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Resilience: What it Is, and What it Is Not

Imagine someone you consider resilient. You might envision a strong individual with unwavering resolve, someone who remains steadfast and unyielding, akin to the hero in a classic cowboy film, reminiscent of a character like John Wayne.

This image of resilience isn’t just outdated, it is incorrect, too.

Resilience Is:

Not Just an Individual Trait –
Those old cowboy movies would have you believe it is exclusively about ‘one person against the world’, but this denies the social, cultural, and environmental factors that contribute to a person’s resilience (or lack thereof).

Instead, it is also about Community –
No one lives in a vacuum; we are all members of a community. Our surrounding social contexts provide us with support in innumerable ways. Anything from actions as small as doing the dishes when visiting a friend’s house, to actions as large as helping to plan a funeral.

Not About Bouncing Back –
While the ability to bounce back after a stressful or challenging incident is admirable, it might not even be a feature of resilience. Thinking back to 2020 and the lockdowns, once the pandemic was seen to be over everyone was pushing to ‘get back to normal’.

Instead, it is About Adapting –
We have not returned to ‘normal’ after the pandemic, instead, we have reached a sort of equilibrium – a ‘new normal’. Masking is becoming more commonplace, many stores and restaurants here in South Africa still sport the bottle of hand sanitiser at the entrance, and remote working has become far more popular. We didn’t ‘bounce back’, because we learned new things and adapted. We have ‘bounced forward’.

Not About Endurance Alone –
‘Grin and bear it’, ‘knuckle down and do it’ are phrases often associated with resilience. Both phrases ask us to ignore problems and simply ‘push through’.

Instead, it is About Relying on Others –
Resilience is more about emotional flexibility, adaptiveness, and seeking support. Resilient individuals are more likely to recognize their limits and weaknesses, ask for help when needed, and speak freely about their emotions.

Not a Fixed Trait –
Resilience is often thought of as a trait people either do or don’t have, almost like talent, a thing you are born with or without – and with no way to change.

Instead, it is a Learned Skill –
Life is all about learning and growing. Much of the learning process is about stepping out of your comfort zone and facing some kind of adversity, feeling some sort of discomfort. In the same way a person can learn to paint, anyone can learn to acknowledge their pain and struggles, working on their courage, passion, and adaptability, and develop resilience in the process.

The primary obstacles to resilience for anyone are fear and shame. Our society often shames people for asking for help, and many fear the repercussions of that shame.

Resilience is about vulnerability, authenticity, being open to understanding our strengths, weaknesses, and limitations, and relying on our connections with others. Most importantly, it is about navigating harsh circumstances.