Examining Our Assumptions Around Resilience

If someone were to ask you to define resilience, you would undoubtedly share something along the lines of it being the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties and bounce back from life's adversities. It's a standard and correct response. However, too often, it hides an unseen assumption that many people have.

When you examine your understanding of resilience, you may discover that you haven't considered people's backgrounds and environments, which make a big difference to their ability to be resilient. For example, privilege, a good support network and a physiologically safe environment allow a person to be vulnerable and makes it much easier for them to develop resilience. At the same time, others in society who do not have these supportive environments are at a much more significant disadvantage in adapting and developing resilience. We need to be careful when we think of resilience that our narrative isn't missing these factors. We don't want to suggest that people need the grit and determination to push through or bounce back regardless of their circumstances but must also consider these factors.

What we get wrong about resilience

It's easy to perceive resilience as being able to remain hardy, show grit, ongoing determination, and strength whatever the adversity or challenge, but if we take a moment to examine this assumption, we can see that natural resilience is not about being tough and immovable. Instead, it's about mental agility, openness, and vulnerability.

We've all been able at one time or another to show our heroic side when stressed or facing challenges, but we know that for most of us, this is not sustainable. This behaviour over time leads to burnout, as we can no longer keep it together.

The problem with building resilience

Society tends to demand that we show and maintain resilience but neglects to support the need for vulnerability. When we limit how others can show emotional vulnerability, we cut off from them the chance to properly develop coping skills and emotional regulation strategies crucial for growing resilience. It's as if we are all looking at it backwards.

The prelude to building resilience is the ability to be both open and vulnerable. Rather than teaching people how to be resilient, they need first to learn the value of how to be vulnerable because to deal with challenges, you need not only a positive mindset and determination but also a community around you that shares these traits and supports you. For example, a team leader who doesn't give you extra work because they know you're homeschooling at the moment. Or workmates who notice you're quiet and take the time to ask if you are okay.

These are all resources, and they vary immensely determined on the advantages with which you were or were not born. Some people are born with privileges, whether its race, gender, physical, financial, or other, which, compared to others, can influence how they develop resilience and what ongoing structural barriers they face, if any.

People who don't enjoy the same privileges might not access or use the resources available because the risk of rejection or loss is much higher. This is because they haven't seen good results previously when asking for what they need. They might be strong and self-sufficient, but if experience has taught them, they are always on their own. They won't risk vulnerability to reach out for assistance when the answer is outside of themselves.

The idea that recovery from trauma or disadvantage builds character is objectionable because it marks specific communities as needing adversity to toughen up while allowing others to go about their privileged lives.

When we are allowed to be vulnerable, it's okay if we are not okay. It means we can develop resilience with both positive thinking and the assistance of others.

Resilient, but at what cost?

The following story came to mind recently of a situation at a local manufacturing plant. A group of workers had to access machinery to inspect it for a possible efficiency issue. However, the area they needed to access was above ground level. They did not have a ladder, and there was no stable platform to reach the machinery. Instead of going to their management, the group adapted by stacking boxes to make a temporary platform, which allowed them to reach the machinery by climbing up on the boxes. Unfortunately, this platform was unstable and could have resulted in a bad accident.

Luckily nothing unfortunate happened at that time.

Reading this, you may think that it is a ridiculous situation, and the workers shouldn't have created such a dangerous workplace hazard. And you're right. Whether this was due to an inadequate safety culture or a fear of consequences if workers spoke up, it doesn't matter.

The fact remains – these workers adapted to the situation and overcame the challenge. They were resilient. However, at what cost? Leaders need to be mindful not to take advantage of resilient people.

When we ask ourselves: What is a good team member, it would be someone who doesn't object, is always enthusiastic and gets on with the job whatever the challenge. While this describes a resilient team member, it also illustrates a more likely person to put up with any bad conditions thrown at them.

However, being resilient in no way means you must put up with continuous poor working conditions, bad leadership, and toxic workplace culture.

Take the time to listen

We must listen to both our body and mind to see if being resilient is serving us best at this moment. Understand that you must take time to find out what reasonable stress and reasonable change means for you. Nobody can tell you to be more resilient. Only you can decide whether your situation works for you or if it's too much.

Resiliency is a strength that is always worth celebrating. Our collective ability to recover and adapt to challenging conditions is vital and commendable. But for many marginalised people, including Black, Indigenous, and racialized people, being labelled resilient — especially by policy-makers — has other implications. If we want to look for authentic, long-lasting solutions, we must encompass far more than just focusing on and applauding people for being resilient. We have also to embrace their vulnerability and be empathetic towards their stories, history, and environment.

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