In recent times, you've probably seen and heard the word resilience a lot. Resilience can be defined as the psychological capacity to adapt to stressful circumstances and to bounce back from adverse events. As Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant explain in their recent book, resilience can be looked at as a sort of muscle that contracts during good times and expands during bad times. But in this quest of being resilient given how highly-sought after it has become as a character trait, we forget that too much resilience can be a bad thing, just like too much muscle mass.
Being agile, flexible and able to recover quickly from negative events or situations does seem appealing in this rapidly changing VUCA world. Nietzsche’s famous words are reminded to us very often - “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” This commonly passed around adage indicates that we always come out stronger after a dramatic event, and that resilience is a psychological state to admire and look to develop. However, some life situations may be so severe for us that they literately “kill” us and don’t make us stronger, and during these times, we may hurt ourselves even more in the quest to be resilient. This raises the following question: is resilience always good for us?
If we wonder about the origins of the ideas around resilience, it can sometimes appear that we have been conditioned for resilience. We are constantly told to focus on the future, to look at mistakes as lessons, hard times as opportunities and our affirmations to ourselves are often reminders/ stories that are proof that we can overcome any obstacle/ challenge. In this, we begin to look at ourselves almost as a phoenix, who can rise from the ashes of failure over and over again and yet be unrattled every time. Whether we view these as a strategy or a defence mechanism, the fundamental idea remains the same - these have become a life blood for our success.
While resilience has been applauded as a useful and extremely adaptive trait, especially in the face of high-stress or traumatic events, we need to be careful that this should not be taken too far as often too much resilience could make people become overly tolerant of adversity or feel pressured to. Like many other things, we need to start realising that resilience too can have a dark side. At work, this can translate into putting up with boring or demoralizing jobs and even toxic workplace cultures for longer than needed. On the other hand, on a personal level, in the name of resilience, people might unconsciously be gaslighting themselves or pushing themselves to put up a brave front despite the agony, trauma or distress a particular event or situation is causing them. It is also helpful to remember that it is not enough that we get back up, dust ourselves off, retake the field and give our best the next time. We have to come to terms with the setback itself and be set free from it. Another challenge posed by this over emphasis on our achievements in the face of every adversity is that is can make us constantly look ahead. In this quest, we often forget to celebrate our successes along the journey and to see how far we have come. We miss the opportunity to refuel ourselves and our motivation while also depriving others of really seeing what the journey looks like in a very realistic way,
The concept of resilience can be a slippery slope. If we take it too far, we are at risk of ignoring the real triggers and stressors which is the real reason we are struggling or having a hard time, and not our lack of resilience. The problem with over emphasising on resilience is that we have almost started to look at resilience as a matter of perseverance or ‘grit’, and very often we are putting ourselves at the risk of seeing a lack of resilience as a personal failure or weakness. We often forget that while a lot of the pressures we face today may have become normal, they certainly weren’t always so extreme. This over emphasis on resilience can lead to self-stigma as we begin to blame ourselves for signs of poor Mental Health that we might be experiencing due to high-stress environments. We begin to view what might be a perfectly natural response during tough times as a sign of personal failure or weakness due to the lack of resilience, when this really isn't the case. We need to stop thinking of resilience as an inherent toughness or ‘grit’ that some have and some don’t. We need to understand that resilience depends on several factors including our ability to cope with stress (tolerance), how we view ourselves (our self-efficacy), and whether we attribute successes and failures to ourselves or to environmental factors (our locus of control). Our Mental Health is also a product of our external environment and when the environment around us is hostile, threatening, toxic or extreme, we are bound to experience some level of distress owing to that. To dismiss this as our own failure to cope due to a lack of resilience per se would be us doing a great disservice to our own selves. You may wonder, what is the fall out of too much resilience? - Burnout and a disregard to self-care as an over emphasis on resilience can lead to the development of a mindset where individuals believe that they should be able to handle the pressures without needing a break or if they find themselves struggling, it is a sign that they just need to lean in and push harder than what they were.
Resilience is also often misunderstood and confused to be strength, grit or a way to fix abuse - and in reality, it is neither of those. Resilience is not about being strong and this can be explained better from the age old Aesop fable about the Oak tree and the Reeds. While the Oak tree bragged about being straight and never bending through the storms, this was not a trait the reeds possessed. However, by the end, it was the reeds however with their flexibility and adaptability which were able to survive a hurricane which the Oak tree couldn't. Resilience is more about being like the reeds than the Oak tree. Another thing to remember is that Resilience is also not grit. Grit can be looked at as sustained, consistent effort toward a goal. Resilience on the other hand involves knowing when to persevere and when to quit in event of there being no progress being made towards the goal. Lastly, resilience is not the solution to a toxic relationship, trauma or an abusive environment. These environments and situations will rapidly begin to erode into an individual’s resilience no matter what they do - while some may survive this storm, they will not thrive. Coping with these situations is best done with the aid of Mental Health professionals, looking at resilience as the solution is merely the equivalent of putting a Band-Aid on a gushing wound. In such cases, before building resilience, it is the environment and traumas which need to be addressed.
While resilience can be regarded as a very useful and highly-adaptive trait to possess, especially in the face of adversity, let us not forget that if taken too far might push people to set impossible goals and push their own selves to become unnecessarily tolerant of unpleasant or counterproductive circumstances. The reality of our times is not that people are lacking resilience, but that they are lacking the permission to take care of themselves without feeling guilty, the ability to refresh and rejuvenate and the ability to allow themselves to do things which can help them refuel. To conclude, we can say that what we truly need to master in this VUCA world is knowing when to rest and when to push harder. So the next time you find your inner voice telling you to be more resilient, it can be worthwhile to pause, take a step back and ask yourself - do you need to be more resilient or do you need to be more compassionate with yourself?
Written by: Yash Mehrotra
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