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Resilience

3 Myths About Chronic Illness and Resilience

You're probably more resilient than you think.

Key points

  • People with chronic illness sometimes express shame about not being as resilient or as brave as they think they should be.
  • There are many misconceptions about resilience, such as that resilience is static rather than dynamic or that it eliminates negative feelings.
  • Social networks play an integral role in people's ability to cultivate resilience.
Katie Willard Virant
Source: Katie Willard Virant

In fictionalized accounts of chronic illness, the protagonist inevitably manages hardship with strength, humor, and fabulous hair. She’s inspiring to those around her, providing an idealized example of grace under pressure. Audiences point to her in admiration, exclaiming, “That’s resilience!”

Well, yes. It’s resilience on steroids or maybe just... you know... an attractive and completely unrealistic story. It’s my experience that the day-to-day resilience exhibited by people living with chronic illness is a lot less flashy and a lot more gritty. This month’s column seeks to demystify the concept of resilience, taking it down from the movie screen and bringing it into real life.

Resilience is a concept that describes our capacity to adapt well to adversity (Buckley, Punkanen & Ogden, 2018). We all need resilience, as life inevitably throws us curve balls. People living with chronic illness need a lot of resilience, as the challenges of dealing with incurable disease can be extreme.

Sometimes, people living with chronic illness express shame that they are not more resilient. They should be braver, more positive, less cranky. They shouldn’t feel depressed, angry, or anxious about their situation. I’d like to look at three big myths associated with resilience in an effort to dispel them.

Myths of Resilience

Myth #1: Resilience is a character trait that one either has or lacks.

Not so. Resilience is not a fixed personal attribute (Kralik, van Loon, & Visentin, 2006). Rather, it ebbs and flows in various circumstances and over time. To be resilient—to adapt to adversity—can feel doable in some situations and out-of-reach in others. That’s normal. To feel broken, at the end of the line, unable to cope does not mean that you are lacking resilience. Rather, it means that your resilience has become depleted at this particular time.

With chronic illness, we can learn to predict the situations that will deplete resilience. It’s worth thinking through what those circumstances are for you. For many of us, extreme pain is an experience that dramatically depletes resilience. Knowing this, it’s important to have a plan in place to treat it when it arises. If you’re identifying depleting situations and planning for how you will manage them, then you are exhibiting resilience.

Myth #2: Resilience is the responsibility of each individual.

If you’re not resilient, there’s something the matter with you. Wrong. Resilience is a process that is supported within a social context (Kralik, van Loon, & Visentin, 2006). If you live with chronic illness and feel exhausted, depressed, and fragile, you may experience self-judgment. If only you were tougher, braver, more positive... to which I reply: How can we help you? How can your family help you? How can your workplace help you? How can your friends help you? How can social policy help you? And how can I as your therapist help you?

People develop resilience in the context of social connectedness—first in attachment relationships with caregivers and then in relationships with the wider world. Resilience is compromised when our needs are not being met. If you’re feeling vulnerable, please recognize that you can strengthen resilience by reaching out for help.

Myth #3: Resilient people are in a good emotional state.

Not necessarily (Kralik, van Loon, & Visentin, 2006). Resilience is extraordinarily helpful: It helps us survive what feels unbearable. But to be resilient does not mean that we don’t have feelings about what we’re going through. We can be resilient and fragile at the same time. Sometimes people living with chronic illness can feel unseen due to their resilience. Family, friends, colleagues, and even physicians in charge of their care fail to see the vulnerable feelings that sit alongside the resilience. As one of my clients stated, “I don’t want pity from people, but I do want them to recognize how hard this is.”

If you’re living with chronic illness, find ways to identify, cultivate and protect your resilience. Understand that it will ebb and flow. Understand that you require connections with others to keep resilience alive. And understand that resilience co-exists with vulnerability.

Reflecting on Your Own Resilience

As you think about your own experiences, reflect upon the following questions:

  • In what ways do I demonstrate resilience? (Think of all the “small” things you do to care for yourself daily. Do you take your medication? Participate in an activity you enjoy? Speak kindly to yourself? These are examples of resilience.)
  • When does my resilience feel depleted, and how can I manage that? (Do you feel less resilient when you overwork, for example? If so, are there ways to cut back to ensure that you are not so fatigued?)
  • Who are my connections who can accept all of my feelings about my illness? If I’m feeling vulnerable, who can help me with this? (If you’re coming up short, please think about calling a therapist. We are connection-builders and can help you cultivate a network.)

LinkedIn image: Stock-Asso/Shutterstock

References

Buckley, T., Punkanen, M., & Ogden, P. (2018). The role of the body in fostering resilience: a Sensorimotor Psychotherapy perspective. Body, Movement and Dance in Psychotherapy, 13(4).

Kralik, D., van Loon, A., & Visentin, K. (2006). Resilience in the chronic illness experience. Educational Action Research, 14(2), 187-201.

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