Many of us have an image of resilience as the ability to spring back, remaining optimistic and positive in the face of setbacks. We imagine resilient people as being strong, unbeatable, and filled with inner resources and unflagging determination, effortlessly and on demand. In short: We imagine resilient people as being different from us.
But resilience is different for everyone. If your path back from grief, illness, disappointment, or simply navigating this challenging time feels like a struggle, it doesn’t mean you’re not resilient. It means you’re human.
The Lancet medical journal reports that, since the COVID-19 pandemic began, there have been 76.2 million more cases of anxiety and 53.2 million more cases of depression globally. If you’re going through a rough patch — whether occasionally or daily — you’re certainly not alone.
And when you’re struggling, it doesn’t help to hear words like, “Stay positive!”, “Power through!”, or “Stay strong — you’ll be fine!”.
While well-intentioned, these “encouraging” phrases can make us doubt ourselves and feel bad about our inability to cope. Instead, we must reimagine resilience and understand that resilience does not mean feeling great all the time.
Moments of feeling defeated, frustrated, or utterly exhausted often lead to shifting our perspectives, asking for help, engaging in problem solving, and mobilizing ourselves in new directions — as long as feelings of guilt or shame don’t get in the way.
The Power of Feeling Understood
Honoring our feelings and bravely opening up about them are essential skills of emotional resilience. It buffers us from anxiety and depression. And it makes us less defensive and more available to others.
When people we care about are struggling, we can help them by replacing “toxic positivity” with empathy, caring, and truly wanting to understand. Simple phrases like “This is so hard,” “I’m so sorry for what you’re going through,” “I can only imagine how hard this is for you,” or “I feel that way too — sometimes a lot!” can make a person feel known and heard.
In showing compassion, we don’t need to fear that we’ll make someone feel worse or amplify their difficult feelings. Human connection and the feeling of being understood can be powerful and healing.
Another strategy to support resilience and reduce fatigue is to engage your body in some kind of movement — for example, exercise, yoga, or meditation. Exercise helps to undo the tension and strain in the body that exposure to stress and upsetting memories can generate.
Vulnerability As an Act of Courage
As the pandemic wears on, we all face reduced access to services and people, an ongoing sense that things aren’t normal, and a diminished sense of control. Essential workers are struggling with burnout from working under extraordinarily difficult conditions without relief.
Each of us faces challenges, often invisible to others. Whenever we have the bandwidth to be kind, patient, or helpful to one another, it will go a long way. However small it may seem to you, it could be an encouraging pivot point in a person’s mood and outlook.
How do we deal with legions of people feeling burned out and ill-equipped to respond to each other’s distress? We can try to counter the frustration and build resilience together.
Encouraging people to offer empathetic responses when those around them are out of steam could create a positive upward spiral. The person who is in need of help would feel supported, not dismissed, and the listener would receive a sense of fulfillment for being helpful.
Remember, it’s okay to not be okay. Sharing our vulnerability is an act of courage and resiliency.
Therapists nowadays see patient after patient who wonder what’s wrong with them because they are struggling when everyone else seems to be fine. But how is everyone else, really? Let’s not add the pressure to be “fine” on top of the already extraordinary challenges we face in these unprecedented times. We are getting through; and together is truly the best, and the only, way for us to do that.
For more information about depression, self-care strategies, and where to find help, visit ibx.com/knowyourmind.A version of this post was previously published in Psychology Today.