For most of my life, appearing resilient was such a priority that it manifested as not asking for help, avoiding having needs so I wouldn’t be a burden, and not feeling too much. By my late teens, I wore these traits like a badge of honour. I’d boast about my ability to shove down something for a few months until it felt safe to deal with it. I’d swallow hurts and then forget that I buried them, and then throw more on top.
When I became seriously ill in my late twenties with an autoimmune disease, I didn’t tell HR for eighteen months and tried to act as if everything was normal. I rarely took time off, stayed late to ‘make up’ for having appointments, pushed myself to perform, and kept up my social life.
I also started each day screaming in agony as I forced my body to ignore the inflammation in my joints. At one point, I was in danger of losing my sight in one eye. Yep, still soldiering on. I didn’t want people to think I was ‘weak’ or ‘not a team player’. I also didn’t want the disease to own me. I’d cry in the bathroom stalls each day and then tell myself to ‘Buck up!’ and ‘Put on a brave face’.
I’d learned to regard strength as not depending on anyone too much but being utterly dependable at the same time. Of course, if we try to be all things to all people, we can’t be anything to ourselves. This depletes our self-esteem, and we become like a house that doesn’t have enough insulation and protection to weather the elements. Sure, I was ‘strong’, but I achieved this by ignoring the very intuition I needed to weather life and take care of me. I was so disconnected from myself that I didn’t have the energy or ability to be genuinely open and vulnerable.
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Resilience is vital to living consciously and happily, but it’s hugely misunderstood. Too many of us grew up in a time where admitting that we are struggling and even letting ourselves be imperfect (read: human) were seen as no-nos. We’re still paying for this legacy. Resilience and stoicism are often confused with ‘strength’ created from the absence of feelings and appearing Teflon-coated even as life seems to be going belly-up around us.
We want the outside world to see how well we are coping even when it feels like we’re dying inside. This misunderstanding means that we confuse our responses as ‘weaknesses’. We think that there’s something wrong with us when our recovery takes longer than we’ve predicted. Nope, we’re human, and it takes time to work through issues which we haven’t processed yet.
Ironically, the more we pride ourselves on being strong, the more baggage we can build up and the tougher it can become to bounce back. Yes, value resilience. Value being stoic in the face of life’s challenges, but don’t confuse these facets of strength for wearing a mask. The answer to life’s challenges isn’t to shut down but to open up. As soon as I admitted what was really going on with me and dropped the mask, life (and me) started getting better. I could support me properly and allow myself to receive help from others too.
All humans have, and will experience, what I call life’s inevitables (stress, conflict, criticism, loss), but how much these impact our wellbeing, relationships and quality of life comes from how well we treat and regard ourselves. There is, of course, strength in putting our feelings aside and going into work when what we really want to do is hide from the world.
And there’s also strength in acknowledging signs that we are over our bandwidth and that we need to slow down, say no, or yes, go to the doctor. Sometimes we do have to soldier on, but we can be human at the same time.