Wednesday, May 28, 2008

"Tapping Your Inner Strength" by Edith Henderson Grotberg, PhD

Recognizing Your Own Resilience
A discussion with Tapping Your Inner Strength author, Edith Henderson Grotberg, PhD

Although we often seem universally bonded by experiences with adversity, some of us are better able to tap into an inner strength that carries us through the hard times. Edith Henderson Grotberg has made it her mission to learn how people deal with adversities. We spoke recently with Dr. Grotberg on her unique perspective into acquiring resilience.

What's the best way to examine and strengthen "resilience building blocks"?

Resilience is acquired as a result of normal growth and development. The basic "building blocks" for resilience are connected to various ages. From the following five basic building blocks, all other resilience factors are developed. The first building block is trust. If, for example, you learned as an infant that you couldn't trust your environment, you would not be able to function in life -- not as a child nor as an adult. Trust is developed in the first year of life and if it is not established, you may grow into a person who doesn't trust others and who feels very vulnerable. One of the exercises I ask people to do is to look at their lives as far back as they can remember to determine why they don't trust people today. Where did trust break down? If it is broken down, you can rebuild it now.

The second building block involves developing autonomy. Somewhere during your second or third year of life you become aware that you are separate from other people. This realization allows you to understand that what you do can get responses from those around you, and, in turn, they can get responses back from you. It is in this phase that you begin to recognize that you have rights and you need to be respected. A good exercise regarding autonomy is to look back as far as possible and remember experiences you had with a parent. Think back to an experience in which that person was contributing to the promotion of your autonomy and independence while also setting rules and limits. What was the experience like? Were the rules too strict, robbing you of your independence?

The third building block takes place when you learn to take initiative. This step begins when you are between 3 and 4 years old. You become willing to take risks, to try new things, to get involved. But somewhere in your development, you may have lost the ability to take initiative. Think about when this may have happened. Was your creativity crushed? Were you humiliated or teased? Were you told that something you did was "dumb"?

The fourth building block is industry, and it develops during the school-age years. This is where you acquire skills of problem-solving and interpersonal relationships. Determine where that skill might have broken down. What do you need to do to build it up?

The fifth building block develops during the teenage years -- identity. You start to question who you are and how you measure up to other people. You define your goals for yourself and look toward how you'll make money in your future.

The book outlines clear steps to strengthen each area, so that you don’t have to live with the wreckage of the past.

How can we tap our inner strength in everyday life?

The first thing you have to do when faced with adversity is reach into your inner strength. Ask yourself what you need to deal with your adversity. Then you must have trust and confidence in yourself that you can deal with it. You do need to have faith that you can handle it because you are risking failure.

The next step is to determine the resources you have around you. Who do you know who can help you? Who can be trusted? Who are your role models? Recognize your own skills and the best way for you to manage your fear or anger in the face of adversity.

How do cultural beliefs factor into inner strength?

We are all very dependent on what our specific culture emphasizes. One cultural difference, for example, is whether an individual or collective emphasis is used to approach problems. If there is a collective emphasis, people of that culture are not willing to resolve adversity on their own. They tend to work with other people, especially members of the family. Other cultures, however, may emphasize the individual, and a person is held accountable for himself and expected to be strong.

In one country I studied, children are supported very strongly by the family until they are 5 or 6 years old; then they are turned loose and expected to solve their own problems. The kids who know how to reach out and already have a strong sense of autonomy can manage on their own. Kids who are very dependent on others are overwhelmed. They become ill; they run away; they get depressed. They can't handle that kind of change.

Age is a factor in cultural differences, too. Some cultures keep their children dependent for a good part of their lives, particularly in a patriarchal system. Other cultures encourage independence earlier. This all plays a part in how you deal with adversity.

How do we live through and learn from adversity?

Adversity often has a life of its own. You can try to prepare for it by asking yourself what's going to happen or who will be affected. You can draw on your inner strengths and determine which resilience factors will be useful. But although some adversities are events we known are coming (such as a divorce, or a job cutback), it sometimes takes us by surprise. Then we have to plan our actions and determine how we can become strengthened or transformed by adversity. Actor Christopher Reeve is a perfect example of this. A horse-riding accident left him paralyzed, but his resilience and optimism have been an inspiration to other people who have been faced with the same adversity.

It is important to be intellectually and emotionally involved. But you also have to appreciate that most things are based on emotional rather than intellectual responses. If you don’t feel confident or secure, it's hard to get going intellectually. You may ignore your emotions and think you can deal with adversities cognitively, but that's not true. You always have to deal with your feelings.

Tapping Your Inner Strength is available from

No comments: