Balanced Life: Self-absorbed handle trauma best
After a traumatic event, some people suffer flashbacks, depression, and anxiety for years. Others seem to be able to carry on with life without missing a beat. These aren't people who recover quickly; even rapid recovery takes time. These are people who appear to move from the traumatic event to full functioning. Where does this kind of resilience come from?
The answer, it seems, is full of paradoxes. Looking at a group of about 55 New Yorkers after the September 11 terrorist attacks, researchers from Columbia Teachers College in New York have found that those who were most resilient also possessed personalities that did not make them particularly likable. They represent a personality type that is known in psychology as "self-enhancers."
"Self-enhancers are somewhat grandiose," says Dr. George Bonanno, associate professor of clinical psychology and the lead researcher in the study. "They are preoccupied with themselves, they score high on measures of narcissism, and the research shows pretty clearly that they are annoying to be around."
The researchers interviewed three groups of participants: one third were in the first tower when it was hit, another third were within four blocks of the towers, and the last group were farther than four blocks away. Three quarters of the participants actually witnessed death and injury to others. All the participants were interviewed seven and 11 months after the attacks, and after 28 months, close friends or relatives were also interviewed.
Even though the participants were randomly selected, in any group of people about 20 percent are likely to be self-enhancers. In this study, those who showed self-enhancement traits reported fewer post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms and were simply happier and more well adjusted over time than most others.
Fear and anger? Hardly at all for self-enhancers, even shortly after the attacks. Their enjoyment of life and general happiness were significantly greater than others', and they basically had more positive emotional experiences. Friends and relatives also noticed how well the self-enhancers seemed to adjust to the experience. But in an interesting peripheral finding, friends also felt that the self-enhancers were less honest after 18 months. Perhaps the positive outlook just seemed like bravado to closer friends.
And thus we see that even a quality as positive as resilience can have its darker side. "There are multiple and unexpected ways to be resilient," Bonanno notes. "We used to think it was a rare thing, but now we know that there are people who have traits that may not be the healthiest in the world but which nonetheless seem to predict a resilient outcome."