I’ve been revisiting the word resilience lately, and what it really means for a person to be described as resilient. You might be thinking, “Des, what’s the big deal?” And on the surface, you’d be right. Resilience is a revered trait and common topic in the coaching world, and my Vida Aventura work with executives, leaders and teams is no exception.
But there’s a darker side to resilience – a glorification of the ability to dust yourself off, bounce back and persevere. I’ve been doing some research and exploring different perspectives on the subject, and wow, has my brain been expanded! I’ve always known about the bright side, but I’m gaining awareness about the dark side, too.
The Bright Side of Resilience
Let’s start with the basics and a straightforward definition from Psychology Today:
Resilience is the psychological quality that allows some people to be knocked down by the adversities of life and come back at least as strong as before. Rather than letting difficulties, traumatic events, or failure overcome them and drain their resolve, highly resilient people find a way to change course, emotionally heal, and continue moving toward their goals.
When people are faced with and overcome adversity, traumatic events, sickness or significant setbacks, of course we say, “Bravo! You have overcome obstacles and wow, look at you now. You are so resilient!” We tend to admire those who have persevered. And in companies and organizations, resiliency is linked to higher productivity, stronger leaders and overall success.
I mentioned earlier that resilience is a common topic in the coaching world, and that’s because resilience is trainable. Part of my role with clients is to help them build skills and abilities to facilitate growth, strategically navigate life, and cultivate an environment that maximizes resilience.
In working with executives and leaders, some of the traits I see in resilient clients include:
- Sense of control
- Problem-solving skills
- Strong social connections
- Survivor Mentality
- Emotional Regulation
These are positive attributes that help us in not just being resilient, but in all areas of life. So, at this point you might be wondering, “How can any of these things be bad? I mean, what’s not to love about all of this?” When it comes to resilience, it’s all about context.
The Dark Side of Resilience
Is it possible to be too resilient? According to my research, the answer is yes.
It can go to far. For example, according to Harvard Business Review’s The Dark Side of Resilience, extreme resilience could drive people to become overly persistent with unattainable goals, or overly tolerant of adversity. That can translate into putting up with boring or demoralizing jobs — and particularly bad bosses — for longer than needed. “In sum, there is no doubt that resilience is a useful and highly adaptive trait, especially in the face of traumatic events. However, when taken too far, it may focus individuals on impossible goals and make them unnecessarily tolerant of unpleasant or counterproductive circumstances. “
The cost can be high. Another unique perspective comes from David&Goliath President Yumi Prentice. She shares her thoughts on resilience from an Asian-American perspective in The Cost of Glorifying Resistance. “Focusing on un-nuanced, individualized resilience as an enviable ‘skill’ without fully understanding its components is misguided; and to elevate it to an admirable leadership trait is downright dangerous.” She goes on to explain:
“We should not continually force ourselves to act OK when we and the situation are not. Prolonged resilience is emotionally, mentally and physically draining. It can lead to acceptance and complicity, instead of the positive change that the situation desperately requires. The cost to ourselves and to our society is too great. And sometimes, deadly.
The part of resilience to celebrate and glorify therefore, is not what we as Asians, as women, or any other minorities have had to swallow, but rather – what we refuse to tolerate and how we go about creating lasting change. Let us focus on the part of resilience that is about the support systems that are so vital in the removal or recovery from the toxic situation, that lead to change.
It can make life harder. Remember when I referred to the bright side of resilience, and I used the word positive? I recently listened to an episode of NPR’s Life Kit podcast, and it explored how having the ability to overcome and adapt to difficult life situations might not always be such a positive thing. In Why you should stop complimenting people for being ‘resilient’, let’s just say that the word is explored in enlightening ways. And as a woman of color, I found it to be quite profound.
The question was posed by host TK Dutes in the episode, “But what if glorifying resilience can actually be detrimental?” Here’s an excerpt from the episode notes on NPR’s website:
For example, take the “strong Black woman” stereotype. According to Professor Inger Burnett-Zeigler, author of Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen: The Emotional Lives of Black Women, internalizing that trope “can often interfere with [Black women] acknowledging their mental health challenges and then going on to get the mental health treatment.”
So we revisited the concept of “resilience” with Lourdes Dolores Follins, psychotherapist and licensed clinical social worker. She explains why it’s OK to let yourself feel angry or frustrated sometimes — and how unexamined resilience can mask structural forces that make your life harder.
Where Do We Go From Here?
One of the best things about life is that we always have opportunities to learn and grow. Especially when it comes to topics, issues and constructs that need to be re-examined now and then – with fresh eyes and an open heart.
While the traits mentioned at the beginning of the article do connect with being resilient, and I believe strongly in the skills that help us all deal with difficulties and challenges, I am also now aware of nuances that can enhance my work as a coach and facilitator. What do you think of this fresh perspective?