Resilience Redefined: More Than Just Bouncing Back

Many people think strength, grit and determination when they hear the word resilience. They think of people who have their you-know-what together and have "bounced back" after adversity.

The problem with ONLY equating resilience with individual strength is that it puts the onus of “bouncing back” on people who are being harmed, without focusing on larger social issues that perpetuate cycles of violence and abuse. Resilience is often discussed as if it were an inherent trait, something individuals have or don’t have. But what isn’t discussed: how a person’s resilience is likely affected by their social position and relative social power. 

Here’s an excerpt from an interesting article that explores the harmful aspects of traditional resilience definitions:

“Resilience discourse treats trauma and crisis as compulsory experiences. In turn, this lets society off the hook for systematic problems like poverty, climate change, and sexism. Resilience discourse outsources the work of addressing, surviving, and coping with the harms of systemic, institutionalized inequality to private individuals. If you still feel the negative effects of, say, sexism, it’s your fault because you’re just not resilient enough.”

We don't have to choose between either focusing on individual resilience OR acknowledging oppression. By understanding oppression as well as individual resilience, we can feel empowered and hold oppressors accountable.

Exploring alternate views of resilience: 

  1. Resilience does not necessarily equal productivity. In many definitions of resilience, the idea of “bouncing back after stressors” and “becoming successful again after adversity” can make people feel like they’re not resilient if they haven’t done these things. We work with many people who are in the middle of struggling, not working or “being productive” according to societal definitions. These people might not be as productive in work/school/family life but they’re working hard to feel better.
  2. Another alternative view of resilience embraces feeling and processing emotions as a way to build resilience. We live in a patriarchal, capitalist society that values logic and reason over emotion and intuition. This can lead to believing resilience means not having or showing emotions. Resilience means compassionately working through emotions with people you trust.
  3. Understanding forces of oppression can help someone realize they’ve internalized messages that are not their own. By learning more about external harmful messages,  people can resist them and (in an act of resilience) choose new messages that are healing. Resilience and resistance are often two sides of the same coin. For some, simply existing or surviving is an act of resistance against oppressive forces.

Examples of Resilience:

  • Someone with a history of trauma has learned that self-harm helps them with the emotional pain. They know that harming themselves physically won't work for them over the long term but it helps them survive. They work through the emotional pain in counselling and gradually taper their self-harm while building safer coping strategies.
  • Someone with harmful family relationships avoids their family as much as possible and focuses on their career and building relationships with a “chosen family”.
  • An individual who was sexually assaulted tries to ignore it for months, and their eating disorder behaviours flare up in an effort to take control back. They come to counselling months later because they want to feel better and aren’t sure how.
  • A family doctor notices their alcohol use steadily climb to cope with the stress of their job.  After realizing their drinking is affecting care of patients, they take time off to go to treatment. They return to work after six months off and reduce the number of patients they see in a day. They increase their self-care dramatically and start to change the “workaholic” culture at work.

There are countless examples of resilience, only some of which fit into traditional definitions. 
Counsellors at Peak Resilience see examples of resilience on a daily basis, and feel absolutely privileged and inspired to work with such amazingly resilient human beings. More importantly, we want to help our clients recognize and embrace their unique resilience while understanding and resisting oppression.

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