The misapplication of resilience- perspectives from international staff-student observations
2022-10-20

The Online Etymology Dictionary defines resilience as with the following timelines “1620s, "act of rebounding or springing back," often of immaterial things, from Latin resiliens, present participle of resilire "to rebound, recoil," from re- "back" (see re-) + salire "to jump, leap" (see salient (adj.)). By 1824, the physical sciences field defined resilience as "elasticity, power of returning to original shape after compression, etc." From these definitions, it is interesting to note how the roots of this word were often applied to “immaterial things” in the first instance. Vernon (2004) describes how resilience science has entered the realm of psychology via the “serendipitous” union of two fields, child psychiatry and developmental psychology. Vernon (2004) outlines that both areas had become fascinated by the negative aspects of adversity in their unique ways. However, early child psychiatry research primarily drew this intrigue from its longstanding Freud assumption that early adverse experiences result in adult psychopathology. John Bowlby, an eminent British psychologist, laid the foundation for systemic research in this area in the 50s. By the ’70s, more profound work in resilience began to arise (Vernon, 2004). Ok, did I know all this before writing this article? Certainly not! But I have been meaning to find out the timeline with the “latest obsession” for resilience. Is it the COVID pandemic or trying to build up after the 2-year lockdown? I first encountered the word used in academia in a seminar some years ago. A study on youth in school comparing the UK to non-UK students and academic outcomes was presented. Specifically, they highlighted a case study of a visiting foreign student where “they had tried all they could” to get this foreign student to “integrate”, but all their efforts were futile. The only time this individual “came alive” was when they could speak to their family based in another European country. Somehow, these presenters had concluded this individual was “not resilient”, hence their poor outcomes at school. Most of the audience were apprehensive about the conclusion, and most of us were discussing during the break if “all” elements of consideration had truly been covered before such comparisons or conclusions were made. Long story short, we found out from one of the researchers that this person returned to their home country somewhere in Europe. Most of their colleagues who had “tried to get the student to integrate” were also part of those who bullied them consistently. We later found out that the case study of interest was fleeing a hostile situation and a distant relative felt perhaps a change of country would help but sadly, they were preoccupied with the family and friends they had left in their home country as well as a lack of sense of belonging here in the UK. I began to wonder how many in that school, whether UK or non-UK, were going through similar experiences. How many had an intersection of dysfunction or disadvantage? What consideration, representation or other support was given? Resilience seemed to quiet down for a while after that, and when it did come up occasionally, the issue of toxic positivity came up as a proxy for it.

Quintero and Long (2019) define toxic positivity as the “excessive and ineffective overgeneralisation of a happy, optimistic state across all situations. It results in the denial, minimisation, and invalidation of the authentic human emotional experience”. The authors opine that, like anything overdone, positivity becomes toxic when used to cover up or silence the human experience. I agree with this view, given that as humans, we are not “immaterial things” as defined by the root word for resilience above. We are intelligent but also sentient- full of thought and emotion. A well-rounded human should be able to have a balance of both concepts. Like the UK weather has roughly four seasons, there are seasons of life where things may not go well. We owe it to ourselves to grieve, destress, burn off the steam, empty the tear ducts, etc. It is OK to have down moments but not remain there. It is not OK or safe to be the “strong, independent person” 24.7. Humans are also social animals- we have moments where we thrive with our friends, family or loved ones as a support system and vice versa. Toxic positivity takes away that sense of interdependence. It gives the false sense that resilience is the answer to everything. Like Quintero and Long (2019) mention, it may lead to gaslighting- a state where one questions their reality as not sincere, severe, or existing of those going through a traumatic experience. In other scenarios, the facts of said victims are minimised by those who abuse resilience or change the topic with feel good” quotes or statements (Pangestu et al., 2022). These victims are often sadly left with shame, suppressed emotions, isolation, or withdrawal. Villines and Johnson (2021) further state that if one is not careful, they begin to also self-inflict toxic positivity, thinking it is resilience. While positive thinking is a welcome approach in good measure, it’s not a solution to all things in life. The misapplication of resilience and the reinforcing of toxic positivity strengthens the source of suppression or oppression. Often, these lots get away with it if nothing is done to challenge their behaviours that put people in situations that demand resilience from them. This article by Shapiro (2021) is an example of one that could do more harm than good if misinterpreted in bad light A History of Resilience (hopkinsmedicine.org). Whilst the story may be an inspiration for some, this is not the case for many who may have had similar early stories to the life of Dr Higgins. Did it mean his family were the only ones who were resilient? Did it mean his family didn’t have bad days? From the article, no justice ever came for all the losses people like Dr Higgins and more faced early on. An issue that is still a problem to this day globally. Do we ignore the tales of the average class working person who has overcome far more than Dr Higgins but may not be “successful enough” by world standards?  Another worrying example is dark triads (individuals with a triplet of negative personality traits- narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy) in work or school, etc. This article by MindTools breaks the dark triad down in simple steps https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/understanding-dark-triad.htm. Psychology Today also has a more straightforward version https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/basics/dark-triad. Szabo et al. (2022) reported in a study between some elements of dark triads and resilience. Specifically, subclinical narcissism was strongly correlated to resilience, with “mental toughness” mediating the pathway. Another problem with the misapplication of resilience and toxic positivity is what I call the “glorification of Cinderella stories”. Cameron (2005) reviewed the literature to see the application of this fabled children’s tale in medicine between 1945-2005. Despite some mixed (possibly vile) meanings, many papers came up with neglect, exhaustion, transformation, and identity. These latter papers used her story as an inspiration for their careers- being overworked, underpaid, and underappreciated- a few of them finding good fortune later in life. I came across stories https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-03370-1 and  https://www.theguardian.com/society/2021/jan/07/stephen-akpabio-klementowski-i-educated-myself-in-prison-and-changed-my-story between 2019-2021 of prisoners who faced great adversity not just in their childhood- filled with a lot of abuse, social exclusion and other adverse childhood experiences that led to a life of crime somewhat having their “Cinderella moment” and getting advanced degrees during incarceration from none on record before incarceration. Today, they are doing amazing things with their lives that should inspire all. While we are indeed motivated, one can’t help but feel saddened at how they became the “poster persons” for resilience. No one deserves to go through the trauma they did. The stories of each one shared in the individual articles are enough to scare anyone straight. Unlike the many students we have in our institutions, they did not have similar opportunities, and though they overcame, we should be striving for a world where no one should have to have such a journey in life. As Stephen mentions in his Guardian article, he still has nightmares from his incarcerated encounters that scarred him for life. At the May symposium, I was happy to see a lot of work in resilience research. I am grateful to be currently involved in some of them, but like several participants in some of the sessions, it was sad to see resilience still being misapplied. I want to close with the following tips to help readers consider what they may do in their journey of using or finding resilience:

  • Please key into your support system- trusted colleagues, family, friends, counsellors, therapists etc. Russell (2022) reports how even healthcare professionals are often encouraged to do thins than trying to maintain toxic positivity in the name of resilience. Many have been spared disastrous outcomes by taking this step.
  • Resilience does not have a one for all approach. I like to think of it as a biography where we find a case study that helps us reflect and build upon life’s journey.
  • Resilience is also subjective. Your level of toughness/grit may not be someone else’s. If people looked like what they had been through, I am sure most of us would be humbled. It’s easy to toss the word around but having heard the stories of some staff and students through the years; I am in awe of how people still carry on despite all. Some may have support. Others don’t, but they must keep pushing through because they have no choice.
  • Resilience is intersectional! The experience of resilience in student A is not the same as in student B. Just because one overcame quickly does not mean the other is “weak”. Have you considered if the “weak” one has an intersection of disadvantages or if they have numerous battles to overcome?
  • Resilience is not a “band-aid for deep surgical wounds”. Check your department, students, and staff. Observe the trends over the years if you have been there for a long while. Why are things still the same decade after decade? What have you done to change or improve the status quo? We must be honest about how we cannot do everything. Have we called for help to encourage others where we cannot or let people thrive in a way that will make them productive and fulfilled in their journey with you?
  • You are not Rumpelstiltskin (an imp from the German Grimm Brothers fairy-tale who could turn straw to gold). You can only produce what you have been supplied. If you are given gold ore, make gold etc. In striving for resilience, we have sacrificed our health and well-being for many who may not appreciate it. One of my favourite things I have learned from educational training is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. If your basic needs are not met, how can you achieve self-actualisation to do well in your profession?

 Pyramid of Needs

I could go on, but I will end with two quotes:

  • A colleague shared this post with me they saw on their Twitter by a Dr Gabe Willis on 26th April 2022 “Students who were forced to be resilient their whole lives don’t need another conversation about grit. They need resources, guidance, sponsorship, advocacy etc.”
  • Adam Grant, the renowned organisational psychologist, once surmised that “There is not a prescribed timeline for resilience. No two experiences of adversity are identical. Some people bounce back rapidly. Others need more time to sit with their emotions and process pain. Strength is not the speed of your recovery. It is the intensity of your resolve.”

Bibliography

  • Cameron, S.M., (2005). Cinderella revisited. BMJ331(7531), pp.1543-1544.
  • Njeze, C., Bird-Naytowhow, K., Pearl, T. and Hatala, A.R. (2020). Intersectionality of resilience: A strengths-based case study approach with Indigenous youth in a Canadian urban context. Qualitative health research30(13), pp.2001-2018.
  • Pangestu, Y.P.D.A., Aliifah, J., Jati, P., Amalia, C. and Situmorang, D.D.B. (2022). Analysis of the Generation Z's Viewpoint from the Faith-Based Educational Institutions on the Toxic Positivity Phenomena: How and Why?. Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling, p.15423050221090861.
  • Quintero S. and Long J (2019), Toxic Positivity: The Dark Side of Positive Vibes. The Psychology Group. Toxic Positivity: The Dark Side of Positive Vibes (thepsychologygroup.com) Accessed: July 2022
  • Russell, J (2022)., An Underrecognized Epidemic: Toxic Positivity in Medicine. https://www.jucm.com/an-underrecognized-epidemic-toxic-positivity-in-medicine/ Accessed: July 2022
  • Villines Z. and Johnson J. (2021), What to know about toxic positivity. MedicalNewsToday. Toxic positivity: Definition, risks, how to avoid, and more (medicalnewstoday.com) Accessed: July 2022
Published by StaffNet, University of Aberdeen

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