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We Shouldn't Have to Be So Resilient

In defense of forgoing self-improvement this year.

Key points

  • It has been two years since many people have been able to feel safe.
  • People are not expected to have the strength of will to rise above a pandemic-riddled world rife with political destabilization and division.
  • Instead of setting a goal to improve yourself this year, you may want to accept that in this moment, you are who you are, and that is enough.

Did you skip your New Year’s resolutions this year?

I did.

I left my family home in Texas on New Year’s Eve, where I spent a balmy 80-degree Christmas, 20 degrees warmer than the yearly average. I came home to Colorado to find it quite literally and apocalyptically on fire. Then, the notifications started to roll in from my loved ones infected with COVID. And that’s just one slice of the bad news pie that was New Year 2022 for many Americans.

We are meant to feel a sense of renewed purpose on New Year’s Day. We are meant to be filled with hope for everything we could do and become in a year’s time. As a therapist, I have always found this ritual tenderly optimistic.

But this year, I searched myself for that renewed sense of individual determination and found it completely absent. Despite my profession, what I felt instead was the futility of attempting self-improvement in a world that, so stubbornly, refuses to improve itself.

When I was a new therapist, I was taught that resilience is the sweet fruit of trauma’s bitter tree. I found this idea beautiful and empowering—that your suffering could imbue you with strength, and that this strength could serve as an inner armor against future suffering. I went on to share the concept of resilience with many clients over the years.

But today, in January of 2022, I am tired of being resilient. I am tired of teaching clients how to bounce back again and again and again. I want us to be able to stop bouncing. Simply put, I just don’t want people to have to be so resilient anymore.

I say often in my posts that suffering is a fact of life—something to be generously accepted along with love and death and taxes. But I’m not sure humans were designed to suffer, en masse, for such an extended period of time. I’m certain that we shouldn’t be expected to continue to build our little towers of inner strength so high.

Aren’t we tired of being so strong? Aren’t we exhausted by working to improve ourselves while the detritus of each new disaster rains down around us?

This is a letter to you, dear reader, alive, seeking, despite it all. This is a letter to you, feeling frightened, angry, empty, and immobilized by sadness. This is a letter to you, who two years after the world started to crumble, are still very much not OK.

I’m not OK either. I think it’s correct that we are not OK. What compelling reason do Americans have to be OK right now? As they say in dialectic behavioral therapy, the emotion wouldn’t fit the facts.

I became a therapist to help people empower themselves to live better lives. Instead, I find that most people I know are squeezed into fearful little corners by illness, climate change, or predatory capitalist systems.

We love stories about people who come from terrible circumstances and manage, through hard work and luck, to find peace and happiness. But how realistic is it that we should all be able to do that? An average person isn’t supposed to have the strength of will to rise above a pandemic-riddled world rife with political destabilization and bitter division. We are, on a good day, just supposed to be able to feed ourselves, enjoy our weekends, and be nice to people.

One of the lessons therapists get early in their training is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It is a pyramid model of human needs, from most basic to most aspirational. The base of the pyramid is comprised of physiological needs and safety. The pyramid ascends into love, belonging, self-esteem, and at the very top, self-actualization. The theory behind the pyramid is that we cannot ascend to a higher level without a secure base. In other words, we cannot effectively work on self-improvement without being rested, well-fed, and safe.

It has been two years since you’ve been able to feel safe, dear reader.

In 2022, you can work on making your current reality more bearable, more meaningful, more enriched. You can throw yourself into surviving this storm, laughing and crying as you go. But I would like to give you permission, dear reader, to take a pass on self-improvement this year. Unless your actions are harmful to yourself, someone else, or the world, I think it’s OK to just sit this one out.

Instead of meditating, take a nap. Instead of changing your diet, just eat what you like and throw a vegetable on the side. Surround yourself with the people, sights, smells, and sensations that bring you a momentary sense of safety. Let the fact that you are intact in this moment be enough.

Instead of setting a goal to improve yourself this year, accept that in this moment, you are who you are, and that person is enough. The person you are, dear reader, has carried you through this tumultuous time. It has hurt. The world you have been given is not good enough. But you, dear reader, might be good enough for this world just as you are.

References

Maslow, A., 1943. A Theory of Human Motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), pp.370-396.

Linehan, M. M. (2015). DBT® skills training manual (2nd ed.). Guilford Press.

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