. The ultimate decisions are purely in your own hands drawing upon the strong internal resources you have built and are in the process of building. Since the consequences of your decisions will be yours as well, isn't it most fitting that the one in the driver's seat make that call on their road of life?
1.Yoav Lavee, and David H. Olson, "Seven Types of Marriage: Empirical Typology based on Enrich", Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 19 (4), October, 1993, pages 325-340; also a one-page summary is reported in "An Arrangement of Marriages," Psychology Today, 26 (1), January / February, 1993, page 22.
2. David Milne, "People Can Learn Markers On Road to Resilience." Psychiatric News, 2 (5), January 19, 2007. pn.psychiatryonline.org/cgi/content/full/42/2/5
3. Csíkszentmihályi, Mihály, Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement With Everyday Life. New York: Basic Books, 1997; Csíkszentmihályi, M. and K. Rathunde. "The measurement of flow in everyday life: Towards a theory of emergent motivation." In J. E. Jacobs (Ed.) Nebraska symposium on motivation, Vol. 40: Developmental perspectives on motivation. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, page 60, 1993; Csíkszentmihályi, Mihály, Beyond Boredom and Anxiety. San Francisco, California: Jossey-Bass, 1975.