Turning Pain into Power: A Guide to Enhancing Resilience


Alicia McVarnock

(Ph.D Candidate in Psychology)

What does the road to resilience look like?

Many people think of resilience as an individual trait. Something we either have, or we don’t. That’s why we give so much credit to people who have bounced back from adversity, as though they tried harder or wanted it more. The truth is that as life becomes more and more difficult, our ability to achieve positive outcomes depends more on what our external environment brings to the table than it does on our innate ability or motivation to change things.

According to Ecological Resilience Theory proposed by Dr. Michael Ungar and colleagues at Dalhousie University, when we have access to positive resources in our lives, like caring relationships, a strong identity, and opportunities to make decisions for ourselves about things that matter to us, we are better able to bend without breaking when bad things happen. In this sense, resilience is a multidimensional process that can be facilitated through the environments we grow up in. The most protective environments will provide people with the following SEVEN resilience resources:

  • Material resources – “When I’m hungry, there is food to eat”
  • Safe and supportive relationships – “I have people I can trust and rely on”
  • Strong individual identity – “I am smart”
  • Sense of cohesion – “I belong here”
  • Power and control – “I can make choices about things that matter to me”
  • Cultural adherence – “I like my family’s traditions”
  • Social justice – “What barriers do I face? How can I stand up to oppression?”

The problem is that often, people living under challenging circumstances do not have easy access to resilience resources in their lives. What, then, can we do to help people build resilience?

I spent the last three years working with a strength-based youth violence prevention and intervention organization based in Nova Scotia, Canada to learn more about how community-based interventions may be leveraged to do just that. It turns out that when vulnerable young people are involved in high quality community-based programs, they demonstrate better outcomes not only directly, but indirectly through enhanced resilience.

Now, you may be wondering, what constitutes a high-quality intervention? Here’s what I learned about how to deliver high-quality, resilience enhancing programs through my research:

First, get to know those you are serving. This might seem obvious, but you’d be surprised at how many interventions take a one-size-fits-all approach to working with vulnerable populations. Human beings lead complex, colourful, and often messy lives. When someone arrives at programming, they do not leave their experiences and histories at the door. What does life look like for them? What are their cultural values? Their aspirations? Do they have supports that can be leveraged outside of programming? It takes some time, but it is only after knowing someone that we can meet them where they are and intervene meaningfully in their lives.

Second, give people a chance to make decisions for themselves. Have you ever noticed that adversity and powerlessness often go hand in hand? To build resilience, we need to feel a sense of control over what happens to us. To know that our voices matter. So, ask people what they think they need. Provide diverse opportunities for them to express themselves on their terms. Empower them to lead, solve problems, speak up, and mentor others if possible. Having these kinds of opportunities can provide people facing adversity with a sense of control and help those with negative internalized identities come to know themselves as healthy and capable of creating change in other areas of their lives.

Lastly, love them. Hard. If you only take one thing from reading this post, I want this to be it. Strong relationships with others are one of the most important resilience resources a person can have access to. At the same time, trauma is oftentimes inherently interpersonal, leaving us with deep-seated wounds and feelings of mistrust when it comes to others. We may struggle to build meaningful relationships and develop emotional armour around our hearts to protect ourselves because, well, people cannot hurt us if we don’t let them in. Living in this way is painful, as human beings are hardwired for connection and belonging. This is why it’s so important to cultivate safe and supportive relationships with those who have been exposed to adverse experiences. If you’d like more information on how to kickstart this process, stay tuned for my upcoming blog post titled building trust under adversity, a step-by-step guide.

As Dr. Ungar says, people are not born resilient. Instead, they are made resilient through repeated interactions with supportive environments. It then follows that people do not “break” under adversity because they are weak, they break because their environment has failed them. This “pathway to resilience” does not need to occur through formal programming; the principles presented here can be applied anywhere. So, what role will you play in helping others become the versions of themselves that they were always meant to be?

Further Readings:

Ungar, M. (Ed.). (2011). The social ecology of resilience: A handbook of theory and practice. Springer Science & Business Media.