Be sure you stand on solid ground before you stretch out your hand to grab something. unattributed/generic African proverb.

Over the past few weeks, I have had opportunities to be in conversations about resiliency—from a dialogue in a circle of leaders, to a panel conversation with Black community members at the Black Business Summit to one-on-one conversations—many at the forefront of leadership and constant change are contending with what it means to withstand the winds, storms and constant headwinds we seem to be facing in an era of polycrises. As we work through a never-ending stream of wicked problems, polarities to manage, and ever-increasing complexities, stress levels and mental health are impacted.

In this context, resiliency has begun to evoke reactivity as people ask/respond to the question of resiliency with comments such as:

  • How long can I be resilient?
  • I am tired of being resilient
  • I am not resilient, I am tired
  • I would rather not be called resilient anymore

I believe the problem here is the sense of being taken for granted as a result of the misunderstandings and false assumptions about resilience/resiliency. So in this post, I share key features of resilience that I often write and speak about, based on my work on Transformation after Trauma: The Power of Resonance, in which I document research and practice evidence to support the perspective that while the world needs resilient people and systems, we much more than that need personal and collective transformation in these times.

Myth: Resilience is synonymous with growth and/or transformation.

Resilience is often used in ways that conflate it with growth and transformation after adversity. However, the generally accepted definition of resilience is the ability to bounce back or return to an original level of psychological functioning after an event, incident, trauma trigger or stressor that causes some level of (di)stress or adversity. Developing resilience means the ability to make a comeback after a setback, not only about withstanding difficulties as it is often used (though this may be a dimension of resilience, it is psychological hardiness). Resilience is therefore about psychological elasticity, not necessarily about growth.

Response: Resilience is a necessary but insufficient condition for growth/transformation. I define transformation after a setback as the capacity to bounce forward. To attain a new and qualitatively different level of psychological functioning with greater capacity for thought/understanding/consciousness than before the adverse/traumatic event, incident, trauma trigger or stressor. Therefore, in the face of adversity, leaders and organizations must ask: How might we bounce back (develop resilience), AND bounce forward (transform the situation to prevent future adversity)?

Myth: Resilience is an static trait.

People described as resilient are seen as possessing resilience as a permanent trait– forever strong and able to absorb stress and adversity. In this way, resilience becomes a stereotype and trope and can have a dehumanizing effect for those consistently subjected to hardships and adversity. While there is truth and evidence for the common aphorism “what doesn’t kill us, makes us stronger,” continued suffering will not only erode resilience, but eventually shut down possibilities for innovation and transformation in individuals and organizations.

Response: Resilience is most accessible when we connect to others for support and in organizational context, when we work as a team or collective to overcome adversity, especially as it relates to the wicked problems and challenges of these times. We are best served when we remember, we cannot go it alone. Trying to cope alone will more likely than not keep us stuck in the trauma and downward spiral of adversity and it may take longer to work through. Reaching out for support and/or engaging in critical dialogue with others to explore and examine cognitive/emotional impacts that cause dissonance and even heightened stress is the literal precursor to transformative learning and opens up the possibility of transformation.

Myth: Resilient people will always ‘get over it.’

Resilience is thought of in popular usage as a state of adversity that we need to get over. In this thinking, adversity is a moment in time that can be completely healed from, and once healed, we will be as good as new. This could not be further from the reality. In fact, resilience may sometimes mean moving forward with traumatic impact and injuries that take a long time to heal, if at all.

Response: We know from physical healing of wounds that even the simplest wound healing follows a series of complex processes. Even though on the surface, healing may seem to have taken place, the rebuilding and strengthening of the wounded area to get to 100% may take years.  Further, from posttraumatic growth, we know that ongoing trauma symptoms or traumatic injury can continue to co-exist with growth. In other words, we often learn to ‘live with’ / cope with the enduring impacts of adversity, but it does not stop us from learning from and growing beyond our previous level of psychological functioning. This is a reminder that resilience is best understood as process and outcome together. We can still be working through healing, while acting on growth-oriented insights we have gained and continuing to contend with traumatic impacts.

So what? Now what?

So where does this leave is in this era? No matter what, humans are agentic beings. When faced with adversity and the ongoing hyper-stressors in the current context, we can choose our way forward. Our initial reaction to adverse events is likely to be stress and/or traumatic symptoms. This is normal. However, once we become aware of the impacts on our emotional/mental health, we can exercise our agency to choose. We can choose whether we are satisfied to return to status quo—which constantly calls us to bounce back to the way things are, then absorb more shocks—or we can choose to work towards transformation. To work towards transformation, we can take simple consistent actions such as: doing wellness checks/developing mindfulness, acknowledging when we need help, seeking the support we need and pursuing the process of healing as well as new and transformed outcomes for our lives. A very powerful way to seek those transformed outcomes is through remembering and developing our stories—the Resonance stories from our lives that deeply connect us to identity and purpose. When we live from Resonance, we not only develop resilience, we also develop the capacity to consistently elevate our thinking, actions and interactions, for personal and collective transformation.