That which does not kill us

buzzy wolves

I had the privilege and honour of interviewing Carina Hoang last year for my new book about personal performance, Ready, Set, Go. Carina’s story is the type that elicits goosebumps and deep emotion and is one that I will never forget.

On 31 May 1979, Carina Hoang, 16 years of age, joined the Vietnam exodus in a 25-metre wooden boat with her 12-year-old sister Mimi and 13-year-old brother, Saigon. The boat and others like it were built for fishing, not for the rough seas of the South China Sea, and was packed with 373 people, including 75 children. The cost of this perilous journey came at a price of $3000 US dollars or 10oz gold per person, a small fortune at that time. The emotional cost was immeasurable.

This exodus came about as a direct result of the war between Vietnam and Cambodia.  The journey that Carina took with her two siblings across the South China Sea was one that 1.5 million Vietnamese people took to flee their country and the aftermath of a civil war. Nearly half of them perished. Carina describes the conditions as unimaginable. The boats were unseaworthy, overcrowded and weather conditions in the South China Sea were harsh with severe storms commonplace. There was no food or water, with the possibility of cannibalism and the ever-present threat of ongoing pirate attacks with many women becoming victims of rape and violence.  The fact that anyone survived at all is a miracle.

Carina lists resilience, determination, integrity and respect as treasured possessions.  While these traits may be an inbuilt part of her personality, her life experiences so far have certainly developed them to an admirable level.

There is no doubt that resilience is a buzzword these days and is a term often used in relation to our kids. Resilience in psychology is used to describe the capacity of people to cope with stress and adversity.  Some experts believe it is the ability to ‘bounce back’ or recover to a healthy state of mind and functioning. Others such as Thought Leader Sam Cawthorn, believe it is to ‘bounce forward.’ In his new book Bounce Forward, Sam proposes that this is a more useful method of achieving resilience because bouncing back focuses on what was, while bouncing forward focuses on what can become.  In the same vein, the inspiring Nelson Mandela said in his book Long Walk to Freedom, “Forget the things of the past and press forward to what lies ahead.” This was particularly true for Carina Hoang in the years following her escape from Vietnam.

Resilience refers to a set of skills that a person has rather than their innate personality, meaning that it can potentially be taught. Martin Seligman, known as the Father of Psychology, points to research that shows that how people react to adversity is distributed in a known pattern. He describes how on one end of the scale are people who don’t cope and spiral into Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression and sometimes suicide. In the middle are most people, who at first react with symptoms of depression and anxiety but within a month or so are back to where they were before the trauma, by psychological and physical measures. According to Seligman, this is resilience. At the other end of the spectrum are the people who first experience depression and anxiety and may exhibit PTSD but within a year are better off than where they were before the trauma.  This is post-traumatic growth and what Friedrich Nietzsche was referring to when he said, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”

Although we each react quite differently when faced with difficult situations or adversity, we can develop personal strategies for dealing with these times. Resilience research suggests that instead off solely focusing on amending the adversity we should also be looking at promoting competencies, enhancing assets and developing resources, but not of the financial variety. In line with this, Yates and Masten in Positive Psychology in Practice provide an inventory of assets and protective factors that promote positive self-development including safe neighborhoods, connections to organisations such as libraries, close relationships with care-givers, positive sibling relationships, connections to competent and caring adult models, a positive view of self, good problem-solving skills, and an appealing personality. Some of these are a given but some further questions are put forward by these experts in resilience when looking at your own capacity.

  •  Have you shown self-regulation in the past by saving money that you can use in tough times?
  •  Have you built a community of friends and family who are ready to support you?
  •  Have you helped other people who may be eager to return the behaviour?
  •  Have you dealt with serious adversity in the past? If so, what were the skills and thought patterns that you used?
  •  Do you have good problem solving skills or a good friend with these skills?
  •  Do you have experience grieving from losses and then being able to let them go?
  •  Do you have a depth of positive memories that you can spend time reliving?

Adversity is part of everyday life, although some people such as Carina Hoang experience it at a greater depth than others.  The question is, when adversity presents itself, what competencies, assets and resources have you developed to build your own personal resilience?