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The Dark Side of Resilience

3. Self-judging that you should be “stronger."

Key points

  • Resilience is a core quality for wellbeing but can also be misused and work against us.
  • Resilience can be used dismissively, to set unrealistic expectations, or to push others too hard.
  • Healthy resilience relies on perseverance and humility, two Native American principles for ethical living.

Does resilience have a dark side?

Nearly everything has a potential risk or shadow side. Even the hazards of predominantly beneficial things like yoga or having a positive attitude (so-called toxic positivity) have made headlines. Knowing the potential dangers can help us view things more wholly—containing both shadow and light. Like Disney's latest film "Encanto" so beautifully illustrates, any gift can help but then at some point harm us. I would like to low-light a few drawbacks or risks of resilience when applied in unhealthy ways.

1. Resilience can be used dismissively.

A parent who may have difficulty tolerating the discomfort of a child’s distress may use resilience as a broad brush to gloss over the hurts that children endure in an adult world. “Oh, but kids are so resilient” is dismissive at best and could lead to inaction when protection is called for.

Telling someone that they are resilient can highlight a personal strength but could also be misunderstood as “You should be able to handle this. Don’t show us how much you are suffering.” Identifying specific qualities of resilience such as good communication, stick-to-it-iveness, or patience may be more potent ways of communicating a coping strength you view in someone else.

2. Resilience can carry an expectation of returning to a prior state of existence.

Resilience is, by definition, bouncing back or returning to a former state. When this is not possible or even probable, you may find yourself stuck trying to go back in time. For example, if you have suffered a major health setback and are now pushing yourself to return to how you used to be, you may not move forward fully in the new reality of your situation. Rehabilitation to a “new normal” can be frustrating to people who still want the old normal.

Our expectations of how things should be can blind us to what all of our options are. A more realistic and more hopeful approach may acknowledge how we exist in perpetual change over a lifespan. Acceptance of reality can help us continuously adapt our minds and bodies even if they are not as we ideally envisioned.

3. Resilience can convey self-judgment that you should be “stronger” than you are.

A myth of resilience is that if you are not able to adjust and adapt quickly, there is something wrong with you. The expectation that you should be stronger, more resilient, or more anything may not be the supportive self-talk you need to be resilient. A paradox, I know, but one that should not be dismissed.

Perfectionism can sneak in and set our expectations to be ever-resilient, forgetting we are human and may need time to adjust to life’s inevitable changes. If resilience simply becomes another way for you to point out how you have missed the mark, it is no longer helpful. Understanding for self and others will support us through times of transition that don’t happen overnight.

4. Resilience can be used in the workplace to push employees harder.

Teaching health and resilience in the workplace can come with the expectation that if proper support is provided, employees will produce more and improve the bottom line. While this is true, especially for companies who want to keep employees long-term, it can distract from the more important bottom line of supporting people just because they are people with product and productivity coming in second.

Workplace wellbeing programs can come off as insincere, pushing exercise and nutrition without actually changing the systemic issues that would bring about holistic wellness. In addition, many employees are left feeling frustrated and burnt out after their improved performance led only to ever-increasing productivity expectations.

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Healthy Resilience: To Humbly Persist

A healthy relationship with resilience considers that we are by our nature ever-adapting to change, and in this way, resilient. While resilience is something that can be practiced, it’s best not pushed.

In The Lakota Way, Joseph Marshall III writes about the 12 core qualities of the Sicangu Lakota Sioux for living well.1 The first two of these qualities, perseverance and humility, capture building healthy resilience.

Wowacintanka (wo-wah-chin-tan-gah) is a Lakota word for perseverance: to persist and strive despite difficulties. Unsiiciyapi (un-shee-ee-cee-yah-pee) is a Lakota word for humility: humble, modest, and unpretentious. May we all humbly persist in what we value most.

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1. Marshall, Joseph, 1945-. (2002). The Lakota way : stories and lessons for living. New York: Penguin Compass.

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