Three Myths (and Three Truths) About Resilience
“You’ve got to be resilient”, “You’ve got to be strong”, “You’ve got to be tough”, are words I bet you’ve heard often from friends, colleagues, family, and acquaintances alike. These words followed me like a shadow into high school, through college and graduate school, and into adulthood ever since I heard them for the first time in my adolescence.
As I kept listening to this woman, a lovely and well-intentioned family friend, describe what it meant to be resilient during what was, for me, a difficult time, I realized I didn’t want to be strong or resilient– at least not in the way that she meant it. It wasn’t until my late 20s that I learned what resilience truly was, and just how wonderful life can be when guided by this version and vision of resilience. In hopes of giving resilience its name back, here are three common myths or misconceptions about resilience that we’re often brought up to believe.
Myth #1: Being resilient means being able to skate by life’s challenges unharmed.
That resilience implies an ability to prevent and ward off challenge is a falsehood. Rather than avoiding or eliminating challenge, resilience denotes an ability to experience life’s difficult and challenging events and stay the course anyway. After all, we must encounter challenging experiences to learn how to cope and deal with them effectively– and this is what resilience is all about.
Let’s look at an example of love. There are a few ways to approach conflict or challenging dynamics in the context of a loving relationship, and only one represents an attitude of resilience. You can be the kind of person who avoids conflict with your partner at all costs, conceding all of your interests just so there are no tiffs or fallings-out. If you’ve ever been this person (I, for one, spent a good part of my first relationship at the age of 17 playing this role), then you know that these actions are anything but resilient. In fact, they are incredibly disempowering and antithetical to the strength and inner confidence commonly associated with resilience. You can also be the kind of person who runs at the first sight or sound of conflict. Whether because of the fear of being wrong or because of fear of conflict itself, if you get into a big argument, your response is to call it quits. This, I’m sorry to say, also isn’t resilience in action. So what is? Well, you may not prefer conflict, but if you aren’t dodging it or the relationship when it comes, then hey, you’ve got yourself some resilience. You may be the source of or target for hurtful words; you may suffer a bit of a bruised ego; you may even feel a little crack in your heart, but you stay in the game* (more on this later).
Myth #2: Being resilient means being able to put things behind you at record speed.
The idea that a strong, resilient person ought to be able to get over struggle and mishaps immediately after they’ve occurred is a distortion. In fact, you can almost guarantee that the person who tends to utter “No big deal, I’m over it!” just moments after something unplanned or unpleasant has happened isn’t revealing the whole truth of their experience. Days, weeks, or months after, they are likely to be expressing thoughts and feelings about the situation, whether via writing in their journal, talking to a trusted friend or family member, or ruminating about it in their own mind. In fact, the last time I told myself “I’m good, I processed this challenging situation (in this case, an unpleasant behaviour on the part of a colleague) yesterday”, I found myself sobbing as my heart tried to process the perceived injustice while falling asleep just later that night.
Why? Because the processing of challenging events in our lives doesn’t happen with the snap of a finger. There is a range, with some people taking days and others taking months or even years to process and understand certain experiences, and then orienting themselves to organize their thoughts in the hopes of problem solving. But, a person on one end of that range is no more resilient than the person on the other. “Bouncing back” from a situation is not a process to be rushed. If true healing and transformation are to result from a challenging experience, we’ve got to give it time to unravel and unfold at its required pace.
Myth #3: Being resilient means always being willing to try just one more time.
“Trying just one more time” isn’t really what resilience is all about. In fact, “trying one more time” can be an act of holding on so firmly to hope and expectation that you are unwilling to recognize the best way forward. Sometimes, being resilient is actually recognizing that you need to find alternative ways to achieve your goals and that the previous way doesn’t need one more try; in fact, the previous way has reached its limit.
Take the earlier example of being in conflict with your partner. Is “staying in the game” really the best option if you have repeatedly been the source of or target for hurtful words, or if one little crack in your heart has turned to 50 or 100 cracks in your precious heart? In all of these cases, the resilient (and not coincidentally, more loving) approach (true resilience, after all, is a function of self-love) is not to try one more time. The resilient and more loving approach is to say sayonara to your current plan and heavily consider a new and improved one.
Now that we know what resilience isn’t, how about we take a look at what resilience is.
Truth #1: To be resilient is to be agile.
Being resilient doesn’t mean that you are always strong, tough, and “on point”. It means you are agile, flexible, and have the ability to keep changing as often as necessary (which, given life’s constantly changing circumstances, is often!)
One of my spiritual colleagues and teachers recently described agility this way: You’ve got three types of people who appear during times of crisis.
The first is the person who freezes. S/he freezes because he has an ingrained sense of helplessness, a pervasive attitude of not being in control of the situation. In the context of our relationship example, this would equate to a sense of “I don’t have the answers. I can’t change my partner, I can’t change myself, I don’t know of any teachings, therapists, classes, groups, or other resources out there that can help me, so I’m just not going to do anything. I will stay just as I am, my partner will stay just as they are, and our relationship will remain just as it is.”
The second is the person who hesitates. S/he tries to do something, takes a few steps, moves a little bit forward, yet remains somewhat frozen. There is fear present so although it looks like forward steps are happening, true action is actually still being put off. In the context of our relational example, this would equate to requesting or maybe even starting to have a conversation about resolving conflict, but not taking any real action to guarantee it.
The third type of person who appears during crisis is flexible. They’re agile. They know that what’s happening is not what they expected but they go along with the events anyway because hey, that’s what’s happening. They might even have an urge to freeze or hesitate, but they resist the temptation. The fact that their current experience is an unexpected one doesn’t matter. They don’t stop just because they veer off of their predicted and expected path and something changes. Instead of plummeting to rock bottom or spiralling out of control, they keep maneuvering; they keep going. Best summed up by Pablo Neruda, a mantra of agility may very well be “You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep Spring from coming.” In the context of our example, this sense of Spring coming might look like initiating conversations with your partner, getting curious about their perspective and experience of the situation at hand, allowing yourself and the relationship to change as a function of what you learn about your partner through disagreement, reading a book, seeking the advice of a friend or the support of a therapist, and letting the relationship take its natural course into and out of harmony and conflict. Being agile means adapting to life’s circumstances, even and especially those that are unexpected, unwanted, or not fun. It means recognizing that you may not have all the answers, you may not have the perfect solution but that it also doesn’t matter, because guess what!? You can keep asking questions, and you can keep managing, maneuvering, and living.
Truth #2: To be resilient is to embrace the mess.
As someone who is resilient, you embrace not just the positive and pretty parts of life but the messy and not so pretty ones too. You know that the journey really is the destination, and that the journey is full of messy parts and paths. To that end, you tell yourself “no matter what phase or stage of life I am in right now, I will see this through.” “I know that I will stumble and fall, and maybe even crack and break a little– but also that I will undoubtedly bounce back and become even more whole at the end of it all.” After being rejected, failing, experiencing a loss or difficulty of some kind, you get that dirt off your shoulders (and brush it off of your clothes, too :)) and you choose to get up just one more time. If you need some help or resources to help you get back up, you seek and ask for them. You know that resilience isn’t about doing it all on your own.
Think about it. When you look at any activity in its middle, it tends to look like a big ‘ol mess or failure, doesn’t it? Try making breakfast or dinner without the kitchen looking a mess. Try returning from a weekend of camping without the trunk and/or backseat of your car being filled with all sorts of outdoor gear piled one on top of the other, and not necessarily in the most organized, tidy way. Try building a healthy, satisfying relationship without the sloppiness of getting to know one another through misunderstanding and disagreement. To be resilient is to welcome, expect, and embrace this mess. To resist it, after all, is to resist the very nature of life itself.
Truth #3: To be resilient is to learn from the peaks and valleys.
If you are resilient, you not only expect there to be messes and valleys in your day to day life, but you also expect that these experiences will teach you a thing or two. You start to see valleys as an opportunity to learn and not just to build mental fortitude, but also emotional health. Your scars and bruises become reminders of where you’ve been and what you’ve learned about yourself, others, and the world along the way. As you get comfortable with saying “hey, this is not what I wanted, but maybe it was what I needed”, you also build courage through reflection, gather strength from difficulty, and befriend failure as an opportunity to improve, build courage, and become a better problem solver. Not only that, but you begin to replace the temptation to ask “why is this happening to me!?” with the desire to ask “what can I learn from this?” And that, right there, becomes your golden ticket as a resilient human being. Because “if you focus on the hurt, you will continue to suffer. If you focus on the lesson, you will continue to grow.”
Resilience, redefined in these terms, is an ideal accomplice during difficult or tough times. And the best part about it is that it’s not a quality that you either are or aren’t born with. “You either got it or you don’t” doesn’t apply to resilience like it does to blue eyes, red hair, or a long forehead. It’s a quality that you can make the conscious decision to practice and a state of being that you can access and cultivate at any time.
In our next article, we show you how. Stay tuned!
* Please note that “staying in the game” is not a sign of resilience when it is part of an interaction or relationship marked by emotional, mental, or physical abuse. In these instances, resilience is more readily characterized by gathering the proper internal and external resources to support you in making change/s for a healthier and more emotionally conducive life experience.