The saying that “no man is an island” seems not truer anywhere than in the realm of resilience. Happiness author and business coach Alvah Parker lists ten traits of resilient, happy people. In the very first one she notes that resilient people “are strong people who realize the importance of having a good social support system and are able to surround themselves with supportive friends and family” (Parker, 2012).

Similarly, organisational adviser/facilitator David Liddell, addressing managers, names six traits of resilience in organisational leaders, among which is: “Team Support: Although you are a strong individual, you know the value of social support and are able to surround yourself with supportive colleagues and strong leaders” (Liddell, 2012). So, we ask, what are the skills a person needs to develop good social support networks? We look at developing relational capacity and balancing dependence and independence.

Developing relational capacity

Writing about the most resilience-requiring experience — the trauma of abuse — Herman (1992) remarks that the core experiences of psychological trauma are those of disempowerment and disconnection from others; the recovery, therefore, is based on empowerment of the survivor and the creation of new connections. Recovery, she insists, can only take place in relationship, not in isolation. In renewing connections with people, survivors of abuse or trauma re-create the psychological faculties that were damaged or deformed by the traumatic experience. These include the basic capacities for trust, autonomy, initiative, competence, identity, and intimacy.

As a therapist/guide, you may well wish to visit this cluster of resilience skills with your client, whether or not the person’s history is one of abuse. Through questions, discussions, and keen listening, you may be able to find out much about how they do relationship, and how effective they are at garnering social support when they need it:

  • Whom does the client trust? How does s/he decide whether to trust someone or not? In which groups (including such as focus groups, group counselling, or group process groups) might the person be generally safe, and thus able to learn more about safety through the interactions?
  • How autonomous is the person? How capable is the client of going into dependent mode, asking for help when they need it? This relates to the skill of balancing dependence and independence (see below)
  • How capable is the person of taking the initiative when that would be useful (as opposed to the person merely being reactive)?
  • How much is the client in touch with their innate capacity, their special places of competence?
  • What is the client’s sense of identity? How does s/he see him/herself? How much does the person still identify as a victim (if that is their history)? How much might you as counsellor be drawn into the client’s working-out of trauma by transference to you (identification of you as perpetrator)? How able is the client to identify him/herself as a member of a family, a community, a nation? How well-developed are the person’s networking skills?
  • What is the client’s capacity for intimacy?

Balance dependence and independence

In most Western countries people are trained from an early age to be independent, and dependence gets very bad press. Yet dependence — the ability to ask for help, comfort, or solace — softens a world that can seem harsh and unrelenting. It is hard to imagine a society in which citizens were proscribed from asking one another for help, so cold and unemotional it would surely be.

All of the 15 parties (individuals and a few couples) studied by Carbonatto (2009) remarked that they would not have gotten through their adversity had it not been for their networks of support, whether those were mainly at family, community, national, or international level. Most of them commented in some way that their ability to prevail over the tough time had been due in part to their ability to go into either mode — that of independence or that of dependence — as appropriate. Both are needed for wholeness. Mostly survivors seem to work their will as well as they can, initiating actions that seem logical to get themselves out of the mess, but then being unapologetic about — and unafraid to — ask for help when they have exhausted their own resources.

Both in the Canberra fires of January, 2003, and “Black Saturday”, the bushfires of February, 2009 near Melbourne, lives were lost (4 and 210, respectively). Around 2700 homes were destroyed; thousands of people were sheltered in gyms and community shelters, with many more holed up with family members (Camilleri et al, 2007). In both fires, the communities rallied around, with businesses donating goods such as mattresses and toys. Community organisations sprang up to help people get through, and to help prevent fires in future (Carbonatto, 2009).

Generally those who had well-developed support networks coped better. Social researchers talk about the “social capital” realised from strengthening some forms of community networks (Healy, 2004). New Zealand’s Department of Internal Affairs defines this capital as “the stock of goodwill and trust built up when people voluntarily participate and cooperate for mutual benefit” (New Zealand Department of Internal Affairs, 1999, p6).

The point for resilience is that, by the time the relationship is needed, it is too late to develop it. How would your client assess his/her relationships at present? How about his or her networks of support in the community?

Maintaining strong relationships: An exercise

  • Ask your client to reflect on her current relationships, both with family members and others in her social sphere. Ask the client:
  • How close are you to people in your family? If you are not close, are you on speaking terms?
  • How about people at work? People in your social sphere?
  • How would you feel if you knew that one of the people in these circles was about to be taken away forever?
  • Going a bit deeper now, focus on one relationship which is not totally satisfactory. Is it mostly peaceful, or full of conflict? Are there ever times when you enjoy it, or are you filled with dread at the thought of interacting with this person? Take a moment to get a sense of how the other person is, and how they are in relationship.
  • Bringing your attention back to yourself now, note how you are when you are in relationship with this person. How is that different from how you are with other people?
  • What might you want from this relationship; what needs are you trying to meet from it? How do you behave when you really want to meet a need?
  • Once you have identified your own unmet needs in this (possibly conflicted) relationship, you have a huge advantage. You no longer need to see discomfort or tension between you and the other person as solely their fault. Discovering your own needs opens up resilience options for you (adapted from Carbonatto, 2009)