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“You’re so resilient” isn’t the compliment we thought it was. Why it’s time to rethink this important trait

November 23, 2022, 11:00 AM UTC
Group of happy people embracing on a garden party at sunset
Resilience isn't just about the individual. How are you building collective resilience?
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Depicted as picking yourself up by your bootstraps, taking life’s worst punches like a champ and trudging along despite setbacks, resilience is a trait we celebrate, and we always want more of it. The root of the word means to rebound or recoil. It’s been used to describe the front line health care workers and people who’ve lived through a painful diagnosis. 

But who has it, and how do you get more of it? Turns out, it’s not about each of us individually. A number of researchers in the field of resilience tell me we are thinking of the word all wrong. 

The pandemic has changed our concept of resilience

The mind is not invincible—or able to soak up trauma after trauma, uncertainty after uncertainty, and still make a perfect comeback. That became most evident when the pandemic sparked global panic around the health and safety of those we care about. People have been grieving and cut off from the social connections that nourish them. And still, we have been expected to embody resilience when we work, care for family, and show up as if nothing has changed. This collective experience tested our idea of resilience. 

Dr. Suniya Luthar, founder and executive director of the AC Groups, a non-profit working to foster resilience in communities, says it’s impossible to expect people to rebound constantly. 

“Humanity has been traumatized not once but repeatedly and there isn’t a clear end in sight,” she says. The last few years exacerbated a growing mental health crisis, which only confirms how impossible it is to bounce back all the time. 

Jennifer Moss, author of The Burnout Epidemic: The Rise of Chronic Stress and How We Can Fix It, explains that processing of all of these challenges tap the brain’s “surge capacity,” similar to an influx of patients in an emergency room in which, at some point, resources run out. We can’t simply muster resilience from a state of total depletion.

Resilience isn’t something you have or don’t have 

We often use resilience as a noun, when it really should be used as a verb, says Dr. Samantha Boardman, author of Everyday Vitality: Turning Stress into Strength, who works as a positive psychiatrist in New York. 

“It’s not something that just exists in your head,” she says. “You can’t say ‘be resilient’ like that’s going to mean anything.” 

The pressure we put on individuals to be resilient presents a narrative that if people are strong enough, they can get through any hardship. When we propose resilience as something people work toward consistently versus having achieved it or not, it feels more manageable, experts say. 

Similar to going to the gym to build muscle, routinely engaging in a variety of practices, however small, can help you gain resilience, process emotional difficulties, and introduce calm to your life and your community.

It’s not about just being positive. 

When we think about resilience individually, we tend to put a pressure on others and even ourselves to showcase positivity. But resilience doesn’t alway need to look like strength, hope, or optimism, Dr. Amit Sood, executive director and CEO at The Global Center for Resiliency and Wellbeing and former professor of medicine, tells Fortune

It can invalidate people’s lived experiences and the emotions they associate with them to tell people to just get through, that they will be stronger on the other side—oh, and the classic don’t forget to smile. Too often, people judge others for not being motivated enough, Boardman says, which isn’t the answer or the key to being more resilient. Now that doesn’t mean sulking until something around you gets fixed, but instead, taking time to understand your emotions and what they might be telling you. 

“The change [is] from ‘button up i’m strong,’ to ‘my strength comes from my weakness,’” Sood says.

Crying doesn’t denote weakness, but it rather signals it may be time to make a change or lean on a new tool. 

“We don’t give ourselves a lot of grace,” Moss says, adding that growth happens when we appreciate and learn from our hardships.

The bottom line: resilience doesn’t mean mask your emotions.

It’s not just about us alone 

Resilience doesn’t come solely from within. People feel the pressure to maintain an idyllic image of being strong on their own.

“Individual resilience is a paradox,” Boardman says. “Happiness doesn’t come from within, it comes from ‘with,’ … That idea that it’s all happening in your head I think is taking us away sometimes from the vital importance of the relationships we have.” 

Experts say self-care alone won’t help us achieve resilience. Individual practices have validity but are not sustainable long term. How can you be a part of collective resilience? 

Start with normalizing conversations about mental health, stress, or burnout in the family, the workplace or with friends. 

“How do we tell the story about challenges in our own life or family history?” Boardman says, citing research that modeling taking action to deal with and manage emotions and challenges helps build resilience within a community. 

It’s also important to prioritize spaces that instill hope and excitement in your life, such as through volunteering or taking part in social events that feel authentic to you. They can help make it more manageable to deal with hardship down the line. Even reaching out to a friend and performing an act of kindness can help you cope with challenges and find resilience. 

At a time when people are struggling with their mental health, taking care of one another and pursuing resilience together may be the best way to look at it. 

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