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We're More Resilient Than We Think

Empathy is the way to help each other feel our own strength.

Key points

  • We may think "everyone else is fine," but the rates of anxiety and depression have gone up significantly during the pandemic.
  • The way to encourage each other's strengths is not with statements like "stay strong," which paradoxically can make us feel worse.
  • Resilience is not a static quality; no one has it all the time, and moments of hopelessness can sometimes help us mobilize.
 FG Trade/istock
Seeing resilience in each other, two friends embrace.
Source: FG Trade/istock

“Stay strong!” “Stay positive!” “Be resilient!” “Power through!” “Don’t give up!” “You’ll be fine!”

Oh, how we try to help each other. Oh, how we so don’t sometimes…

I’m sure we’ve all been the recipient of well-intentioned emotional encouragements like these (and maybe we’ve even said them). Intellectually, we may be familiar with the idea that people’s reactions to us have more to do with where they are than where we are, but in those “stay strong” encounters — nope. Paradoxically, we clunk to the bottom of the seesaw; we have failed the test of our lives and feel worse about ourselves and our lives than before the words were uttered (and maybe we weren’t even feeling that bad to begin with...). “What just happened?” we say to ourselves, whiplashed.

I know; I know — “toxic positivity” — but if we look closely at why these supportive moments feel more like “Gotcha!” than “I get you,” we can be much more effective in giving each other the support we need.

The inadvertent implication of these cheering expressions is that, somehow, whatever you just shared (or the mere fact that you shared something messy — a.k.a. real) demonstrates that you are somehow not, in fact, strong, positive, resilient, powering through, and not giving up. Which just isn’t right. Or true.

Honoring Our Felt Experience

Honoring our felt experience and bravely opening up about it are essential emotional resiliency skills that buffer us from anxiety and depression, make us less defensive, and make us more available to others. Yikes! If that knocks us out of the resiliency club, there’s something wrong with this picture.

What do we picture when we think of a resilient person? We probably don’t imagine that it could be someone who can’t get out of bed some days, who has a sink full of dishes and piles of mail, and who feels out of ideas and like giving up. In fact, right now, you may be getting concerned — why is Dr. Chansky talking about these things? Is she OK? Yes, the reason is these snapshots (if we ever documented them) are part of the human story — the montage that makes up a resilient life — moments of feeling defeated, stymied, or utterly exhausted often precede other moments of shifting perspective, asking for help, feeling determined, engaging in problem-solving, and mobilizing ourselves in new directions — as long as feelings of guilt or shame don’t get in the way.

It’s like we have edited together a reel of most stellar coping moments and said: This is what rising above looks like. And when we don’t look like that, we absorb the inner interpretation (whether from someone else’s expectations that we “toughen up” or our own) that we’re failing. Now we’re in double trouble: We have the problem we’re facing, and we have our judgment that we’re doing the problem wrong. That’s creating a hurdle and hardship we don’t need. In actuality, though, human nature leans toward survival and resiliency; there is no superhuman constant or static state of rising above. Resilience depends on when you’re looking, not on who you’re looking at.

Sharing Our Vulnerability

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to encourage sharing our vulnerability as an act of courage and resiliency (and frankly, necessity) in the pandemic, as patient after patient wonders what’s wrong with them, because they are struggling when everyone else seems to be fine. But how is everyone else, really?

Maybe there is no visible mountaintop in the isolation of COVID-19 to shout from, but the increases in new cases of anxiety and depression in the pandemic — 76.2 million and 53.2 million respectively, globally — speaks for itself. If there were ever a time that we need our supportive communications to not backfire, and we need to dispense with the “shoulds” of what coping looks like, it is now.

With the ever-shifting challenges of this time, pulling up by bootstraps and powering through are not the one-size-fits-all blueprint — the expectations for what coping looks like need to shift, too.

Providing Empathy

So, back to our challenge: When people we care about are struggling around us, what do we do? The alternative to toxic positivity is compassion and perspective. It’s empathy. It’s wanting to understand. We needn’t fear that we’ll somehow make someone feel worse or amplify their stuck feelings by acknowledging them or empathizing with them; paradoxically, that can be the very boost they need.

Let’s go back to the “gotcha” scenario that we began with and look at the physics of emotional support.

When we feel that we’re stuck at the bottom of the seesaw, we can help each other gain distance, not by trying to hoist each other up with expectation-filled encouraging phrases, but by empathizing or joining them where they are: “This is so hard. It feels like things are never going to change. Things are so far from normal. I feel that way too — sometimes a lot!” Sitting together on that low perch — knowing we are not alone, normalizing each other’s experiences — especially now— frees us from the inner eclipse of judgment, shame, or even just fear that there is something so wrong and different about us or how we are coping. It is that connection that gives the boost. It frees up our energy to see our lives and ourselves from different angles; it transports us up and above the ground-level clutches of that hard moment.

One of my favorite examples of this being-honest-gives-a-boost from my own life started way back in my early parenting days — a friend and I, similarly overwhelmed by the mission impossible of life— kids, jobs, laundry, deadlines, and aging parents — would text each other a world of understanding in just two simple words: “Getaway car.” The other responded: “Yes, getaway car.” It said it all — our desire to be transported temporarily (in a fast car!) away from our lives, our ability to return to and manage those very lives — we got it, just like that. It did not in any way undermine or cast doubt on each other’s ability or competency. It wasn’t the only way we felt, but it was definitely the feeling of that moment.

An Exercise to Shift Perspective

There are other ways to get that acceptance — without even talking with a real person. In an exercise I call “The Possibility Panel,” we can confer with imagined consultants for perspective in tough moments. Choose four people, real or fictional, living or dead, whom you admire — give them a seat and a cup of tea — (or, for your pet — an appropriate snack). What they would each tell you about yourself in this moment? Oprah? The Dalai Lama? Albert Einstein? Your grandmother? Close your eyes for just a minute and imagine they are looking in your eyes — what would their “outside perspective” say to you? I often use this when I wake up in the night — oh, the reassurances I have gotten from kind, wise thinkers. And I didn’t even have to wake them up! Let them help you to have compassion for your situation and see your strengths — or your justified exhaustion. Just remembering this exercise can shift your perspective out of the tight corner you’re in. The wisdom you glean from these “consultations” helps you see things outside the influence of the pressures you’re feeling. When you are with someone else who’s in a tough moment and at a loss for helping words, you can share this exercise with them.

In our families, friendship groups, workplaces, and schools, we can widen the path with our acceptance of each other and our empathy. One of the most powerful activators of our strength and resilience is simply the look of acceptance from another’s eyes — knowing that we are OK, that we’re not doing the “wrong” thing or failing in some way, that we are “resilience in progress,” all of us. The heart softens, the body eases, the nervous system shifts into restorative mode and out of fight or flight. Seeing in each other courage and strength is how we, as communities, are strengthened; it’s how we form the interwoven safety net of resilience — together. We move as a group, whether we know it or not.

Let’s keep the resiliency door wide open for each other. This is strength; this is getting through. If you need reinforcements on this, I would be very happy to take a seat on your Possibility Panel any time, even if I happen to be in my getaway car…

©2021 Tamar Chansky, Ph.D. For many more ideas like these, please check out my website.

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