A recent article in the New Yorker was written by Jonathan Kalb, who, after a period of unexplained, severe headache woke up unable to smile on one side of his face. His face on that side just drooped, though he seemed to have normal responses on the other side. He had experienced an attack of “Bell’s Palsy”
This kind of functional loss is particularly disturbing because it can distort the facial expression of emotions. Thus, it can impair the ability to interact with others.
In Kalb’s case, the problem was increased by his role as a journalist, whose job called for him to interact normally and to form a kind of bond with strangers.
Those symptoms could even influence his ability to maintain a normal relationship with his immediate family.
What if his wife had been put off by his distorted smile? What if his son was embarrassed by him?
You can see that he had plummeted into a threat to his normal family relationships as well as his job and his social interactions in general.
Yet, his article focuses not on his woes, but instead on how he continued his life despite the problem that had haphazardly come his way. In other words, it focuses on the tactics he used to respond with resilience.
All of us have, at times, faced blows that made our lives harder. So we have something in common with Mr. Kalb. We can learn to improve our own resilience by seeing how people with troubling challenges like his can respond successfully.
So what did he do?
Kalb responded with an approach that suited his personality as well as with his life experience as one who gathered information. He applied something that must have been natural to him, a “problem-solving attitude”.
Our research has shown us that this attitude clusters with such things as hopefulness, optimism and persistence. Probably all of these contributed to the effective way in which he dealt with his problem.
To begin with, he learned as much as he could about the capacities he had lost and the ways in which others react to distortion of those capacities. One thing he learned was that people tend to be disturbed by the confusing mix of smile and frown that they might see on his face.
A frown is bad, but a confusing frown mixed with a smile is worse.
Fortunately, through his studies he also came to understand that, if others first saw parts of his face that signaled good will, this helped to control how they reacted when they saw the rest of his face later. This is the familiar power of first impressions. These early impressions tend to guide subsequent reactions by providing a template for them.
So at first he focused on limiting others’ view of his face to its functionally intact side.
His problem-solving attitude also led him to ask for help from his wife in keeping his frowning side away from others who were not yet acclimatized to his more welcoming side.
When going into social situations, he arranged for his wife to move to his “bad” side when he was meeting new people. Since this led him to look at her during his conversations, it prevented the new people from forming their first impressions based on looking at his impaired, frowning side, or a disorienting combination of the frowning and smiling sides.
Note that his wife’s help was crucial to his resilience. Resilience is not entirely internal to us as individuals. Other people are a crucial resource.
He even got help from his young son when he happened to be resting his chin on his hand in a way that led his son to say “Daddy, you just smiled!” So he found out he had another way to keep the problematic facial expressions away and to start off with facial signals of warmth and positivity. He could just find inconspicuous ways to prop up the drooping side of his face.
You should read the original article for more details of the tactics he used to keep him from losing his standing in the social world.
It seems very likely that, even in the full article, he is only discussing selected elements of his resilience tactics. He makes no mention of how he dealt with his emotional reactions to the symptoms. This has to have been a major part of his experience. It has to have been a frightening experience.
As regular readers of this blog will know, we identified three different factors that underlie resilience. However, we are well aware that trying to build your resilience by changing too many of them at once is likely to overwhelm rather strengthen you.
Our view is that small changes can add up to result in large improvements.