The 7 myths of resilience

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Resilience and mindfulness seem to be all the rage.

It's true that resilience is essential for success in most walks of life. But depending on what you read, great confusion can result about what it is, and how to develop it.

Here are 7 common myths about resilience:

Myth 1Resilience is about bouncing back

If you ask friends and acquaintances how they would define the term resilience, their answer would almost certainly involve some form of ‘bouncing back.’ Indeed, a recent FT article on resilience by the Shrink and the Sage used this definition, referring to the elastic nature of resilience.

Resilience is NOT about bouncing back, which suggests some form of swift recovery after a setback or trauma. We have probably all experienced at least one trauma in life, and most of us will have recovered. Resilience reflects the ability to flourish, where we are unperturbed by setbacks in life, or even psychologically grow through them.

Myth 2Resilient people exist

Believing that some people are resilient, and others not, implies that resilience is a personality trait. In the early days of resilience research this was generally believed to be the case. Over the last 20 years or so the understanding among academics is that resilience is not about personality.

If something is trait-like, this suggests it is permanent and cannot be changed. This is bad news for those of us who do not possess such a trait, because either we have it or we don’t. Fortunately, this is not relevant to resilience. In fact, talking about ‘resilient people’ is also incorrect, as is the belief that you can ‘make yourself resilient.’

More accurate is that people behave and think in ways that lead to resilient outcomes. These ways of thinking vary across time and are context dependent. To this extent, resilience is understood to be a process involving how a person interacts with their environment.

Myth 3 - You only need resilience when life gets tough

Of course, certain moments in our lives require more resilience than others. Yet demonstrating resilience involves having a certain mindset and utilizing a specific set of skills. As with any skill, you must practice.

Practicing ‘resilience skills’ not only provides people with a confidence and fortitude that they can cope when life gets tough. It also helps people flourish and be proactive in their day-to-day lives. Change can be painful – developing resilience skills helps when responding to and when having to enact change.

Myth 4 - Resilience is unusual

The term absent grief refers to the absence of prolonged distress following the death of a friend or loved one. Bereavement theorists have previously considered there to be something wrong with adults who experience this. They were considered to be in denial, or using avoidance as a coping mechanism (usually considered to be unhealthy). The assumption is that these people are cold and unemotional.

It may be that such people are in denial. However, studies have shown that many people may experience little grief yet not be cold in any way. They may be perfectly healthy (psychologically), and the fact that they do not experience prolonged distress or may even experience positive emotions is a sign of them thinking and behaving in ways that foster resilience.

The reality is that resilience is common. We all have resources that allow us to adapt to, and prepare for the challenges life’s rocky road. We are also able to learn specific skills that will lead to resilient outcomes.

Myth 5 - Resilience = mental toughness

Incorrect. These two terms are not synonymous, not least because academic scholars are yet to agree on what mental toughness actually is! As Hugh Richards of Edinburgh University has stated, we all think we know what mental toughness is, but a clear definition is elusive. Despite various researchers finding similar attributes, there is as yet no shared understanding of what this term means.

Although mental toughness is an everyday term, failure to define what we mean by it creates some real problems. For a start, how do we train people to develop it? In most likelihood, mental toughness is a euphemism for several different well-established psychological constructs that can be trained, such as regulating our thoughts and feelings.

Myth 6 - Resilience means ‘manning up’

The implication here is that you have to suppress negative emotions, or become less sensitive to emotions. Don’t do this. Resilience is about experiencing all of life’s emotions, the unwanted ones and the desirable ones. Many of us try not to feel the unpleasant ones, which paradoxically reduces resilience. The challenge is to experience unpleasant emotions in their rich diversity without being controlled by them.

Myth 7 - Resilience is about people, not teams

Although it is commonly referred to when describing how individuals cope with adversity in their lives, resilience is absolutely relevant to groups. A team is able to show resilience in a way quite separate to how its individuals demonstrate their own resilience. Certain factors affect group dynamics that influence how teams respond to adversity.

Resilience may appear quite abstract at the organisational level. Yet it is critically important. Organisational progress is dynamic, with various market forces constantly challenging a firm’s strategic advantage. Understanding how to adapt in the face of, and more importantly, in advance of changes to their competitive environment are key challenges facing all organisations.

Although organisations and teams are comprised of individuals, when it comes to resilience, a sole focus on the individual would be misplaced. Some resilience processes operate uniquely at the group level. Indeed, as a construct, resilience manifests itself differently at the individual, team or organizational level.

Paul Berry is a Director of Human Performance Science Ltd

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