Why Resilience Relies on Failure

Failing is Central to Learning…and to Resilience

What is Resilience

Do you want to be described as resilient? Most people do. Resilient people are “winners,” it seems. They are people who can take what life dishes out and respond in ways that make them, wiser, stronger, more compassionate and loving, and able to live life to the fullest no matter what. There is certainly value to wisdom, strength, compassion, love, and tenacity. But, I find that resilience, from a neurobiological view, involves something different. “Neuro-resilience” is inextricably linked to our drive to explore and discover, despite the fact that the majority of the time, those efforts lead to dead ends. In other words, to be neuro-resilient, we must repeatedly encounter failure, over and over, and still sustain our enthusiasm to explore our world again and again. Perhaps, this is what Winston Churchill meant when he said, “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”

Getting Dealt a “Bad Hand” in Life

In my office, clients tearfully and bitterly lament what cards they have been dealt in life. We work together, unpacking what they have faced, how they’ve been thrown off kilter, and what they’ve lost. Gradually, we help them rediscover that on the other side of their pain sits a world of unlived and unexplored possibilities. They can and do learn resilience skills that help them to become re-engaged in their lives.

Failing & Pain as Necessities for Building Resilience

While this is a helpful process, which my clients say they deeply appreciate, a neuro-resilience orientation would suggest elements that need to be added to their experience of pain and how to move through it and beyond it. That mystery element is the absolute necessity of that pain. We must be careful here. I am not saying that what is necessary has anything to do with what we deserve. I would never say a person “deserves” a life-threatening illness, to be victimized by crime, or to suffer the loss of a loved one. Those experiences are cruel and often life-altering. What I am saying is that the “pain” suffered in response to trying something new and different that doesn’t pan out is the very essence of what it means to live a resilient life.

Neuro-resilience, Memories, and Giving Up on Getting it Right

We have a marvelous nervous system wired to a complex body that enables us to move about and explore our world. We have a brain that enables us to think about and learn from the experiences we have as we move about in that world. Our brain stores those experiences. And, there is the rub. Too often, we are encouraged to treat the lessons we’ve learned through our life experiences as “red lines” we dare not cross again. Got fired? Learn to put in extra hours in the hopes of never being fired again. Got dumped? Swear off ever dating someone like that again. Got embarrassed or humiliated? Make sure you practice self-censorship to forevermore watch what you say and do lest you repeat the error of your ways. And, by the way, make sure you jettison your sense of humor. It carries too much risk of being unexpectedly embarrassed in the future. I think of some of my clients with poorly managed obsessive-compulsive disorder when I imagine the lengths to which we can be driven in our never-ending search to predict and control what might happen in the future if we aren’t careful enough. Risk is bad. Safety, certainty, and security are good. Seek them at all cost.

Using Memories to Live Beyond the Pull of the Past

Living by these exaggerated safety-conscious rules violates some of the most basic principles that govern how our brain and body evolved to survive and thrive in a world of constant change. We are designed to explore. Our evolutionary heritage is that curiosity, wonder, and especially doubt are central to our growth. They serve as drivers, propelling us to go beyond what we know to discover the limits to what we do know. When we encounter novelty, uncertainty and ambiguity, all of which generate discomfort, unease, and what I am calling “pain,” the reservoir of relevant accumulated experiences stored in our brain in the form of memories get activated. The purpose is not to find what will ease the discomfort as quickly and painlessly as possible. That would mean we are forever settling for what has been instead of what can be. The purpose of activated memory is primarily to serve up past experiences as a spring board into the unknown.

Taking a Flying Leap into the Future

Most of the time, when we jump into the unknown, we fail. We discover what we didn’t expect. We encounter what we couldn’t have known. We land in unfamiliar territory. We slip and fall and regret and mourn and curse our damned misfortune, but we land. And then, as our brain furiously and vigorously compares what we knew (memories/old learnings) with what we newly discover, our brain’s error detection systems go into full gear. Our brain treats the failure to accurately predict the consequences of our erroneous predictions about our future as brain fertilizer that seeds resilient growth. This isn’t a metaphor. We actually secrete increased levels of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) when we consistently and courageously face the “pain” of uncertainty and ambiguity with an open-hearted and vulnerable willingness to keep moving toward our unlived future. We live in a perpetual state of “becoming” and abandon the illusory and elusive comfort of believing we will ever reach the state of being fully “complete.”

The Benefits of Pain & Failure on the Road to Resilience

The blessing of this attitude is that we learn to express fearless realism. I coined this phrase when researching my book, Staying Sharp, (https://www.drdavidalter.com/stayingsharp/) to describe the characteristic certain people exhibit as they live fully in the world as it is without ever concluding that what is, is all that can ever be. Such people are forward-leaning. They are hopeful. They are trusting of their internal resources and of the resources present in the world. They are not perfect by any means but are accepting of their many flaws, shortcomings, and imperfections. They know there is no simple solution or formula for success. They recognize stumbles, losses and pain as inevitable and unavoidable. But, most of all, they also exhibit a hopeful view that regardless of what they encounter, their resilience will be expanded precisely and necessarily because of their fearlessly realistic encounters with the “pain” that is life’s central and enduring challenge.

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