“What Can I Do to Get Out of It?”: How Self-Help Readers Make Use of the Language Game of Resilience

Nicolas Marquis



Resilience is, as a concept and as a discourse, a cultural resource that has experienced a growing importance over the last two decades, especially in the field of psychology. In September 2013, the most important database for scientific productions in psychology (www.psycinfo.org) contained more than 14,000 references concerning resilience. In French-speaking countries, for example, each new book by Boris Cyrulnik, the famous neuropsychiatrist who imported the notion of resilience into the psychological field, sells like hotcakes, with total sales of several million copies (see Marquis).

Generally considered as the individual’s tendency to cope with stress and adversity, resilience is not only a successful but also a much-debated concept. Is every human potentially resilient, as Masten puts it, or should this notion only apply, in a Darwinian perspective, to the strongest of us? Should resilience be understood as a process in which culture and environment play important roles, as Ungar shows, or as an individual ability? Should we make a distinction between resilient and non-resilient? Does resilience automatically imply having been deeply traumatised, as Cyrulnik puts it? The main reason why these debates have taken such an important place in psychology is that using the concept of resilience is likely to take on, except for its scientific use, a normative or an evaluative dimension. To avoid this shortcoming, most recent works on resilience clearly insist upon the fact that being resilient is not a character trait or an indicator of the power of a person's will (Rutter). It is a multidimensional ecological process.

However, nowadays resilience has become a common sense notion, a cultural resource mobilised by the layman or by self-help (SH) books. Accordingly, “resilience” will not be considered here as a scientific concept but rather as a common sense category. Drawing on an analysis of the success of such books, this article intends to show why a description of the common sense uses of this cultural resource is of prime importance when it comes to understanding some salient characteristics of liberal-individualistic societies, especially by comparison with traditional societies. In fact the success of the discursive category of resilience tells something about ourselves, as people living in societies where personal autonomy is highly valued. Therefore, the description of these common sense uses will show how the “resilience” category also constitutes a resource to evaluate both oneself and others as well as an tool to measure one’s own will or the others’, which is exactly what most psychologists try to avoid doing in their theorisation of resilience.

Confidence and Breach in Everyday Life

Risk management is part of human life. Actually, we spend most of our time minimising the risks we are running when engaging with the world. This attitude is neither a rational action nor a conscious one. It is, in fact, quite the reverse.  In everyday life, we simply trust the world. As Luhmann says, confidence is a sine qua non condition of our existence.

Our everyday life turns into a close-meshed fabric that makes us feel secure as it ensures consistency over time. This security enables us to avoid the issue of the relevance of our expectations or of the success of our acts. The common sense attitude we are describing here refers to what the American pragmatists call the “practice regime”, in which our main concern is to make sure that life goes on.

But a breach might arise (in the form of a more or less tragic event, a change in one’s routine, a vague unease, etc.). What used to be obvious (and above all unquestioned) now becomes uncertain. Such a breach may seriously lead us to question our involvement with a world that has suddenly become strange, threatening, or complete nonsense.

The Reading of Self-Help Books: Mobilising Resilience as a Cultural Reaction to Breaches

It may be interesting to observe what people do, in the moments when disquiet has invaded their existence, in order to overcome misfortune, both at a symbolic and operative level. My hypothesis is that our attitude towards misfortune is in line with a specific cultural context. Like Illouz, I understand culture as

the way we make sense of who we are through actions shaped by values, key images and scenarios, ideals, and habits of thought; through the stories we use to frame our own and others’ experience; through the accounts we use to explain our own and others’ failures and successes; through what we feel entitled to; through the moral categories we use to hierarchize our social world. (8)

In other words: in order to allow life to come back to normal after a breach, people resort to the resources their own culture makes available to them. Nowadays resilience has become one such cultural resource that we use to construct our attitude towards misfortune. The question put here is not whether people are really resilient or not, but why this category experiences such traction in liberal-individualistic societies.

Therefore, I have made a sociological study of a well-know social phenomenon: in particular, the reading of SH books, in which the discursive tropes of trauma and resilience are indeed very present. Sociologists too often refer to SH books as having hypothetical effects, or consequences. However, unlike what one might find in a literature review, I haven’t tried to make the success of these books a sign or a cause of the decline of society or of the individual, or of a more reflexive society with happier citizens. As numerous authors shown (including Barker and Petley), it is extremely difficult to assess the impact of cultural resources (for example cinema, books, and all forms of media) on individuals and a fortiori on groups of human through scientific procedures. Needless to say, these books have a bad reputation in academic circles, and this negative reputation is maintained because we actually know very little about how they are used by their readers.

To overcome this shortcoming, I have tried to provide an answer to the apparently naïve question as to how reading SH literature can make sense to people who praise the virtues of these books, and the claim that they “have changed their life”, readily resorting to the tropes of resilience and trauma. To put it another way, I tried to understand how readers could know “how to go about” these books and have the expertise “to perform these texts” (Alexander) so they can bring them a degree of help, relief and satisfaction. With this objective in mind, I have explored an empirical field of about a hundred SH books, conducted 50 in-depth conversations with readers of SH books, and examined around 300 letters to three well-known authors of such texts.

So why do people that read SH books containing such specific content have no trouble finding a meaning, as well as a symbolic and operative effectiveness, in them? My hypothesis is that these books make use of what Wittgenstein calls a “language game”. A “language game” is constituted by a set of (common sense) words and concepts that we mobilise when confronted with specific situations. In contemporary societies, people experiencing a breach in the fabric of their life will probably summon up a particular “language game” influenced by a psychological vision of the world to express and explain what has happened, what the consequences of this breach are, and what possibilities there are to get out of this situation. “Resilience” is one of the most prominent notions of this “language game”. It is not only to be found in the SH books, but also in the discourse of the readers of such books.

What does this particular “language game” look like? What role does resilience play in it ? Two characteristics can be observed. First, this “language game” seems to give an extremely important signal of "interiority", an entity that pervades SH readers’ discourse. More precisely SH readers experience (and explain) that they are being inhabited by a “true self” that is the guardian of the “truth” about themselves, but is also the source of an unsuspected power of action. In a supposedly democratic anthropology, people making use of this “language game” consider that all human beings have such interiority, and can therefore harness the hidden resources it contains. In such narratives the pursuit of and engagement with this “true self” are endowed with important qualities. In short, these actions are considered to be the solution to most of our problems.

The second characteristic, leading from the first, is that when faced with misfortune, be it big or small, the readers of SH books place great value on "working on the self”. Generally speaking, only efficient action in dealing with our problems finds favour in their eyes. To be precise, in such people’s discourses, having been traumatized is endowed with the power of revealing who we really are and what we are really capable of. Furthermore, such people come to believe that having suffered makes you a survivor, from now on entitled to become a reference for other people on their road to their “true self”. Let us look at a letter to a famous French-speaking SH book author:

I want to thank you for your book “Being Genuine: Stop Being Nice, Start Being Real”, which allowed me to identify two problems that stop me from being who I really am: my lack of self-esteem and of self-confidence. Your book was a revelation to me. At the age of 39, I have at last understood how the 26 years spent with my parents created an attitude of submission and passivity in myself, which caused my lack of self-esteem and self-confidence. I have now decided to tackle these problems and to begin a therapy, in order to get rid of all these limiting issues. I feel that it will offer me a rebirth. Thank you so much. (my translation)

This letter illustrates clearly how the “language game” is mobilised. It is used first to translate (or to put words on) a vague unease that relies on interiority (“who I really am”, “lack of self-esteem”, “in myself”, etc.) and secondly to create possibilities action to deal with the unease that has now been defined (“tackle the problem”, “begin a therapy”, “get rid of”, etc.).

To sum it up, there is no doubt that, contrary to the stance often observed in the scientific literature on resilience, in the SH readers’ eyes, resilience is first a personal capacity, and even more precisely a question of will, and only second a process depending on contextual elements.

The Discourse around Sorcery in Azande’s Society as a Point of Comparison

I would like now to give an indication of the way reading such books and drawing on this “language game” constitute a practical attitude towards everyday risks, and how this is particularly adapted to our liberal-individualistic culture, in which the question of personal autonomy and individual responsibility is of unprecedented importance (Ehrenberg): in such cultural contexts each individual is expected to be the entrepreneur of his own life.

To make this point clearer, I will briefly sketch a comparison with another practical attitude that has been well-documented in anthropological work: the “language game” of sorcery, which is practiced in many traditional societies but also in some parts of the western societies (Favret-Saada). The first anthropologist to have gone beyond the issue of the reality of magic was Evans-Pritchard. During the first half of the 20th century, he studied the use of sorcery in a tribe of South Sudan: the Azande.

Evans-Pritchard thought that such a phenomenon could only be understood if the social institutions making a form of magical thinking plausible were taken into account. On the basis of his fieldwork, he considered the types of situations in which the Azande resorted to magic. His answer was that magic (which is notably present in accusations of sorcery) only intervenes in difficult times and more precisely when two things coincide. The first is the fact that an event (even a totally explicable one) arises, the second is the fact that it happens to the person in question, at that precise moment. For example the Azande understand that it was lightning that made the tree fall down, but they wondered why lightning struck in that place, at that time, above the head of that person in particular.

For them, such phenomenon could not remain unexplained. They understood what caused their misfortune, but they needed to find a reason for it all the same. When faced with adversity, the Azande will always wonder: "who is holding a grudge against me”, and “who has got reasons to cast a spell on me?"

The discourse around sorcery is what Winch later called an "attitude towards contingencies", which he defines as the “way of dealing (symbolically) with misfortunes and their disruptive effect on a man’s relations with his fellows, with ways in which life can go on despite such disruptions” (321). In this sense, reading SH books and mobilizing the category of resilience both have a similar function, just as praying does: this practice and the corresponding “language game” also testify of an attitude towards contingencies. As is the case with magical practices, both are socially instituted systems of interpretations that enable the people in question to find some meaning to misfortune and to go on living after it (in this matter, Masten’s consideration of resilience as “ordinary magic” is interesting).

Nevertheless, the ways these two attitudes towards contingencies enable people to make sense and to set up possible actions are very different. The two systems of accountability are not alike. The Azande’s attitude is fundamentally projective (the responsibility or blame for a misfortune is shifted to somebody else, most of the time to a sorcerer). On the other hand, the attitude of the readers of SH books is introspective: the question that is socially valued is not “who is holding a grudge against me?”, but “what can I do to get out of it?”. In SH readers’ eyes, this is the very question to be answered in order to be considered as a resilient person. The sorcery system makes it possible to consider that the responsibility for the misfortune and the responsibility for the end of it go to the same entity: the sorcerer. In the SH readers’ attitude towards contingencies, these two responsibilities are uncoupled: while “another” is often held responsible for the misfortune, the person that experienced the misfortune is always considered responsible for getting over it: they are supposed to pick themselves up and improve themselves.

Likewise, the projective attitude (which is characteristic of the discussions on sorcery) is highly discredited in the “language game” of resilience used by the SH readers. It is considered as the sign of a fake resilience. This is obvious from the distrust that is present in their discourse towards the character of the "victim", as well as towards the figure of the “complaint”, as the following excerpts from interviews with readers clearly show:

Woman, 64 years old: People reading SH books are people who want to feel good, find their place in the world and solve the problems arising from their past. They are people who try to get over victimisation and to responsibilise themselves.

Woman, 35 years old: I find it a good thing that more and more people read SH books. But a lot of other people continue to consider themselves as the genuine victims of their parents or of their education, and they need a lot of time to get through it. As for me, I believe that we have what we need in ourselves: we choose what we want, and we have what we want.

Man, 40 years old: We need to get out of the vicious circle that makes us consider that “the others” are always responsible for our problems. For example: “Oh if I am unemployed, it is because society does not provide me with a job”. Well, maybe, but the good question is “why don’t you have a job while other people do?” It is useless to accuse society. The question is: “which actions do you take to get a job?
(my translation for the three quotes)

This “language game”, which so enhances both interiority as the resource of meaning and power, and efficient work on one’s own self, allows us to consider others or the environment as responsible for our own misfortune. Yet, it certainly doesn’t allow us to wait passively for things to improve on their own. In the common sense use of resilience, improvement must be caused in a proactive way by exploring our inner resources.

In the end, this “language game” is indeed what people try to put into practice when they read SH books: these books build up their conviction that, whatever the situation they find themselves in (and whoever is responsible for it), they can always do something to it, they can always make use of this event to improve themselves. SH books and the “language game”, which resilience is a part of, enable the readers to consider all their problems as finding a solution in a more efficient practice of their interiority.

Conclusion: The Evaluative Dimension of Resilience

The “language game” of SH books is not only employed by readers as a means to make problems manageable. It is also experienced as a powerful resource for assessing oneself and others. The main finding of this article is the hiatus that exists between the scientific interpretations of resilience as an analytic (thus not normative) resource and the way this notion is mobilized in the common sense by laypeople in their everyday lives order to evaluate responsibilities. It is exactly as if people could not help asking the question: “if this person is not resilient and can’t cope with adversity, isn’t it, at least partly, their own fault?” The reason of this hiatus is that resilience is used in a cultural context where autonomy has taken an unprecedented importance.

The key message of SH books, which is endorsed by most readers, is that happiness, well-being and resilience are a matter of personal choice. Behind the democratic proposition of SH books: “everybody has the ability to manage, everybody might be resilient,” lurks a much more meritocratic attitude: namely, “if you cannot come to terms with a problem, it is because you don’t really want to”.

In the world of SH books, people who do not “put on a brave face”, or who do not work at being consistent with themselves, who content themselves with the secondary benefits of a life that does not really suit them, who expect solutions to drop down from heaven, – in a word people who do not show what SH readers consider as a genuinely resilient behaviour – only have themselves to blame.

This phrase (“only have themselves to blame”), has negative connotations in French-speaking sociological discourses, but is not attached to such negativity in the mind of SH readers that get the most out of such books. “Blaming oneself as the only one responsible”, not for what happened but for what we do/don’t do to get through it, is exactly what the “language game” mobilising resilience and its emphasis on interiority and efficient activity allow. This is what readers are seeking when reading SH books. Indeed, people seeking a solution to their problems would ask: what is the use of reading books saying there is nothing to do to improve our situation? Thus, when using the “language game” of resilience, the SH book readers willingly accept the consequence that their problems have now been brought out into the open: the consequence being that people should take the responsibility for the fact that their problems persist (due to their own failure to act) or disappear (due to their actions). This theory of the consequence of one’s actions is today criticised by sociologists, notably French-speaking ones.


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self-help readers; language game; attitude towards contingency; sorcery; resilience; normative dimension

Copyright (c) 2013 Nicolas Marquis

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