Are There Downsides to Resilience?


Can too much Resilience be a bad thing?

Resilience can be defined as the learned ability to bounce back, and how to bounce forward, in response to adversity and challenge.

The virtues of such attributes have been championed since Nietzsche and Plato, both referring to resilience as a process that would make you stronger because experiencing painful events allows you to discover your true self.

However, when taken too far, the concept of resilience can indeed become a ‘bad thing’. Even adaptive skills can become maladaptive when pushed to extremes. Below are some examples of when ‘too much’ resilience becomes problematic.

Choosing toxic positivity

Excessive optimism can be confused as resilience. Resilient people recognise difficult life experiences and accept the negative feelings associated with these experiences. Truly resilient people hold varying perspectives about an uncertain situation. Alternatively, toxic positivity demands you focus on the positive and act like nothing is wrong.

Putting pressure on ourselves to always be positive can cause us to discount reality and the things that are creating worry or stress. We deny any negative feelings, reactions, or experiences, telling ourselves, “You should be grateful for what you have”.

Categorising emotions as either positive or negative disregards the fact that all emotions can be useful and healthy, even the negative ones. Emotions have wisdom. They tell us that something important in our life needs attention. It is the way we express emotions that can be harmful.

Phrases like, “Just be positive!” exacerbate toxic positivity. Always being positive is often regarded as the ultimate default state. It suggests there must be something wrong with us if we’re ever unhappy.

Being happy all the time, despite everything, comes at a cost. It invalidates the human experience and can lead to trauma and unhealthy coping mechanisms.

Setting unrealistic goals

Using resilience to overcome a predicament is often described as ‘bouncing back’ to a normal state of functioning. However, in many cases, this could be intolerable or even impossible. People get stuck in a perpetual loop of trying to re-establish their ‘old lives’.

Someone who has been severely injured or suffered a harrowing illness might challenge themselves to restore their previous standards of well-being as quickly as possible. When they realise this is an impossible task, they struggle to accept the ‘new normal’, feeling constantly frustrated and unable to move forward.

When someone is stuck on how their situation ‘should be’, they are incapable of acknowledging the options available to them. A more helpful approach is to recognise that we exist in perpetual change. Accepting reality lets people adapt their minds and bodies to cope with adverse changes more easily.

Persisting without purpose

We’ve all heard the saying, “go big or go home”, but persisting with goals that are unattainable is less effective in the long run than adjusting your goals to be more realistic from the outset. If this means you eventually ‘give up’, it does not make you a quitter.

Resilience can lead people to push forward with false hope and waste a huge amount of time and energy persisting with activities that have no purpose. If past experiences indicate you can’t achieve a certain goal the way you’ve gone about it to date, it’s better to adjust your strategy. If not, you’re just wasting time and energy. Excessive resilience tends to go hand in hand with overconfidence and unsupported optimism.

Being dismissive

Adults can often use resilience to disregard a child’s struggles. The claim that children should be resilient can be used to mask the real problem, resulting in inaction by the adult when in fact the child requires support.

Resilience can also be used dismissively toward other adults. Have you ever been told to, “just buck up” or “you can do this” or “you’re so strong”. Adults can criticise each other for not being stronger when times are tough.

While it may still be a compliment to tell someone they are resilient, it can also be a sign that you’re feeling squeamish about seeing someone else suffer, so it’s easier just to tell them, “You’ve got this”.

It would be more effective and helpful to highlight specific aspects of resilience the person is clearly demonstrating, such as eating well or getting a good night’s sleep.

Tolerating adversity

Being ‘too’ resilient can also make people put up with negative situations for a long time. It can result in people staying in unsatisfying jobs or dealing with bad bosses for far longer than they should.

A study by the Australian College of Applied Professions found three in ten (29%) — the equivalent of 3.4 million Australian workers — ‘dislike’ their manager. With 53% of workers previously working from home during the pandemic holding grave concerns about once again interacting with their manager/boss in the workplace.

However, the real issue here is that people seem to ignore these fundamental instincts and push on regardless. While there is an increasing number of job opportunities now, job tenure still tends to be stable over time. This could be the result of misdirected resilience, at least for the workers that are truly unhappy in their jobs.

Harshly judging yourself or others

A prevailing myth about resilience is that something must be wrong with someone if they can’t adjust and adapt quickly following a difficult event. Expecting someone to be stronger or more resilient than they are shows a lack of support. Worse, expecting yourself to be more resilient can be extremely harmful. Note: forcing yourself to be more resilient does not build resilience.

As humans we need time to adapt to change, inevitable as it is. Resilience stops being beneficial when it’s used as a weapon to make someone feel like they’ve failed. Being kinder and more understanding of yourself and others will provide the necessary support when difficult times arise.

Inhibiting leadership effectiveness

Excessive resilience can stop leaders from being as effectual as they can be. A lack of personal understanding can be harmful not only to the individual but often filters through to the team and even the whole organisation.

A manager might consider himself resilient but may resist change if he/she doesn’t want to do things in new ways. This can result in the whole team and organisation being dragged down with old-fashioned practices and ideas.

When facing a challenge, some leaders become fearless and detached. They become aggressive to protect themselves from emotional harm.

This approach can artificially inflate their egos, making them less self-aware and, in the worst case, incapable of maintaining a realistic view of their actions. An accurate assessment of self is essential to the development of one’s leadership talent and career potential.

Courageous leaders often overestimate their performance and leadership abilities and are oblivious to their limitations. The result is an inability to adapt to changing circumstances. The leader becomes rigid and resistant to information that could prove instrumental in fixing his/her own behavioural issues. Success is underpinned by denial when it is self-enhancement that drives resilience.

The Springfox perspective

Foundational to our training is the development of impulse control, empathy and emotional literacy. Our objective is to build a holistic skill set that equips leadership with insight (self-awareness), mastery (growth), empathy (connection) and influence (momentum).

A leader should be resilient, but it’s not enough: they need to possess integrity and put the group’s success before their own.

Resilience is a highly adaptive and useful trait, especially in the face of adversity. However, it can make people fixate on an impossible goal or excessively tolerant of a counterproductive or unpleasant situation.

Keep well.

Please note: This article is republished with the permission of the Resilience Institute—our global research partner.

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