The Myth of Resilience

Stop expecting something bad to happen

It has been a tough week for me. A colleague, a former manager, in fact, died at the age of 45. This was a role I left in 2019. My change in manager from the colleague who recently died was one of the reasons why I left. She was replaced by someone who extended my probation period without warning after I received a bonus/recognition award for my all-around flexible attitude. Apparently, my lack of “resilience” was a concern. I thought I was very resilient when all his conversations with me were directed at my breasts but apparently, that was not enough. I sobbed down the telephone to my former manager on the day I submitted my resignation and I know she felt guilty. She felt that if she had stayed there, I might not have resigned. We cannot go down that rabbit hole though, because it draws in the gender questions, class questions, as well as resilience and what that word really means.

When did resilience become a stick to beat people with and why are we not allowed to exhibit our humanity?

It was the same manager that told me that her first few weeks joining our team were spent sobbing in bathrooms because she did not feel “intelligent enough”. Given how much respect she commanded, and this is very much evident in the tributes from some very senior people in that organisation following her too-early death, her concerns were unfounded. That conversation was a gift, however, that has stayed with me throughout my career and kept me company during some tough times in my personal life. By sharing that humanity with me, she made me feel less of a failure when times got tough, and I found myself curled up in a ball in the very same bathrooms she had hidden in. The rightness of being made to feel that way in the workplace is a larger question not addressed here, you can read more about that in my article You Don’t Speak for Me.

I remember positive thinking, and a positive mental attitude, well. I was not fooled by any of it. Some of the most outwardly positive people in my office when that was a thing were the most spiteful bullies when they thought the people that mattered were not watching. If I criticised any of it, I was being “negative”. It was at that point that I made the decision to never follow the herd, choosing personal, and professional, integrity as my path instead.

Anyway, let us talk about resilience, or more importantly why we should stop talking about it. For the purposes of this article, I am not certain you need a distinction between personal, professional, or even organisational resilience. People are at the heart of every kind of resilience, after all. If resilience is the capacity to recover quickly from adversity you could argue that resilience is in some ways a form of elasticity. I am of the view that this obsession with resilience, although well-intentioned to begin with, has taken a much darker turn. Here is why.

Sometimes we are angry or upset because we should be. In person-centred therapeutic terms, and even mindfulness, sitting with how you are feeling, at that moment, is generally considered to be a good thing. Acknowledging and accepting how you feel, is a sign of strength, not of weakness. There is no judgement. The word “resilience” is now a loaded one. It is used predominantly in a way that is not free from judgement. We all fall. This is a fact. We should not be judging people on how long it takes them to get back up.

Stop expecting something bad to happen. I am not suggesting we only live on the bright side of life but by its very nature, resilience is the antithesis of positive thinking. It assumes there will be something to recover from. Preparedness comes from living life free from judgement, ridicule and through being given the space to make mistakes. Preparedness comes from having the opportunity to sit with your humanity and reflect on what adversity has taught you, with the support of others, if needed.

From an organisational perspective, focus on diversity and getting that right, first. It is diversity that enables organisations to innovate. An organisation that can innovate is an organisation that is resilient. If the organisation has those many and varied perspectives, from those different kinds of thinkers, it can produce the best ideas and survive.

Focusing on perfection, instead of embracing failure, is a mistake. We need to learn how to embrace failure, both personally and professionally, because if we do not, no one will learn those hard lessons and the same mistakes will continue to be made.

We need to rethink our attitude to adversity and risk. Being thrown into uncertain situations is not the way to build resilience. I have been deliberately put in situations designed to “toughen me up” in the workplace. It made me resentful, and I ended up leaving those organisations because it is, in fact, bullying. People do not lack resilience because they have never been tested. Likewise, people do not lack resilience because they have experienced too many adverse events. It is much more complicated than that. Looking at adverse events without considering the context, is unhelpful. It is about the number of adverse events, their intensity, and their persistence, but it also draws in culture, community, family, as well as the individual. Resilience to adversity improves when there is less exposure to it, but also if there are supportive relationships in place to act as a buffer to it.

Get off that bandwagon. Tune out what everyone else is saying and do what feels right. Resilience is a word that is often used, without understanding what it means. Think about whether its usage is appropriate, not about whether it is on-trend.

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