Building Resiliency: Don't Visit Pity City

November 25, 2019

References: LamondCurr Geront Ger Res., J. Psychiatric Research, Philip Chard,

What's resiliency? The most straightforward definition is that resilience connotes the ability to adapt positively to adversity. Folks who are 100 years old have it. If you are 60, or 50 or 40, and you want to live to be 100, it might just serve you well to start developing resiliency in yourself. In fact, as best we can tell, being resilient might be one of the strongest predictors of healthy aging. Hmmm. Sounds good. 

How do you measure it, define it, study it? If you look at the Connor-Davidson Resilience Scale of 1395 women over age 60 in San Diego, you will find that four factors stand out: (1) personal control and goal orientation, (2) adaptation and tolerance for negative affect, (3) leadership and trust in instincts, and (4) spiritual coping. The strongest predictors of in this study were higher emotional well-being, optimism, self-rated successful aging, social engagement, and fewer cognitive complaints. 

My eye caught #2, adaptation and tolerance for negative affect. Why? Because of a recent lecture by one of Milwaukee's leading lights on psychological wellness, Philip Chard, entitled "Realistic Optimism. In that brilliant lecture, he warns that one shouldn't spend too much time in Pity City. "You can visit Pity City, but you shouldn't take up residence there." 

What does that mean in regard to resilience? You can acknowledge your pain and hurt from life's left turns. You can name it. You can declare it. But then the parking meter runs out and you need to get out of town. Leave life's hurts behind you. (Isn't that easily said.). It's the practice that is the hard part. To leave painful events behind, you have to practice. And when you see that hurt and leave it behind, you essentially build the psychological muscles, the inner strength, to do it again with harder stuff. "Don't get your undies in a bundle," said your Grandmother. "Don't be such a pity pot," quotes Holly Whitcomb in her book, "The Practice of Finding" where she details self - pity as an obstacle to gratitude. Gratitude leads to "enough". Leaving one little hurt behind you and defining yourself as able to do so inherently defines you as able, as strong enough to overcome that little annoyance. Psychological pushups. 

It's practice that may be the key. Rick Hanson, Ph.D., in his book "Resilient: How to Grow a Core of Calm, Strength and Happiness" details the process of building that resilience. He notes that it is crucial to notice the behaviors you want, then savor them, repeat them, remember them and strengthen the neuro-circuits in your brain with that repetition and remembering. Build brain muscle with the little stuff, and then you have the capacity to survive life's outrageous slings and arrows.

What happens when you indulge in self-pity? You build the opposite. You are inherently defining yourself as a victim, powerless and unable. The logic appears stronger and stronger in your own brain as you argue for your own victimhood. The longer you linger in Pity City, the more you reinforce the circuits in your own brain that you are weak, ineffective and powerless. And that correlates in opposition to resilience. You become passive, inactive and in chronic anxiety.

Sign up for Philip Chard's weekly blog. Watch for his next public lecture.

WWW: What will work for me? I love the phrase "Pity City". It makes the context of psychological pain have an element of humor that disarms the gloomy doom of adversity. "Sounds like the parking meter is running", I say when I hear the whisper of complaint. I've named it, I've felt it. I'm allowed 15 minutes. After that, I get a parking ticket for lounging around too long in Pity City. As best I can tell, I pay a visit to that suburb several times a day. I'd rather laugh at myself and relish my abandoning it. "Tick, tick, tick.." muses my spouse when she hears me gripe. "The Meter is running! Do you need more coins or shall we get on with it."

Pop Quiz

  1. Define resilience!                      Answer: "the ability to adapt positively to adversity"
  2. Why is it important?                Answer: Folks who develop resilience live longer, happier lives.
  3. How can I develop it?                  Answer: Practice on the little stuff.
  4. How long am I allowed to linger in Pity City?                   Answer: until the parking meter runs out.
  5. What happens when I let "my undies get unbundled"?                   Answer: you claim your inner toughness and strength. And you give a nod to your tough old Grandma with all the wisdom of her ages, as resilient and centered as she was.