Described as picking yourself up by your boots, taking life’s worst knocks like a champ, and trudging through setbacks, resilience is a trait we celebrate, and we always want more of it. The root of the word means to rebound or recoil. It has been used to describe frontline healthcare workers and people who have experienced a painful diagnosis.
But who has it, and how do you get more? It turns out it’s not about each of us individually. A number of resilience researchers tell me that we think the word wrong.
The pandemic has changed our conception of resilience
The mind is not invincible – or able to absorb trauma after trauma, uncertainty after uncertainty, and come back perfectly. This became more evident as the pandemic sparked global panic around the health and safety of those we hold dear. People are in mourning and cut off from the social ties that nourish them. And yet, we are expected to embody resilience as we work, care for our families, and present ourselves as if nothing has changed. This collective experience tested our idea of resilience.
Dr Suniya Luthar, founder and executive director of AC Groups, a non-profit organization working to foster resilience in communities, says it’s impossible to expect people to constantly bounce back.
“Humanity has been traumatized not once but repeatedly and there is no clear end in sight,” she says. The past few years have exacerbated a growing mental health crisis, which only confirms how impossible it is to bounce back all the time.
Jennifer Moss, author of The Burnout Epidemic: The Rise of Chronic Stress and How to Address It, explains that dealing with all of these challenges taps into the “surge capacity” of the brain, akin to an influx of patients in an emergency room where, at some point, resources run out. We cannot simply muster resilience from a state of total exhaustion.
Resilience is not something you either have or don’t have
We often use resilience as a noun, when it really should be used as a verb, says Dr. Samantha Boardman, author of Daily vitality: Turning stress into strengthwho works as a positive psychiatrist in New York.
“It’s not something that only exists in your head,” she says. “You can’t say ‘be resilient’ as if it means anything.”
The pressure we put on individuals to be resilient presents a narrative that if people are strong enough, they can overcome any adversity. When we propose resilience as something people are constantly working towards rather than having achieved it or not, it seems more manageable, experts say.
Similar to going to the gym to build muscle, regularly engaging in a variety of practices, no matter how small, can help you build resilience, process emotional difficulties, and bring calm into your life and community.
It’s not just about being positive.
When we think about resilience individually, we tend to put pressure on others and even ourselves to show positivity. But resilience doesn’t always have to look like strength, hope or optimism, says Dr. Amit Sood, executive director and CEO of the Global Center for Resiliency and Wellbeing and former professor of medicine. Fortune.
It can invalidate people’s lived experiences and the emotions they associate with it to tell people to just push through, they’ll be stronger on the other side – oh, and the classic don’t forget to smile. Too often, people judge others for not being motivated enough, Boardman says, which isn’t the answer or the key to being more resilient. Now, that doesn’t mean sulking until something around you is fixed, but rather taking the time to understand your emotions and what they might be telling you.
“Change [is] from ‘I am strong’, to ‘my strength comes from my weakness’,” says Sood.
Crying does not denote weakness, but rather signals that it may be time to make a change or lean on a new tool.
“We don’t give ourselves a lot of grace,” Moss says, adding that growth happens when we appreciate and learn from our struggles.
The bottom line: Resilience doesn’t mean masking your emotions.
It’s not just about us alone
Resilience doesn’t just come from within. People feel the pressure to maintain an idyllic image of being strong on their own.
“Individual resilience is a paradox,” says Boardman. “Happiness doesn’t come from within, it comes from ‘with.’
Experts say self-care alone won’t help us achieve resilience. Individual practices are valid but are not sustainable in the long term. How to participate in collective resilience?
Start by normalizing conversations about mental health, stress, or burnout in family, at work, or with friends.
“How do we tell the story of the challenges of our own life or the story of our family? Boardman says, citing research that modeling action to manage and deal with emotions and challenges helps build resilience within a community.
It’s also important to prioritize spaces that infuse hope and excitement into your life, such as volunteering or attending social events that feel authentic to you. They can help make managing difficulties down the line more manageable. Even reaching out to a friend and performing an act of kindness can help you cope with challenges and find resilience.
In a time when people are struggling with their mental health, caring for each other and finding resilience together may be the best way to look at it.