Simone Hoermann, Ph.D., is a Psychologist in private practice in New York City. She specializes in providing psychotherapy for Personality Disorders, Anxiety, and Depression ...Read More
While many people who have Personality Disorders have experienced difficult and traumatic childhoods, not everyone who has experienced childhood trauma necessarily develops a mental illness. The question of what puts people at risk for developing difficulties and what protects people in dealing with adverse life experiences – what we call resilience – remains somewhat puzzling.
I recently spoke to Dr. Helen Stein, a Clinical Psychologist who is working on a project researching exactly this question. The data for this project was collected at the Child and Family Center at the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas. The project is unique in that staff interviewed people who had been treated in a preschool day treatment program at Menningers when they were children. They contacted them many years later to find out how they were doing as adults. In gathering the information, they listened to many touching and very different stories. Currently, Dr. Stein is working on a project that involves comparing 9 people who had a lot of adversity, including abuse and neglect, and were doing well to 9 people with similar histories who were not doing well. The two groups were matched gender, age and economic status.
What makes the big difference between those who were doing well and those who were not? It seems likely that it has to do with having one good relationship, a conclusion that is consistent with the findings of other resilience researchers. This could be a relationship that started in childhood, or it could be an adult relationship. By a “good relationship”, Dr. Stein means a relationship that is loving and nurturing, and in which the individuals have shared interests. It is a trusting relationship that both honor as a special relationship. Most crucial is that it is a relationship that teaches the person to think about themselves and other people, and in which a person is encouraged to try to understand the reason why people act the way they do. The partner in this relationship is able, or at least trying, to “keep the other person’s mind in mind”.
Dr. Stein recalls the story of a boy, Ricky, who had been abandoned by his parents and was raised by his grandmother. The grandmother, a bread baker by trade, would bake with Ricky, and they gardened together. The relationship was not perfect, for instance, the grandmother did not supervise Ricky enough. One day, he got bitten by a small snapping turtle that latched onto his finger and did not let go. The grandmother sat Ricky down, and slammed a rock down next to it. The turtle, startled, opened its mouth. When Ricky wanted to kill the turtle, the grandmother refused to let him take revenge. She explained that turtle simply had done “what turtles do.” Throughout his life, Ricky has used this experience as a metaphor to guide his relationships with people, believing in understanding the importance of the perspectives intentions of others.
A good relationship is also one in which there can be repair if there is a conflict. For instance, Ricky’s grandmother did not immediately believe Ricky when she heard about the severe abuse he had experienced. You might imagine what hurt this caused for Ricky. However, when the story was confirmed, she apologized and he was able to forgive her.
Ricky was able to find others to help him, for example, teachers or friends. He developed the judgment to figure out who could help him and who might hurt him. Of course, this did not protect him in every way. For instance, he had a period of heavy drinking, but when he realized the impact this had on his family, he addressed the problem because he knew he might lose them if he continued to drink.
As Dr. Stein emphasizes, the idea of the one good relationship is only one idea that explains resilience. Other factors are also important, such as our temperament and our ability or willingness to seek out other people and to learn from past experiences, good and bad. Even luck can play a part, for instance, when we are able to avoid tragedy through some type of coincidence. What’s encouraging is that anyone can improve their coping skills over time – resilience is not a trait but a skill set that can be learned. Dr. Stein noted that when she was seriously ill, she used all the coping skills that she had taught her patients over the years and they helped!
Having experienced a good relationship in which we learn to understand ourselves and other people can encourage us to seek other supportive and caring relationships to enrich our lives. Considering the motivation and intentions of others, trying to understand where other people come from, is something that can help us to avoid that black-or-white outlook that can get us into trouble. As Dr. Stein’s research suggests, those things can be learned at any point in our lives. ”Therapy can be a place to learn it,” says Dr. Stein, “but a spouse, a teacher, or a friend can help. We think it is never too late.”