Resources for Recovering Resilience: Model for Lifelong Learning

Jon Kabat-Zinn, developer of mindfulness-based stress reduction, describes our capacities for resilience this way:

We all accept that no one controls the weather. Good sailors learn to read it carefully and respect its power. They will avoid storms if possible, but when caught in one, they know when to take down the sails, batten down the hatches, drop anchor and ride things out, controlling what is controllable and letting go of the rest. Training, practice, and a lot of firsthand experience in all sorts of weather are required to develop such skills so that they work for you when you need them. Developing skill in facing and effectively handling the various “weather conditions’ in your life is what we mean by the art of conscious living.

This conscious, resilient living requires that we continue learning from experience, keep experimenting. The “use it or lose it” principle applies to our brains, especially our prefrontal cortex, as well as our muscles: we need to work on maintaining the brain cells, neural circuits, and capacities to respond flexibly in our brains throughout our lives. We also have to keep challenging our brains by taking on new and difficult tasks that draw on and extend all our capacities for learning.

The following model is taught all over the world to cultivate qualities and behaviors that particularly support resilience. In this model, we move through four phases of competence and awareness of that competence, from a complete lack of the competence or even knowledge of our need for it to full knowledge and mastery of it.

  1. Unconscious incompetence. We don’t know how to do something, and we don’t even know that we don’t know. We’re innocent or clueless; the brain is in homeostasis. This is the “ignorance is bliss” phase of learning – except, of course, when it isn’t.
  2. Conscious incompetence. This is an “Oh, shit!” circuit. We don’t know how to do something, and we suddenly realize we don’t know. Becoming aware of this may cause chagrin and horror. If ever our resilience is going to derail, it’s right here. Old patterns of fear of failure, passivity, or shame may resurface. We can get past any denial or blocks to learning by reframing this step as the beginning of gaining competence. When we harness the innate drive for mastery – to recover any missing competencies and to learn new skills – we can be proud of taking steps to recover our resilience.
  3. Conscious competence. This is the phase in which we know how to do something, and we know that we know. Through all of our new experiences, resources, tools, and techniques, we are learning. New patterns of response are being rewired in the brain. We are becoming masterful and competent. We spend a lot of our adult lives in this phase, of course. We’re confident that we know, in spite of old, negative stories about ourselves that might linger. We don’t go back to the old stories; we persevere in the new, taking in the good. We are deepening and solidifying the circuits of the competence and of learning.
  4. Unconscious competence. Once we know how to do something well and practice doing it again and again, the new skill becomes wired into our implicit procedural memory. Our wise effort becomes increasingly effortless. It’s like learning to ride a bicycle; we don’t even have to think about it anymore.

Exercise: Learning Resilience

  1. Identify one attribute of resilience you would like to cultivate or a behavior that your resilience is now strong enough to support your growing into: assertiveness, determination, purposefulness, collaboration. Assertiveness is used as an example here, but you can focus on any attribute of your choice.
  2. Identify areas of your life where assertiveness seems to be lacking; maybe it hasn’t even occurred to you that being assertive in these areas would be useful. They could include negotiating with your spouse over household chores; talking to the bank manager about financing a car purchase; persuading the city council to install a needed stop sign in your neighborhood; or writing to your congressional representative about health-care reform.
  3. Identify moment in your life when you could and should have been assertive but had no clue how to do that. Maybe you still don’t. Hang in there: don’t retreat or procrastinate. Now is the moment to set the intentions to master this useful life skill. Set the intention to learn assertiveness by practicing and experimenting with it. Set a second intention to see yourself, and feel proud of yourself, as someone who intentionally cultivates capacities of resilience.
  4. Whatever means you use to develop your assertiveness – attending workshops, practicing with friends, putting it to use in real life situations – notice your skills steadily developing. The awareness of competence is essential to wiring that knowledge of your assertiveness into your sense of yourself.
  5. Recall a moment when you realize you were assertive, this morning or last week. Take in the fact that you exercised that skill without even thinking about it. Congratulations. You’ve mastered another competency supporting your resilience.

You can repeat this exercise as many times as you wish, with as many qualities you wish to cultivate for more resilience. You are learning from experience rather than concepts, from experiments rather than instructions. That’s what keeps rewiring the brain in the most integrated and resilient fashion, lifelong.

(Excerpted from Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being, Chapter 20: “Moving Resilience Beyond the Personal Self.” by Linda Graham, MFT. New World Library, 2013.)