Challenging the myth that resilience is simply personal fortitude

There are unintended impacts when we fail to acknowledge the systemic barriers that prevent some people from ‘bouncing back’.

Two people hang from ropes in the clouds, but one of them has their toes resting on the tip of a large rock.

With so much focus on the pandemic, there has been a lot of talk about all the challenges that have come our way over the past two and a half years. In many of these conversations, resilience is pointed to as a critical skill that influences how we are coping. Personal resilience is often identified as a quality that differentiates those who are handling the challenges and those who are struggling. 

The current COVID environment has highlighted the way we use resilience to describe people’s ability to cope. Beyond COVID though, I wonder: are we attributing too much to personal resilience for how we are doing? What if a ‘lack of resilience’ is actually a normal response to losses and suffering? Is it possible that we are over-applying the idea of resilience and leaving out important aspects of people’s lives that either help them bounce back or hold them down? 

I would like to explore some of the consequences of minimizing the social conditions that make it so difficult for some to recover from challenges or adversity. Let’s take a deeper look at some key narratives that dominate the current perspectives on resilience.1

How the literature characterizes resilience

Resilience: “the ability to be happy, successful, etc. again after something difficult or bad has happened.” (Cambridge Dictionary)

I am summarizing the conversations about resilience here, but in general, it is presented as the ability to withstand adversity and bounce back and to work through crises or difficulties. Conversely, if you don’t have it, you are ‘flailing and failing’.

Often, literature on resilience describes it as an individual resource or capability: for example, ‘to have the inner strength to bounce back from changes, challenges, tragedies and losses.’ 

For many, individuals who demonstrate resilience are described as being emotionally strong, able to harness their inner strength, resources and skills to overcome adversity and rebound or return to equilibrium.

In contrast, people who lack resilience are described as more likely to focus on problems, feel victimized, be overwhelmed, and rely on strategies such as substance use, isolation, or risky or avoidant behaviours to cope. 

I feel unsettled with this characterization and question if it really is as simple as that. Human behaviour is rarely without complexity or range, and so I would like to ponder three dimensions of this dominant resilience narrative to expand our collective view of resilience and suffering.  

Dominant resilience narrative #1: If you are resilient, you will bounce back from adversity

In the narrative that ‘bouncing back reflects that we have resilience’, we may have missed an important truth: that being deeply impacted by loss, grief, abuse, tragedy, racism or poverty does not necessarily reflect a lack of resilience, but a normal human response to what has happened. Over-focusing on resilience can obscure suffering, deny the lengthy process of recovering and minimize painful human experiences.

By collapsing the distinction between resilience and individual fortitude, we can misinterpret the failure to bounce back as ‘abnormal’, ‘dysfunctional’ or ‘inadequate’ – as lacking resilience – rather than viewing deep emotional suffering as necessary and important. Such a perspective can add to the original harm(s) and suffering by suggesting that the response someone is having to losses is inadequate and that they are missing important qualities such as self-esteem, flexibility and social support.

We are applying unnecessary pressure to ourselves and others under this narrative. It forces us as a society to deny or underestimate impactful losses and trauma by focusing on recovery or ‘return to normal’. By applauding resilience and seeing it as a badge of honour that represents strength, flexibility and mental toughness, we can underestimate the arduous and honest process of experiencing pain, healing and recovering.

It could say a lot about society if we were able to acknowledge human suffering, and that the speed of healing is not a sign of individual fortitude alone.2

Dominant narrative #2: Resilient individuals have what it takes 

Linking resilience with individual traits and behaviours is in keeping with the dominant narrative that couples our successes with individual capacities and fortitude – that we ‘have what it takes’. And, if we do need the support of others to recover, this narrative reassures us that we have earned our access to the internal and external resources necessary to be resilient.

In reality, resources are not equally available to everyone. It is often access to these very resources that creates conditions for people to more easily handle adversity. In this way, resilience can be self-fulfilling. The more we successfully handle challenges, the more we account for our successes through individual qualities rather than systemic privilege. 

This perspective also grossly underestimates the debilitating impact of things that happen beyond an individual’s control, choice or resources. For those of us with the good luck to occupy a world where we don’t worry about feeding our families, living in unsafe neighbourhoods, having loved ones harmed by police and other institutional responders, or finding meaningful work, bouncing back from adversity has fewer barriers and layers of complexity. What would it mean if we acknowledged that we are not fully responsible for our successes, and that others aren’t necessarily responsible for what has happened to them?

Dominant narrative #3 (victim blaming): Lack of resilience is lack of essential personal qualities

When individual qualities are used as the primary metric to measure people’s ability to get ‘back to normal’, it risks the implication that people who aren’t recovering quickly are lacking and renders the normal human response to emotional suffering as a failure of the individual.3

Subscribing to the narrative that resilience is a personal quality ignores the interplay between personal, structural and systemic factors and may create a blind spot to the many structural barriers that hold some people down. These structural and systemic factors can open or close doors for individuals. Lack of access to these resources compounds the harms of systemic patriarchy and racism, colonization, poverty, significant death or loss, natural disasters, and more that make it so difficult for some folks to ‘regain their footing’. 

I worry that holding individuals responsible for their lack of resilience runs the risk of sounding a lot like victim blaming. When we attribute the impact of systemic and social conditions to a lack of resilience, we can inadvertently weaponize the concept of resilience, obscuring the complexity and range of conditions that impede or accelerate healing and recovery and hold individuals responsible for their own suffering.

A new narrative

In reality, the people who are fighting through these barriers, surviving systemic harms, and battling the devastating emotional effects caused first by challenging events, and then by systemic barriers and attitudes, are demonstrating an incredible capacity to adjust and cope. We ought to view them differently. They are surviving unimaginable circumstances and challenges and being the exemplar models of resilience. Instead, they may simply be judged as lacking the necessary character and qualities that would enable them to find their way back.

Those of us who do have privilege also have access to, or control of the narrative. The narrative reflects our lives, our benchmarks, not lives writ large. Maybe it is time for a new more inclusive narrative. What is the price we pay as individuals and as a society by leaving out so many from contributing to our understanding of resilience, suffering and recovery?

I wonder what we could shift if we included all people and their experiences, all struggles, in our understanding of resiliency. Who would be included? Who would we honour? What impact would this have on our humanity, our civility, our social dignity? How much more cautiously would we invoke the concept of resiliency? Who would we view as resilient? How much more empathy and social responsibility would be activated? How many doors could we open for others? Let’s see.

Footnotes

  1. Listen to ‘Don’t call me resilient’
  2. The Resilience Paradox: Why We Often Get Resilience Wrong
  3. Focusing on resilience undermines the need to find solutions

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