Some ideas on what Resilience is not

When I originally put this piece together, it was solely about coping. But on Monday I gave a presentation on resilience to the UBC Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering students and staff. As I was updating this presentation I got to thinking about what resilience was not. It was not just about coping, it was about a host of other ways we try to manipulate a situation to avoid what is in front of us.

We have those days, those moments where all we can do is manage, all we can do is go through the motions. And that is ok, in fact, it is more than ok, and usually part of the process of recovering from something traumatic. Like I found in the research the other day, where dealing with something traumatic in its immediacy may not be effective, I got to also thinking about the strategies we employ that might be harmful to us in the long-term.

Here are some of the strategies that I would not describe as being resilient:

Coping: Coping usually happens because we feel, we perceive a threat, real or not, and we go into a mode to protect ourselves from that treat. “Coping refers to the human behavioural process for dealing with demands, both internal or external, in situations that are perceived as threats” (Ackerman, 2019), “coping refers to cognitive and behavioral efforts to manage (master, reduce, or tolerate) a troubled person-environment relationship” (Folkman & Lazarus, 1985). I think the most important aspect of coping that I’ve learned is that it is not healing, it is not resilience. While it may be part of the process, it is important to recognize that it is not healing. Coping is the Band-Aid. To heal we need time. We need to learn from what happened.

Wearing the ‘I’m so busy’ badge of honour: This comes from Brene Brown’s most recent book, Dare to Lead. My mom and I were recently talking about how instead of viewing success as the number of hours on a project that we viewed the success of a project based on the outcome of accomplishing what it set out to do. Hours and time on task may have been the past but it should not be the future. Courageous leaders celebrate those who strike balance in their lives, respect when someone says ‘no’ because they do so to not sacrifice their commitment and excellence on other projects, and they model behaviour that instils a sense of belonging and importance through empathy, hard work, and dedication.

Rushing to the next endeavour: Even when things are going well we sometimes rush on to the next idea because we are so excited about what is to come. Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness explore this in their first book, Peak Performance, in what they call the growth equation, stress + rest = growth. But if you neglect the ‘rest’ part of the equation things can go awry, . You can get to a place of burnout pretty quickly if you’re not careful. And in the land of resilience when things may not be going well rushing off to do something is not going to let your body open itself up to healing, it’s going to clamour up as you pile on new stress.

It is not about eliminating challenges: I’m not suggesting that life will not throw you challenges, nor deny that it is quite intrinsically satisfying to overcome these challenges. There is a simplistic performance curve that puts boredom and anxiety at opposite ends of the spectrum and optimal performance between those. While simplistic there are many elements of truth to the graph. Daniel Pink wrote about autonomy, mastery and purpose in his first book, Drive. These challenges help us to work through adversity, these tools that help us manage difficult situations, teaching us all to be more resilient.

Controlling a situation: Long ago I had someone say to me let go of the things you cannot control. It was in regards to the weather when I did not run a time on the track I wanted to run. I cannot control the wind and the time will come in the right situation. There is a false sense of safety and security when we feel like we want to control a situation, particularly when the things we cannot control go awry. Plus, I’ve found being open to what is to come, that’s where the best lessons in resilience that I was not expecting sometimes happen.

Armouring up: This is another piece from Brown’s Dare to Lead, where she compares armoured leadership to daring leadership. Armouring up prevents us from being vulnerable, which really prevents us from being courageous, and when I need to be resilient you better believe I need a dose of courage and bravery. Armouring up is all about ego and self-protection, we seek rewards, we seek power, we seek knowledge over learning, and in the end, these ‘rewards’ are vacuous. This notion of armour does not protect us in the end, it usually turns out to harm us, leading to burnout, uncertainty, and loneliness.

Putting other people down: This was a late minute addition. I witnessed an incident like this, watching both the victim and predator interact. While I was initially angry with the predatory behaviour. I realized later that the predatory person was in a shame spiral themselves. Putting someone down is not just mean, it does not do what we think it will do. If you put someone down to make yourself feel better, that ‘better’ lasts a microsecond and you feel worse. Resilience is not harming other people, resilience is asking those people for help.

I think the most important aspect that I’ve learned is that these strategies do not lead to healing. These do not represent what it means to be resilient. While these may be part of the process, it is important to recognize that it is not healing. To heal we need time. We need to learn from what happened. We need to sit with the sadness. Resilience is understanding why you are sad, what has happened, what has faltered or failed, and finding a way to learn and move forward. 

I think these get confounded with resilience. If we can separate these strategies, like coping, may be part of the resilience process, I think it helps us to recognize how to move forward. While I never want to wish the days away, sometimes time is needed to heal the wounds, to manage the threats, to find the sunny skies in the dark clouds.