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  • Emily Mathison

Is modern day resilience discourse bullshit?

Updated: Aug 7

You create the storm, and I have to build the shelter?


Resilience has become a bit of a buzzword. Governments speak to resilient systems and defence, parenting books speak to raising resilient kids, endless check-lists give you ‘10 easy ways to become more resilient’. So with all the challenges and adversity in the world lately, we decided to take a closer look at what some of the most popular advice-givers are saying. 


Modern day resilience discourse often encourages overcoming adversity through adaptation or integration of hardship into our personal narratives.

And for the sake of not tackling the entire topic of resilience in one blog post, let’s focus our lens on resilience more to systemic and societal inequalities (see: racism, sexism, income disparity), and less to personal tragedy (like the loss of a parent or child, or a car accident). 


Modern day resilience discourse often encourages overcoming adversity through adaptation or integration of hardship into our personal narratives. It says that as we face hard times, we should take them in and we will grow stronger as a result. 


Eric Greitens, author of Resilience: Hard-Won Wisdom for Living a Better Life, says that we don’t bounce back from adversity; rather we integrate experiences of hardship into our lives to become stronger. Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant, in their book Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, describe resilience as a muscle that must be exercised against adversity and built up over time. And her most honourable, Brené Brown, defines resilience as, “all about tolerance for discomfort.” 


Are these views helpful or harmful?


While these educated philosophies certainly hold value for many, what are we really saying when we charge individuals with strengthening a resilience muscle, integrating their hardships into their lives, or being tolerant of hardship? Who bears responsibility?


As we see it, these perspectives raise two issues: They (1) create a damaging norm or expectation of resilience, and (2) they present hardships as obligatory experiences which the individual carries the onus of overcoming


The norm of resilience is a tricky one. While you could argue that a resilient response is the norm—a societal expectation of resilience risks feelings of inadequacy when we inevitably fall short. Because that’s the thing about resilience, you often don’t feel it right off the bat. We don’t lose our job and immediately say (especially in 2020), “Fun! I can’t wait to apply for unemployment benefits and begin a grueling job hunt. Oh the character I will build!”. 


First, we must often process stages of grief and a loss of control. Then resilience comes after, as you work to survive (and thrive). So when that magic resilience juice doesn’t kick in right away, we may be left wondering what’s wrong with us. 


Individualistic western culture ties responsibility for happiness and achievements to the individuals. So, when it comes to resilience, this can be problematic. 

However, the greater issue of the two is placing the responsibility of resilience on the individual, rather than pushing back against societal forces that disadvantage and oppress. 


Individualistic western culture ties responsibility for happiness and achievements to the individual. So when it comes to resilience, this can be problematic. This puts the duty of recovering from setbacks on the person who has been negatively impacted, while ignoring unequal systems and institutions which unfairly disadvantage the individual. 


Resilience discourse outsources the work of addressing, surviving, and coping with the harms of systemic, institutionalized inequality to private individuals.

Philosophy professor and author, Robin James argues, “Resilience discourse treats trauma and crisis as compulsory experiences. In turn, this lets society off the hook for systematic problems like poverty, climate change, and sexism. Resilience discourse outsources the work of addressing, surviving, and coping with the harms of systemic, institutionalized inequality to private individuals. If you still feel the negative effects of, say, sexism, it’s your fault because you’re just not resilient enough.”


Robin goes on to say that this individualistic approach absolves society of allocating resources to repair harms done and prevent future inequities. Furthermore, she says, if adversity and trauma are compulsory and pervasive, then individuals who benefit from a privileged starting point will have more resources to recover from setbacks and enjoy more successful outcomes. This, of course, will leave those without a wealth of resources unsupported, facing poorer outcomes and a higher likelihood of being caught in systemic inequity cycles. 


By suggesting that we integrate experiences of hardship into our personal stories, or seek resilience muscle ‘gains’, individuals are prompted to internalize systemic inequalities. These theories also beg that the spaces we occupy resign us to particular obligatory injustices. 


This approach to resilience is harmful. While resilience is an essential characteristic, we believe individuals are better served by exhibiting it through the development of strategies to overcome adversity, so that they can put the onus back on unjust systems, institutions and beliefs on the other side.


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Until next week.

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