Resilience has been greatly misused and oversimplified, and this misinterpretation stems from a lack of understanding of its complex and nuanced nature. When we reduce resilience to clichéd self-help phrases like “staying positive” or simply “persevering,” we undermine its true meaning.
It’s no surprise that we have collectively reached a breaking point when it comes to resilience.
Speaking from personal experience, I consider myself a resilient person. As a former Human Resources Executive, I became well-acquainted with navigating organizational changes, both large and small. Mergers, acquisitions, deployments, restructures, layoffs, and even the pandemic—resilience was a constant practice in the workplace. In fact, I believe that every truly exceptional leader demonstrates resilience.
On a personal level, I have pushed through my father’s cancer diagnosis, managed anxiety over my son’s lack of social connections at school and bounced back from various personal hardships that are part of the fabric of life. To draw upon an analogy, just like a mighty oak tree stands strong in the face of storms, its roots unwavering, I too have remained steadfast despite these challenges.
Resilience found me, along with countless others weathering their own storms. We didn’t take a resilience course—it emerged naturally.
However, now we feel pressured to “be resilient.” Misusing resilience creates societal expectations for individuals to constantly display strength and resilience, even when it may not be appropriate or healthy to do so. This can foster a culture of toxic positivity, where genuine struggles and vulnerabilities are invalidated. It’s important to recognize that resilience doesn’t mean suppressing or ignoring emotions, but rather finding healthy ways to confront and navigate adversity.
As Vice Magazine aptly noted, “The word has slowly lost its meaning to me. Like a song that is played over and over on the radio, eventually, your ears become used to hearing it and you’d rather hear something else. The issue with being continuously resilient is that tapping into the strengths to overcome continuous struggles can become tiring and emotionally crippling.”
Resilience is often oversimplified as a one-size-fits-all concept, implying that individuals can effortlessly “bounce back” from any adversity. This oversimplification fails to acknowledge the complexity of human experiences and the various factors that shape resilience.
We have misunderstood resilience. The problem lies in our faulty starting premise. Our current definition of resilience revolves around fixing ourselves. We associate resilience with getting over things, overcoming challenges, and demonstrating grit.
As a Resilience Certified Trainer of Heartmath, I would argue that resilience is the ability to manage our emotional state in a way that doesn’t constrict us but instead expands us.
I prefer this modern definition because it allows leaders to become more internally directed rather than defined by external circumstances. In terms of business performance, this lies at the core of leadership. Consider a situation where you had to present a business case to negotiate additional resources or secure funding, knowing that other senior leaders were vying for the same resources. In such heated negotiations, it’s common to feel fear, apprehension, and frustration. Recognizing and understanding your internal responses becomes crucial. The energy required to suppress emotions is overwhelming. Moreover, when frustration hijacks our nervous system, it impairs our ability to remain calm, decisive, and rational.
Resilience is directed inward. It demands significant self-awareness and the ability to read and respond to our emotional landscape without allowing depleting emotions like anger, irritation, and impatience to dominate us.
Now, let’s explore four common misconceptions and oversimplifications of resilience, followed by alternative perspectives that provide greater clarity:
1. Resilience as the ability to bounce back: After a major change like the pandemic, we are fundamentally transformed. If we change at a cellular level, why should we revert to our previous state? Resilience is not about bouncing back but rather bouncing forward and drawing wisdom from our experiences to inform our future growth.
What has resilience taught you about yourself? How have you moved forward?
2. Resilience as remaining positive: We can’t bypass our emotions by forcing ourselves to remain cheerful. When we rush the processing of emotions, it’s often termed “toxic positivity.” Our emotional processing should not be rushed or layered with positive affirmations and platitudes like “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Resilient individuals reflect on and honor their emotions; they discuss them openly. Processing emotions is a crucial aspect of resilience. When faced with hardship, it’s important to acknowledge our feelings first.
Are you honoring all your emotions in the workplace—both the good and the bad? What might they be trying to tell you?
3. Resilience as staying tough: While pretending to be tough or “sucking it up” may work in the short term to avoid burdening others with our mood or disagreement, it gradually wears us down in the long run. In fact, Heartmath science suggests that the constant accumulation of suppressed emotions or “micro-stress” can be the most damaging. Feeling the need to act tough or put on a facade causes us to operate from a place of fear rather than learning how to embody inner composure. It’s incongruent with our true emotions.
Where are you unnecessarily expending energy by pretending everything is okay when it’s not?
4. Resilience as overcoming challenges: I dislike this definition because it implies that resilience is a win-lose game. It’s not. Resilience is about skillfully “attending and befriending” the complex emotions that accompany life’s setbacks. It involves developing inner fortitude, courage, and tenacity. Resilience is not about emerging victorious over challenges; it’s about learning and growing through them. While a crisis may be averted, the outcome is not what defines resilience.
When have you demonstrated courage, fortitude, or tenacity over the past year? What did you discover in the process?
All of us will encounter challenges, change, and complexity in our lives and careers. What if, in those moments, we knew how to respond in the most meaningful way? Resilience is the ability to compassionately face challenges and, ultimately, expand as human beings.
Written by Executive Embodiment Coach/Speaker/Thought Leader, Teresa Vozza.
Teresa helps senior women in leadership end career chaos and discover career connectedness.
Learn more about her services, here.