My fascination with resilience starts with 9/11

After the World Trade Center fell, those of us who were there were divided into therapy groups. Sorted by trauma. People who lost a parent in one group. People who escaped down a stairwell in another group. I was in the group of people who got hit by flying body parts.

The first thing I noticed in group is that some people told their story over and over again. More and more detail. The sound of the thud. One step short of being crushed. Blood. Fingers.

Other people didn’t have very much to say. They just wanted to get back to work.

Really? I couldn’t believe it.

I mean, I wanted that, too. I wanted to get back to work. I wanted to go back to my normal routine. But everything in my body felt weak and scared and I felt like my body was moving in slow motion so my brain didn’t get hurt.

Or something.

There was a lot of research that came from those World Trade Center groups. And it’s still coming. But the most interesting information to me is how the most resilient people were among those who just wanted to get back to work. It was right for them. Not everyone needs to process everything. It’s a spectrum. People have a genetic predisposition to resilience.

I know that in my group, I was on the very fragile end of the spectrum. I never went back to my job. I didn’t go back downtown for years. I still have never seen the planes fly into the towers — except for when they were right over my head.

The years since 9/11 I have spent trying to figure out what do I need to get closer to the other end of the resilience spectrum. How can I make myself bounce back as well as those people in the group who went back to work?

At first I thought I’d stop taking risks so that I didn’t get knocked down so much. But I took risk after risk even as I framed those risks as non-risks: moving to Wisconsin, moving in with a farmer, starting a business, leaving a business.

In the last year, I moved, I think I’m moving on to a new job, and I am maybe moving on from the farmer. The way I dealt with all this is to tell myself it wasn’t happening. I told myself my company can go wherever I go. I only let the boys take a backpack to Pennsylvania. It was my way of pretending it wasn’t really leaving.

Melissa sent me a quote: “Sylvia Boorstein reminded us that suffering is simply the attachment to the idea that now could be otherwise.” But what if you like suffering more? It’s a nice package — financial ruin and loneliness and kids who are complaining about why do they live in an apartment when no one else does?

Even as soon as I start writing these sentences I am veering recklessly into self-acceptance, which I am not ready for. That’s the thing. You have to want to be resilient. Those people in the trauma group. It was so normal to them to have trauma and just bounce back. It’s what they expect. I am trying to teach myself to not be so attached to how else a situation could be.

The truth is that I couldn’t practice being resilient until I told myself it was time. If I tell myself nothing is happening and everything’s fine, then there is no chance to tell myself I’m going to get through a tough time and be ok.

There are three areas that matter most when it comes to creating resilience, according to David Nutt, president of the European Brain Council: self-esteem, societal forces, support network.

The Journal of Orthopsychiatry (which sounds like Xanax to get your braces tightened but is actually the prevention of mental disorders in youth) says we get self-esteem from our support network. Which means resilience comes down to our support network and societal forces. And the reason the support network is important is because it bolsters self-acceptance.

I used to read Joan Walsh Anglund books over and over again. Maybe you know her books. They have pictures of perfect little kids, with accentuated, angelic faces. I read Love Is a Special Way of Feeling as if it was my fortune teller.

Me: “Joan, please tell me, when will I be in love?”

Joan: “Love comes quietly…but you know it is there, because suddenly…you are not alone anymore.”

The truth is, I have not found love to be like that. Love is complicated and dynamic and often overwhelming for me. But resilience, that has felt just like what Joan told me love would feel like: it comes quietly but I know it’s there, because I’m not alone anymore.

Resilience research reminds a little of sex research. People in good marriages have sex once a week. It’s not the quality of the sex that matters but that the people care enough about their spouse to take time for intimacy. Resilient people have a social support system and it’s not the quality of the support system that matters, it’s just that you care about yourself enough to connect with people in a way that lets them support you.

After more than a decade of trying to understand what made some people bounce back after 9/11 so much faster and more easily than I did, I see the answer: They relied on their support system. They did not need the trauma group we were in because they had a support system they were predisposed to construct, and the house of self-esteem when necessary.

The final piece of resilience is the story we tell of our time of trial, according to Lysa Lysenko at the Central Institute of Mental Health. Usually this is where I shine. I can make a story of make sense of anything. But I’m having trouble right now. You can say that life is not a simple storyline with a nice and tidy happy ending. But in fact, resilient life is exactly that.

And it’s coming back to me. That stories we tell are what determines our resilience levels. And it’s clear to me that the only way I’m going to get stronger is to keep telling you what the hell I’m doing in Pennsylvania with probably no spouse and probably no job and probably no long-term housing plan.

Resilience comes from practice, and that practice is telling your story over and over again until it becomes something that makes sense. This is what practice looks like.

46 replies
  1. me
    me says:

    P, Thanks for sharing your words with us today. It meant a lot.

    Stay strong & keep telling your stories.

    We’re here to listen ….

  2. Wendy
    Wendy says:

    “But what if you like suffering more? It’s a nice package — financial ruin and loneliness and kids who are complaining about why do they live in an apartment when no one else does?”

    I wonder if you’re just used to suffering from your upbringing where you grew up having to lie to yourself in horrible situations by convincing yourself that things were okay, and so by now that’s what you’ve been used to doing all your life.

    Do you feel like you deserve to be happy and safe?

    • Ann Eichenberger
      Ann Eichenberger says:

      Thanks for saying what was on my mind as I read her post today. I wonder if her childhood was so chaotic that she doesn’t know what else to do except repeat it in various life events.
      It appears that she lets others determine her life’s path in the past few years i.e. the farmer and now her son. Uprooting one’s life so frequently is not good for her or her children. She might believe these are conscious decisions. However, I see them as disruptive to her life.

    • JML
      JML says:

      It seems that we will always repeat what we know until we learn that there are other ways. I had to spend a lot of time in therapy to unlearn constant chaos and drama (which is what I was raised with). What I once thought was BPD was just me being stuck playing out old, rotten patterns.

  3. Marie - INFP
    Marie - INFP says:

    I needed this message so much today! Thank you Penelope Trunk for sharing every part of your struggle, your triumphs, your joy, your sadness with us. We need that reminder, constantly, that life isn’t suppose to be perfect. How can it be when we are so deeply flawed.

    And in fact your story is an example, at least to me, what a life truly is – it is joy, it is pain, it is overcoming, and then a jump to joy, and when you thought you were in the clear, pain shows up again and from somewhere, no matter how depleted you feel, you must overcome it again and again and again to get to the joy or to someplace deeper. Which I imagine is what you, our oracle, is telling us, telling me, that it is not happiness, not marriage, or homeschooling, or money, or power, or insert your desire here, that will sustain you but resiliency. That sounds right!

    I suspect that you are finding your resiliency again which led to writing this beautiful post, touching all of us, your faithful readers, who depend on you to let us know that we are not alone living this beautiful but often painful thing called life!

    From the bottom of my heart, thank you Penelope Trunk. You’ve been a great constant in my life over these last seven years, a part of my tremendous support system. Your topics are so varied that there hasn’t been anything that I couldn’t search on your site and not find some word of wisdom about – except maybe climate change! You may want to work on that :-)

  4. Dannielle
    Dannielle says:

    “That stories we tell are what determines our resilience levels.” Yup, got that, but what about the future – which is not yet known and therefore cannot be the subject of a plausible story? That’s what keeps me up at night.

  5. Laura Peg
    Laura Peg says:

    So much truth. Thanks Penelope. Resilience is a very timely subject for a lot of people in the world right now, including me. Hopefully your online readership can count for some kind of support system.

    Btw, the third last paragraph is a little unclear?

  6. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    I’m so glad you wrote something. I’ve been waiting all day for your 9/11 anniversary post, and it was so good. Thank you!

  7. Geoff Deprima
    Geoff Deprima says:

    Penelope, I emailed you regarding 1-0n-1 coaching and still have not heard back from you. What is the best way to get in contact with you?

    Thank you,


  8. EM
    EM says:

    I am so glad to hear from you. I was concerned when your posts slowed, and then stopped for a while. May you and your boys find the strength and resources you need.

  9. Carol of Kensington
    Carol of Kensington says:

    If you ever come to England I would love to give you a walking tour of London, a town that was bombed over 1,000 times with everything German engineers could come up with. This place survived and thrives still.

    London’s current fetish for modernity is annoying but it will survive that too.

    Resiliency is social networks and also one’s surrounding environment. Marie Kondo gets that part right, so re-read her, especially the new one “Spark Joy”.

    Thank you, your writing sparks joy for me.

  10. Jen
    Jen says:

    Thank you for that insightful post.
    Especially at this time in my life when I’m dealing with a challenge I’ve never experienced before (1 year business anniversary and my business isn’t where I wanted it to be) and my usually high resilience levels are running low.
    So thank you again, I’m off to reread and read the links that stood out to me.

  11. Michael LaRocca
    Michael LaRocca says:

    After the sheriff’s deputies came to my door to tell me that my little brother had killed himself, I went back to sleep. When I woke up, I got ready for work.

    The speed at which I move on from trauma to my routine still boggles the mind of people who know me. It’s how I cope. Control what I can. I’m not avoiding intrusive thoughts when I do that. It is their nature to intrude.

    PTSD is a combo of trauma plus being unable to control it. Obviously you couldn’t control what those planes were doing. Just control what you can.

    Thanks for the Sylvia Boorstein quotation. I’m going to remember that one.

  12. Elizabeth
    Elizabeth says:

    P, just a comment from someone who has been reading your posts for a few years now – in the hopes it gives you insight…

    You say that you are on the fragile end of the spectrum, but in reality, you are one of the most resilient people. Look at how you bounce back from adversity time after time after time.

    What you’re not seeing is the drama in your life. I believe it’s self-created. Some people just need drama. I suspect that you had a lot drama in your family – growing up, so you have come to see it as normal. So now you create drama in your own life because that’s how you grew up.

    To improve your life, I suggest working with your therapist to identify the drama in your life, understand where it came from, and do some cognitive behavior therapy to learn ways to limit the drama. There are A LOT of things to do to limit the drama – from your relationship with your spouse/ex-spouse to your moves for your children, to your living situation to your job …everything. The result is a better work/life balance, more time in your life to do what you’d like, a more successful career, and more money going to the things you’d prefer, rather than in to resolving the drama.

    Hugs to you on 9/12. 9/11 is a day that deeply upsets me; I can only imagine how impactful the day is on you. Sending you healing and positive energy.

  13. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I’m glad to see your post today. I very much appreciate your thoughtful posts. I think mostly for selfish reasons. They make me think about my own life and reflect back on why I made the decisions that I did. And the decisions I didn’t make which are also decisions. Many times I think I wish I knew this or that because I would have done things differently. Maybe I would have – I don’t really know for sure. One thing I do try to keep in mind though is each day is a new day and while some things are carried over from past days, it’s always good to learn and try some new things each day. Welcome back Penelope and may you continue to have many good conversations with your readers on this blog.

  14. Charlene
    Charlene says:

    Hi Penelope, welcome back!

    I know you think it is very important to tell ourselves the right story but personally that isn’t the case for me. I spent a lot of angst and suffering just trying to come up with the right story to make myself feel OK…running it by all my friends (again and again, poor friends, sorry about that), finding cracks in the story, coming up with a different story, melding stories, etc. It was exhausting and created way more pain than it fixed.

    Now I think I don’t need a story, What happened, happened. Trying to craft the right story kept me from moving on. Maybe when we are truly healed enough we don’t need a story any more?

  15. Jim Grey
    Jim Grey says:

    I think this post reflects a great deal of growth in you, Penelope, and in a state of solid resilience in you. I can tell whether you sense/feel it in yourself, but it comes through in what you wrote.

    • Mali
      Mali says:

      So glad that you’re back! I feel the same as Jim Grey. The last few posts, while very beautiful, in a poetic way, had a lot of pain coming through. And in this post I can tell that you are doing a little better than before. Thank you for sharing.

      Moving, losing a spouse..are very stressful events in life. I read an NPR article about why zoo animals were not being evacuated in Miami; the stress from moving alone could kill them. Humans are animals too. Our resilience is a reminder that life is precious and how amazing it is to be alive.

  16. DL
    DL says:

    “The Journal of Orthopsychiatry (which sounds like Xanax to get your braces tightened but is actually the prevention of mental disorders in youth)” — this made me laugh out loud.

    And, I like your insight.

  17. Daniel Baskin
    Daniel Baskin says:

    Half a month ago my newborn daughter suffered a major stroke.

    Everything here about resilience and where it comes from matches my recent experiences.

    Thanks for choosing to write to us again!

  18. Ann
    Ann says:

    Thank you for tellings us about your 9/11 experience. It is hard to imagine what you suffered as a result. I perceive that the horror of experiences like that may recede. But they never go away completely.
    For years, I made decisions based on my need for novelty and my chaotic childhood with two narcissistic parents. Finally, I have stopped disrupting my work-life by creating new adventures. Although my current situation is not perfect, I need the stability that his income provides. It allows to keep my home and relaunch an older business that provides a consistent income.
    You are smart and creative. IMO money is power. You can do it again. An INTJ.

    • Cheryl Morris
      Cheryl Morris says:

      Hi, your comment about “new adventures” made me think that you might like to read the book “The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You” by Elaine Aron. It contains a segment on people who are “high sensation seeking”, which may apply to you. Hope this is helpful! –a fellow INTJ

  19. harris497
    harris497 says:

    I look forward to your 9/11 post each year. Each year it seems to be written about less as an event you survived or are surviving, and more as a “teaching tool.” I believe that this shows that healing is taking place, and while it may not constitute traditional resilience, it does show the ability to evolve, learn, adapt and thrive. Ultimately, I think that this is the most we should expect from life.
    You seem to be at a cross roads. Given your history, you will make the right choices and live to thrive another day:)

  20. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    This truth of resilient people reminded me of another one of your posts about help and the book – ‘Help: The Original Human Dilemma’. It’s making me think of the two sides of the coin – giving help and being helped. All of us are both giving and receiving help most every day. My experience is that it’s a delicate balance whether giving or receiving and yet I don’t think it’s really that well understood or practiced. Perhaps because while there are some general guidelines and truths, the practice of helping looks very different depending on the individual(s). Also, this telling and retelling of stories includes the refinement of and zeroing in on asking the right questions which is very important. I have to think about this some more.

  21. Mike
    Mike says:

    I just tell myself that the world could be hit by an asteroid tomorrow. There’s nothing fair about that, so don’t expect fairness. Everything above that is upside. That approach can make you pretty resilient.

  22. Sophia Fair
    Sophia Fair says:

    Penelope, you are an amazing woman. Wow! Your kid is in Julliard! Your blog is amazing! You really liked the Farmer!

    I’ve been married 30 years to the most wonderful man in the world.

    But he is human. So human. The planet is full of them! And if you leave one, you will most likely find another wonderful man who ends up being very human too. Keep loving. Love is worth it.

  23. Carmen
    Carmen says:

    Penelope, you say you might be moving on to a new job.
    Where can we find the results of your case studies? I would love to read those. Is there a specific class or textbook or syllabus that offers those? I remember years ago you asking people if they wanted to be part of those studies. I was wondering where you get your information from and how you put those together. I have a few of my own to write up. Seeing yours might help us understand that process better. Thanks in advance.

  24. N
    N says:

    I think some of the people in the group were traumatized and some weren’t. The pattern of repeating a story again and again with weird details – that is a pattern for traumatic memories. I’m not sure why some people get traumatized and others do not. I think some part of it is resilience. Another part of it is situational. I’ve started to be able to recognize in myself when I start having these kinds of thought patterns – the urge to keep retelling a story, even to near strangers, details emerging differently in a story each time I tell it, feeling like I’m reliving it in the telling…The thing that triggered trauma for me recently was kinda random – a very very minor car accident. There were some details that were weird – it was a bit hit and run, no one asked whether I was okay. While I wasn’t super injured, I think there was something about the way the humans involved treated me that was terrifying and triggered this response. On the other hand, i have been super resilient through many other things. So in my opinion, two people could have the same-ish experience – but perhaps one is is pulled out of some wreckage and helped. Another might be shoved out of the way by someone else, and perhaps their flashlight taken from them. I think it’s kinda luck of the draw whether you get 1 or 2. On the surface similar experiences but that have a different impact. PLUS I would add to that, that each person has an individual background and different triggers for trauma. So yes resilience matters but I wouldn’t underestimate that even resilient people have triggers or can become a bit unlucky in their particular experience of a thing.

  25. N
    N says:

    I would add one more thing… I think my resistance was built up the most by two things.

    One was sports as an adult. You might appreciate this one as a volleyball player yourself. I always loved sports as a kid but I didn’t really think of the mental side of it. As an adult I got really into a particular sport and got taken under a coach’s wing who helped me a ton with the psychological side. I learned lessons like staying positive, learning from failure etc much better when it started with sport first. And then I found it automatically transferred into my personal life.

    The second thing that really built my resilience was one summer when I got fired and everything was wrong. I was single, overweight, unemployed, having health problems, I’d been evicted for an owner move-in and was subsequently living in a dark studio for 2k a month, and I didn’t have much cash in the bank. I felt like everything that could have gone wrong, had gone wrong. And it became weirdly liberating. I had failed! All the things that i might have been afraid of, well they’d already happened. So I didn’t really have anything to be afraid of anymore. And I also realized, I’m okay! The worst happened and yet I’m still here and life goes on! I can choose to wake up and worry, and torture myself,and ruminate, or I can choose to enjoy each day and feel good. And I kept choosing the latter, to go easy on myself, to enjoy each moment, and it built my strength. And somehow I discovered faith. Not a religious faith. I decided to have a deep seated belief that everything would be ok and work out. I call it faith because it wasn’t totally based on facts, it was a feeling, a belief. I don’t know where it came from exactly, except that I didn’t think things could get worse and I really thought they’d get better! And that kept me going.

    I don’t have it all figured out but I have definitely made huge gains in resilience. It is definitely possible for you and other people too.

  26. Dale
    Dale says:

    I don’t think the need is self-esteem as much as self-love. I’ve had all hope of achieving my dreams knocked out of me; and just went on being as happy as I could be because I loved myself. (Later, things changed and I did achieve most of my dreams.)

  27. May
    May says:

    Your post reminded me of something I am sure an INFJ (or perhaps wise ISFJ?) wrote about love:
    “We may believe we are seeking happiness in love, but what we are really after is familiarity. We are looking to re-create, within our adult relationships, the very feelings we knew so well in childhood – and which were rarely limited to just tenderness and care. The love most of us will have tasted early on was confused with other, more destructive dynamics: feelings of wanting to help an adult who was out of control, of being deprived of a parent’s warmth or scared of his or her anger, or of not feeling secure enough to communicate our trickier wishes. How logical, then, that we should as adults find ourselves rejecting certain candidates not because they are wrong but because they are a little too right – in the sense of seeming somehow excessively balanced, mature, understanding and reliable – given that in our hearts, such rightness feels foreign and unearned. We chase after more exciting others, not in the belief that life with them will be more harmonious, but out of an unconscious sense that it will be reassuringly familiar in its patterns of frustration.”

    I think you should look into what you want to “bounce back” into. Resilience to you may be a repeat of a familiar chaos and self-sabotage. Resilience may in fact be “familiarity” to you.. and not exactly the good kind.

    And perhaps it’s not resilience you are needing, but like.. renewal.

  28. Rachel G
    Rachel G says:

    I just want to say that your blog changed my life, and I’ve found something like happiness. I am wishing that you will find the same.

  29. Kathy Berman
    Kathy Berman says:

    Love you and your life. I find out about myself by writing about something I care about. I have 40 blogs where I park stuff. Getting into my flow is where I learn what I truly care about. I miss you when you are gone but I know you are learning and gathering strength. Remember there are no mistakes in life. All will teach you so you can teach others. Thank you for sharing. Codependency happens when we become the parent to a needy parent. When you break free, you will have boundless energy. “Free at last.”

  30. hello
    hello says:

    what are you doing penelope? pivoting? re-inventing? therapy, shopping, homeschooling, and presumably sleeping?
    i miss reading updates while you are in the middle of the next big thing, not when you’ve got it all figured out.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      That’s really nice of you. It’s very hard to write when things are messy. I used to think it was my forte – livestream messiness. Now I wonder if that maybe is not true. But I am trying to write even when nothing is neat and tidy. And your comment is encouraging in this regard.


  31. GP
    GP says:

    If you haven’t already read the books on survival written by Laurence Gonzales, I highly recommend them.

    His latest book is all about surviving your survival, which is not a trivial task.

Comments are closed.