© Linda Graham, MFT

Resilience – our clients’ capacities to engage with and respond to the experiences and challenges of their lives with flexibility, competence and efficacy – is one of the hallmarks of “healthy” psychological functioning and one of the key requirements for therapeutic change. Resilience is what allows clients – allows anyone – to roll with the punches of the day or week, learn what lessons they can, find their footing again, and continue on with their lives – more confident and “resilient” for having had the experience.

The latest clinical and neurobiological research lays the foundations of resilience in the early “procedural knowing” of our earliest attachment relationships. If clients learned how to regulate their affects – soothe overwhelming afflictive emotions and amplify positive emotions – from their early attachment figures who could dyadically regulate affects for them initially, the knowing “how to” became internalized and became part of their implicit capacities for resilience. (And if they didn’t experience consistent enough empathy, consistent enough affect regulation from caregivers, then the knowing “how to” and thus resilience would be compromised.)

If clients learned how to “hang in there” through the ordinary and extra-ordinary ruptures and disconnections of relationship, finding ways to re-connect and mutually repair with their early attachment figures, the knowing “how to” would become internalized and part of their intuitive capacities for resilience. (And if ruptures-disconnects were not adequately repaired – their knowing “how to” and thus resilience would be compromised.)

If clients learned how to “gel” a sense of self balanced between stability (not too rigid) and flow (not too oozy) because they shared in the internal stability-flow of early attachment figures, the knowing “how to” would become internalized and become part of their implicit capacities for resilience. (And if they did not share in the balance of stable-flow from early caregivers, their knowing “how to” and thus resilience would be compromised.)

That’s the research. These internalized capacities for resilience become the foundation for clients’ coping strategies and defenses; for their openness to exploring the world (and themselves) and learning new patterns, behaviors, strategies; for their confidence in manifesting their desires and making things happen.

Here’s the clinical application. Clients often present to us with a lack of resilience. They are thrown off balance by the events of their lives, even relatively small ones, and can’t recover their balance quickly. They don’t know how to assert themselves or keep good boundaries, or get into a relationship or get out of a relationship, how to make a career change, make a vacation plan, make a decision about where to go for dinner. We can – and do – teach our clients how to cope, how to think, how to make decisions, how to plan, how to look for options. We show them options and alternatives and they may even agree to try them. But if the early capacities of resilience were long ago compromised, clients are going to find it difficult to sustain the faith that “I am up to this” or “I can do this” or “I can cope, just watch me.” All of our explicit, cognitive work with clients (which works well when clients have a strong foundation of resilience) is for naught when the early “how to” hasn’t been internalized. The compromised earlier capacities show up in the lack of resilience now and collapse into overwhelm, confusion, passivity, helplessness.

As therapists, we play a key role in helping clients strengthen their capacities of resilience so that they can cope with life, make decisions, put plans into action, and choose competently from a wide range of options. In the room, we act as new more attuned, more empathic, more competent attachment figures, re-parenting, if you will. We use experiential techniques in the therapeutic dyad to re-build the earlier capacities – affect regulation, connecting skillfully in relationship, “gelling” a stable-evolving self – and thus re-build the foundation of resilience, the deep intuitive capacities to meet the challenges of life and do what needs to be done – skillfully, effectively, with pride and mastery.


Linda Graham, MFT, is in full-time private practice in San Francisco and Corte Madera, CA, specializing in relationship counseling for individuals and couples. She offers consultation and trainings nationwide on the integration of relational psychology, mindfulness, and neuroscience. She publishes a monthly e- newsletter on Healing and Awakening into Aliveness and Wholeness, archived on www.lindagraham-mft.com, and is writing a book: Growing Up and Waking Up: The Dance of the Whole Self. Contact Linda through this website

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