Stop Telling Me I’m Resilient: Why It’s Harmful, Not Helpful
Reinforcing resilience can send the message that it is unacceptable to be weak.
I don’t look like what I’ve been through.
This old adage is thrown around often as an expression of gratitude for overcoming life’s toughest trials and tribulations, and managing to look fabulous at the same damn time. The cliché, though, doesn’t account for the internal toll “going through it” can take, or what effects consistent subjection to stressful experiences can have on mental health and well-being.
I can attest to this because nothing in my life has come easy. My childhood is laced with traumatic memories and experiences that have followed me into adulthood. One of the most daunting is generational poverty, a circumstance I, despite my greatest efforts, can’t seem to escape. The chronic stress associated with long-term poverty has meant I’ve had to claw my way through mounting adversity, and commit myself to the proverbial “twice as good” mindset for what typically amounts to minimal reward. More often than not, I make it through without adequate support because I’ve already proven time and time again that I have an insurmountable ability to make lemon meringue pie out of lemons—and I don’t need a sous-chef to help me do it.
But what many people don’t realize is that these constant struggles and never-ending battles have left me exhausted. I feel the fight in me depleting as my emotions range from loneliness, anger, frustration, guilt, fear and unsupportiveness, to just plain old tired—mentally, emotionally and physically. And as I feel these sentiments and come to terms with the notion that I, too, have a breaking point, I want to be able to experience and honor all of them without repetitions of how resilient and strong I am in the midst. These reminders from family and friends I know are well-meaning and meant to emphasize my proven survivability, but they aren’t helpful at all. In fact, responding to my pain with an acknowledgment of my resilience is actually quite harmful.
Resilience is portrayed as a positive and desirable character trait because it is indicative of strength, commitment and perseverance through the most dire of circumstances. Surviving such conditions seemingly unscathed equates to resilience; therefore, those who do not survive, be it because of suicide or chronic mental health concerns, can be labeled as non-resilient. But such a simplification serves as both a minimization and normalization of traumatic, chronically stressful experiences. Further, it perpetuates the vicious and problematic cycle, for black women especially, that glorifies unrealistic, super-human capacity to withstand any, and all obstacles set before us. We should not be celebrating it.
We should, however, ask ourselves at what costs resilience comes? For far too many, the payments we make to maintain our strength and a grasp on resilience come in the form of various mental and physical health ailments.
So, we must be mindful of and think more critically about the effects of reveling in resilience so that we may gain deeper understanding of how damaging it can actually be. When my emotional responses to my struggles are policed through reinforcement of my resilience, the message I receive is that it is unacceptable for me to be weak. I cannot feel tired, drained or like I want to give up. And it’s not OK. The burden that is required to carry on such unrealistic expectations of strength isn’t one I want to be subjected to any longer. Reminders of my strength or of how much I’ve already survived and accomplished despite my circumstances don’t, in any way, glorify the struggle. But they do set in motion an agonizing cycle of delegitimizing painful experiences for the sake of maintaining a discourse around resilience that preserves society’s status quo. In doing so, it makes me wonder if, perhaps, #BlackGirlMagic has been taken too literally. I can’t wave a wand and make all my problems go away. I’m human. I will cry. I will ache. I will feel. And, in due time, I will rise beyond it. But we don’t need to rush the process.