Resilience: Its not what you think

I don’t often tell people about the kind of psychology I do.  It’s not that I’m not proud of it, but because it is generally misunderstood. When I tell people my work involves applying positive psychology and building resilience in the workplace, they usually look at me like I’m a flake.  It seems they picture me facilitating group hugs and Kumbaya sing alongs.  

Positive psychology has gotten a bad rap in the last few years, as has the happiness movement.  Many people argue that this ‘Polly-Anna positivity’ is just ignoring the real world.  That the pressure to be happy all the time is unrealistic.  In fact, the pressure to be happy just makes them feel even more miserable.  I don’t disagree.  But I do think we have misunderstood what positive psychology is really about.

Positive psychology is the shift where we took the tools, resources and bank of research developed to help those with diagnosable mental illness and asked: ‘How could this benefit a broader range of people?’.  For a very long time, psychology invested intensely in research and development of treatments for depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses, but didn’t consider the other 80% of the population.  How could they benefit people who were simply going through a tough time?  How could they help those who were functioning ‘okay’ to function even better?  Importantly, positive psychology involves a shift in how we think about mental health.  A shift from an illness model, to a wellness model.

There aren’t ‘those people over there’ who are mentally unwell, and the rest of us over here. Mental health is not categorical – it is more like a continuum.  With about one in five Australians having a diagnosable mental illness at any one time, and about one in three experiencing mental illness at some point in their lives, it’s definitely not ‘us’ and ‘them’.  I personally have experienced mental illness, and so have many of the most successful people I know.  You can’t identify mental illness – past or present – just from looking at someone.

Our mental health is not fixed.  It’s a lot like our physical health.  We can think of our physical health as sitting somewhere on a continuum, through ‘ill and injured’ to ‘elite athlete’, with a huge range in between.  In addition, our physical health can change over time.   Just because we are in great health today, doesn’t mean we won’t experience illness and injury in the future. Conversely, just because we are ill and injured today doesn’t mean we will stay here permanently.  Just like our physical health, our mental health sits somewhere along a continuum and it changes over time. We may not be experiencing a diagnosable mental illness to be feeling far from our mental health best.  

Resilience skills are the toolkit we learn and develop to help improve our mental health and mental fitness, wherever we are on the continuum.  To get from ‘wobbly’ to ‘ok’, or from ‘ok’ to ‘good’, or even from ‘good’ to ’great’.  Resilience is any and everything that we do to improve our mental health and fitness. Ask someone what they do for their physical health and fitness, and they usually list a few strategies right of the top of their head – like eat baby spinach (even if they don’t like it), or go to cross fit (even if it is torture!). But ask someone what they do to maintain good mental health and fitness, and they often struggle to list even one strategy. Oh, except alcohol – it’s often the first thing people mention (even though it is probably one of the most ineffective strategies, unfortunately!).

Resilience is the ability to bounce back from adversity, and hopefully even learn a thing or two from it so we are better equipped for the next challenge.  That doesn’t mean we just smile, shrug our shoulders and say ‘best thing that ever happened to me’ straight away.  It often involves periods of blaming others, wallowing in self-pity, drowning our sorrows in our indulgence of choice, giving up and finally – after all of that – learning something from it.  It may take two days or two decades, but we learn something from it.  Resilience isn’t easy, and it’s often painful.  But we know its resilience because our circle of comfort grows (eventually) rather than shrinking.

Although we may have a predisposition to high or low resilience from genetics, past experience and our current environment, we all have the capacity to learn the skills of resilience.  These include being present in the moment, rather than wrapped up in past worries or future anxiety.  Having the capacity to recognise and monitor stress in our bodies, and having strategies to self-regulate to ‘bring ourselves down’ when it all gets too much.  Being able to shift perspective, to recognise and remedy illogical and painful thinking patterns, and to work with over-powering emotions.  

Resilience isn’t positive thinking, and it isn’t excessive pressure to be happy.  Resilience is gritty and messy and real, and it includes times of sadness, anger and fear.  That’s what I teach in my training sessions in workplaces and that’s why I love being a psychologist in this space.  We all go through tough times and we all move up and down along the mental health continuum.  For this reason, resilience skills are for everyone.  Resilience training helps all team members to bolster and care for their mental health and fitness, regardless of where they may currently be on the continuum, so they can contribute at their best in the workplace.

Within Consulting offer a range of coaching, consulting, leadership and team workshop services.  For more information, contact Tamara Baker at tamara@withinconsulting.com.au or Miriam Yates at miriam@withinconsulting.com.au.