Resilience isn’t about being tough

We use resilience in the face of adversity which comes in many forms, from the impact of a pandemic to the somewhat lighter arriving late to an appointment or spilling coffee down our favourite top.

There is no absolute agreement in psychological research about resilience, but one way it’s been summarised uses the three R’s – Resistance, Recovery, and Reconfiguration.  The first of these is often translated as toughness, but I don’t think that’s helpful.  Let’s look at the other two before returning to Resistance.

Having asked hundreds of people, I’d say that Recovery is the most common of the Rs we use to describe resilience, typically using a phrase like the ‘ability to bounce back’.  This might bring to mind the analogies of the sapling flexing in the wind or the more literal bouncing back of a ball.

Bouncing back can be a good analogy, but like most complex things that involve humans, it isn’t perfect.  For example, bouncing back implies a ‘fast’ return, quickly recovering to where we started, which is perfectly reasonable for those lighter adversities but less so for something like the loss of someone close.  Even with great skill, recovery may take some time, and that’s normal.

Reconfiguration refers to the growth we may go through while dealing with adversity. It’s common for people to describe that although they wouldn’t choose to go through their difficulty or wish it on anyone else, now they are different.  Somehow stronger, more skilled than before, or with a better appreciation for the value of life.  I used to wish I could have this kind of growth without going through adversity, but I’m not sure it works like that!

If you are currently going through adversity, and many of us are, I find it helpful to appreciate that growth is a possible outcome and even asking ourselves, ‘how can I grow from this?’ If it seems insensitive, or your answer is ‘I can’t’ then it might be too early, or the question needs phrasing differently.

And finally, we get to Resistance.  The image this suggests for me is an oak tree – majestic and solid.  But even the mighty oak will flex and move in the wind.  The core may look solid, made more so by its growth through adversity from a sapling, but the leaves and branches still flex, and forces still create strain through the roots.  For me, this describes how we may have developed skills, mindsets and resources – the three aspects that I suggest make up resilience – that allow us to work with difficulty and continue to function well in the face of adversity.

One of those skills, for example, is our ability to work with unpleasant emotions rather than them working us.  Blocking out emotion, which for many is the epitome of toughness, is rarely a helpful long-term strategy.  Having the skills to face and feel unpleasant emotions, working with them and responding wisely is a real resilience skill – and a fundamental one.  It helps us to be flexible, see options, function, and perhaps learn from our adversity.

Business consultant Tom Peter suggests that business leaders often consider the hard stuff of finances to be the bottom line, the fundamentals of business.  When the actual hard stuff is what we often call the soft stuff, how we treat our customers and staff, the consideration we put into our services – it’s the bottom line that’s soft, totally dependent hard stuff of working with people.  He coined the phrase “Soft is hard.  Hard is soft,” which is a perfect analogy here – the soft stuff of emotions, for example, is actually the hard stuff of resilience.

It’s not toughness we develop; it’s skills, mindsets, and resources for working effectively with adversity – as, if you reflect, you already know.