Some individuals are exceptionally resilient. When life knocks them down, they bounce back quickly. They refuse to let failure or hurt or loss overwhelm them. Instead, they cope and adapt and forge on. They inspire us. But part of me is troubled that a Google search for the term “resilience” yielded 21,900,000 hits.
Don’t get me wrong. I know bad stuff happens. As Hemingway said, “The world breaks everyone, and afterward some are strong in the broken places.” I want to be as strong in the broken places as the next person. So, what could be bad about fostering resilience?
Red rubber ball. The term “resilience” was first used in 17th century physics to describe the ability of an object to absorb and then release energy when deformed elastically. The quintessential rubber ball. Subjected to a blunt force, it will deform and then rebound to its original shape. The psychological extension of the term is a metaphor. We are resilient when we recover quickly or easily from some misfortune, shock, illness, etc.
From pre-school to c-suite. Hundreds of training programs, thousands of books, and millions of dollars are devoted each year to promoting, researching and teaching resilience for little kids on up to corporate executives. When bad things happen we are called on to be resilient. Of course, it is good to be resilient at such moments – like having an emergency generator when a storm knocks out your regular energy supply. But the emergency generator should not be running all the time.
Unintended consequences. Despite good intentions, focusing on developing resilient individuals can be risky business. Many argue that the “rhetoric of resilience” actually keeps low income and disadvantaged communities down. By fostering resilience, we run the risk of suggesting that people in disadvantaged communities just need to learn to bounce back in response to a lack of resources, racism, or inequality for example. And focusing on individual skills building in such contexts may assist some, but it will never tip the scale in terms of getting to underlying systemic issues.
Allostatic load. This is a fancy term for the physiological wear and tear on the body as a result of chronic stress. Resilient individuals are able to manage despite high allostatic load, but at some point, everyone’s capacity to cope breaks down. We know that childhood trauma can impact gene expression and affect the brain’s systems that control reactions to stress and information processing. Such biological changes can greatly impact our capacity to cope and be resilient, reminding us that much of the responsibility for successful human development rests on the shoulders of policy makers, not on teaching individual children or their families to be resilient.
Too much resilience? Yes, even when it comes to resilience there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. Overemphasis on resilience runs the risk of making us unnecessarily tolerant of unpleasant or counterproductive circumstances. At a personal level, too much resilience can be part of staying in an abusive relationship, for example. In the workplace, people can actually be too resilient for their own good and tolerate poor working conditions. And at a societal level, resilience may serve to help individuals escape from systemic inequalities but will do little to change the big picture.
We develop resilience through hardship. We all face hardships in our lives, and as Seneca said more than 2000 years ago, “difficulties strengthen the mind, as labor does the body.” Let’s just watch out for the downside.