You Should Rethink What It Means to be Resilient

Note: I asked my Twitter followers what topic they’d most like to read about here in The Huffington Post. I received many wonderful suggestions. Twitter user and fellow psychiatrist @shrinkydinkmd suggested discussing some of the myths surrounding resilience. Thank you @shrinkydinkmd for your wonderful topic suggestion!

I was born into a family of women who endured a lot. By “a lot”, I mean lots of pain, lots of trauma, lots of loss and lots of suffering. Outwardly though, the women in my family appeared largely unfazed by all the stuff life had thrown at them. They seemed to always just quickly move forward, hardship after hardship, with their “strong black woman” capes flapping magnificently in the wind. Maybe when they were children the women in my family concluded that no one cared about their tears or their pain or their heartache. Maybe they concluded there was no time to be sad because they needed to focus all of their efforts on surviving.

Whatever their reasons, this became my model for what it meant to be a resilient child and a resilient woman. I carried this supergirl and later, superwoman complex with me for many years, rapidly hurdling hardship after hardship until it was simply no longer sustainable for me. At that point, I had to begin redefining for myself what it means and what it does not mean to be resilient. I discovered that for years I had unnecessarily burdened myself with an unrealistic, flawed ideal of resiliency.

Here are 3 things that I used to believe were required of me in order to be resilient:

Myth #1: Being resilient means that you can and must “overcome” anything.

For many years I believed that being resilient meant I had to be able to “get over” and “overcome” absolutely anything that life threw my way. What I’ve learned is that just because someone has a high level of resilience in response to a particular life event, doesn’t mean that person is universally resilient to and unaffected by all of life’s obstacles. For example, just because you could recover and rebuild your life after your relationship ended doesn’t necessarily mean that you could as readily rebuild your life in the same way if you faced a different type of trauma. Recognizing that being resilient doesn’t mean that I must “bounce back” from everything with the same degree of elasticity has been an incredibly freeing revelation for me.

Myth #2: Being resilient means you always bounce back immediately.

For many years I also believed that being resilient meant I had to not only be able to overcome anything, but I had to be able to do it quickly, within a matter of hours or days sometimes. Sounds wretchedly exhausting, doesn’t it? I can confess that it absolutely is. Thankfully, I eventually learned that recovery and healing from trauma is rarely immediate but instead often gradually unfolds over time. Prior to me having a revelation about what it means to be resilient, I used to think that if something terrible happened to me on Monday, I should have somehow “risen above it” by the end of the week. Giving myself the space, time and grace to recover from life’s obstacles without the internal pressure to bounce back right away has been very liberating for me.

Myth #3: Being resilient means you don’t require help from others.

This is yet another damaging myth about what it means to be resilient that I internalized at a young age through observing and interacting with the women around me. Not only did I believe that being resilient meant I had to be able to overcome anything and do so immediately, but also that I had to be able to overcome anything largely on my own. Thankfully I discovered that this idea was unrealistic, untrue and simply unsustainable. Asking for or needing help in recovering from a difficult experience is normal and is healthy. You aren’t any less strong because you need assistance from others in recovering from something that has happened in your life.

It’s time for us to all begin challenging these myths and rethinking what it really means to be resilient.

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