Recently I had lunch with a friend and she wanted to know my secret to resilience. We find ourselves in a toxic environment that we can’t change and are not ready to leave. It’s taking a toll on her not only emotionally, but also on her physical well-being. Her body wears the signs of stress. Yet I seem fine. “Is it real or an act?” she asked.
I’ve gotten this question many times in my life. I’ve always replied with, “What’s the alternative?” That’s not a good answer. It’s not helpful and it’s not accurate. I’ve been reflecting on resilience and where I draw strength. I’ve come up with better answers.
What is resilience?
Resilience is the ability to bounce back from difficult situations. Resilience has become a buzzword. It’s treated like a special quality that some people naturally have and the rest of us need to work on. A problem with this model is that it puts the onus of response on the individual and ignores responsibilities towards that person. For example, it is unjust and irresponsible to tell a victim of bullying that they are not resilient enough. Sometimes the promotion of resilience draws attention away from institutional responsibility.
Although some people seem naturally more resilient than others and resilience can be learned and developed, resilience is found in the average individual. Resilience is ordinary. We all face adversity and stress in the shape of family and relationship problems, health problems, the workplace, financial worries, and so forth. We all lose jobs and people we love. We may experience a serious illness or a traumatic event. Emotional pain is normal and doesn’t indicate a lack of resilience. Resilient people aren’t free from negative emotions or thoughts.
There is something that sets resilience apart from adapting or coping. Resilience is about rebounding stronger and more resourceful than before. There is a complex system of skills, attributes, processes, and relationships that contribute to a person’s resilience. Positive emotions, grit, loving relationships, self-confidence, ego-control, and good communication are among the many factors that influence a person’s resilience.
The secret to resilience
Ok, this is not the secret to resilience. This is the secret to my resilience. I attribute it to two things: privilege and my psychology.
My mother refuses to join a long queue. If she’s out shopping and there’s a long queue to check out, she will abandon her trolley and leave the store. This is because when we lived in communist Cuba, where we’re originally from, she had to join long queues to get food rations. She lives in America now and there’s no way in hell she’s joining a queue for anything.
I learned from my mother that I don’t have to put up with nonsense. We don’t live in Cuba anymore where you need to be a yes-person because everyone is spying on you and you can be jailed, tortured, and killed for expressing an opposing opinion. Although I am marginalised in some ways, I have a lot of privilege: I live in Australia, my nationality is American, I have light skin, I am educated, I have financial stability, and I am able-bodied. I have the capacity and the right to act and exert my own power in this society in which I live. I do not need to put up with your nonsense.
This is why I realised that “What’s the alternative? is not a good answer when people ask me what’s the secret to my resilience. It’s actually the knowledge that there often are many opportunities and choices. Now when people ask me how I could act so fearlessly, I often say, “What’s the worse that could happen?” I’m not being reckless and I’m not doing anything illegal. There are just a lot of things I’m not afraid of.
I have a pretty solid self-concept; I know who I am. I’m confident in my ability to solve problems. I’m blessed with a loving and understanding partner, a supportive family, and a brilliant network of friends and colleagues. I trust other people and I accept help and support from them. I’m a hopeless optimist. I accept that change is part of life. I look for opportunities for self-discovery especially when I am struggling.
If there’s a single secret to my resilience, it might be optimism. That doesn’t mean that I automatically ascribe benevolent motives to others or that I interpret situations in the best light. I don’t look at the world through rose-coloured glasses and fail to see injustices. It means that I expect good things in life, for myself and for others. It means I don’t tend to view problems as insurmountable. This makes me stubborn. I want change. I want better. We deserve it. We can have it.
How resilient are you?
I would bet that you are more resilient than you think. Reflect on how you’ve worked through stressful and traumatic events in your life, how you’ve overcome obstacles. How you are stronger as a result. You don’t need to compare your strategies and growth to someone else’s. “Hidden resilience” doesn’t conform to society’s expectations. Developing resilience is a personal journey. Of course, you might seek professional help but beware of people who use resilience as a weapon.