- This post is a response to an article by Martin Seligman Building Resilience, which was originally published in the Harvard Business Review, April 2011.
It seems ironic to me, that the testing ground of positive psychology became the US Army. The project I think, grew out of work to create better, more resilient, and optimistic corporate and self-management cultures. It started from the position of helping people who have gone through issues of personal trauma, setback, and depression to become more optimistic and resilient.
Positive psychology appeals to people
Who wouldn’t be interested in a programme that offers improvements in all of these things and more? If you are one of those people, then good luck. I have never been able to get excited by them. I tend to be cautious about any fixed idea of progress.
- I think they tend to constrain us rather than free us to engage with our creativity
- It can make our expectations unrealistic
- It can stop us from seeing the downsides of things.
Task focussed projects certainly benefit from planning
You don’t attempt to win a race by focussing on how you’ll lose it. If you are planning a complicated project like deploying and supporting an army far from home, then you have to plan. You have to get the details right. But I think that we may be confusing different categories when we link psychological issues like depression or trauma with such projects.
Psyche is not some kind of biddable object
Psyche is not something that can be measured or calibrated. Rather it is something that we learn to attend to. Instead of viewing difficult emotions as negative, as things to plan our way out of by focussing on new tasks, we do better when we find a way of attending to psyche. How do we do that?
It may appear that you can buy anything if you go to a big enough market, but you can’t buy psyche there. You can know all kinds of things about that market, you can make it more efficient and profitable and all of that will make you feel good and the market stronger. But you can’t buy psyche there.
Its members may struggle with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but thousands of them also experience post-traumatic growth. Our goal is to employ resilience training to reduce the number of those who struggle and increase the number of those who grow.
We believe that business people can draw lessons from this approach, particularly in times of failure and stagnation. Working with both individual soldiers (employees) and drill sergeants (managers), we are helping to create an army … who can turn their most difficult experiences into catalysts for improved performance.Seligman
- An army requires resilience, but what is required in peacetime if you’re not in the military and preparing for military action?
- An army needs people to keep going, growing despite the setbacks.
- What are civilians supposed to do?
- Is it right to try to study and learn something specific to the army and then adapt it to civilians?
Do we learn helplessness, or do we acquire it?
It worked here, so it can work here?
If you work with people who have been given a diagnosis of Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder (EUPD), also referred to as Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), you find people who have acquired the condition.
Traumatic things have happened to them and literally knocked them out of a point of stability. Mostly, these people won’t know that this has happened to them and try to react to the ordinary adversity that life throws up by trying to be positive. Trying to be optimistic. Trying to get through it. This will only work so far.
The original and generally unacknowledged emotional instability remains. To create longer-lasting psychological improvements you have to find engage with the underlying instability. Once this is engaged with then people can live with greater stability. The original instability remains, but it can be counterbalanced.
It is unhelpful to judge psyche by moral standards
One of the failings of ideas about optimism and resilience is that at root they are moral categories. Psychotherapy is not a moral practice. Rather it looks to see things as they are, to understand what happens. Moral codes impose fixed ideas of what progress looks like, of what is acceptable. We need freedom some such codes if we are really to think about who we are, what we do, what we want.
The positive psychologists would argue with great force that they are very careful to understand what happens but they do so within a moral framework.
Granted, if you are going into battle, or trying to win the Tour de France you need that focus. But if you are working and trying to support the people who are already casualties of such projects you need a different framework.
Part of the work would involve helping somebody come to terms with how something went wrong. To approach this from a point of view of increasing optimism might be foolhardy. Sometimes we need to start by being prepared to see adversity, failure, and setbacks for what they are. We have to start by accepting certain things about who we are and what has happened to us.
People do recover, it happens for all kinds of reasons.
They reconnect with something within themselves that promotes recovery and growth. But people are not plants, what works in one case won’t work in another.
It seems that relationships that foster trust and security promote growth. Developing these relationships takes time, patience and crucially a freedom from imposing goals upon the person.
- In psychotherapy we aim to create a relationship in which security might be experienced.
- We accept that it might not be.
- We don’t impose measures of what growth will or should look like.
I concede that the Army does have goals, as does Team Ineos, but to my view we foster resilience when we create space for individuals to flourish in.
Reading Seligman’s article now, an article that was published at the height of the US Army’s involvement in Afghanistan is depressing. This version of optimism and progress led to an increase in PTSD cases, what kind of progress or optimism is that?
Contact me to discuss further
If you feel stuck or that you cannot find the energy to get through the challenges you are facing now, then it might be helpful to talk about this. It’s not always helpful to keep pushing on, to keep striving to do better. Sometimes you need to be able to stop and take stock before you do anything else.
I have been working with people on issues such like this for twenty years. My work is built around helping people to develop greater confidence in themselves, a better understanding of why you feel the way you do, and of helping you to develop confidence that you can manage these experiences without feeling out of control.
Contact me to arrange a free 15 minute conversation to discuss how my work might be useful to you. I have a lot of experience of using telephone and online platforms and I would be pleased to hear from you.
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