Is it really true that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger?

What is resilience anyway?

I want to rant a bit about resilience. There are a lot of people who don’t like the term, and I can see why.

Persistence despite adversity is valorized:

  • Oh you’re so brave!
  • You’re inspirational!
  • You’re so strong!
  • You’ve overcome so much!

This kind of praise makes me want to 🤮 because it falls into the category of toxic positivity.

It fails to recognize that what the person we’re praising went through should never have happened. The harms they experienced are evidence of systemic issues, not personal failure.

But instead, we laud the individual who succeeds despite, and within, oppressive systems.

Many people in marginalized bodies—people who don’t fit (or pass for) the dominant norm of healthy, white, Western, middle-class, cisgender, heterosexual male—face a great deal of adversity resulting from systems that support the dominant culture and reinforce its oppressions.

Many of these systems were built with that purpose in mind. Without any one person being “mean” to any other person, a non-conforming person still faces barrier after barrier and stressor after stressor in their life. Often, these barriers intersect and potentiate one another.

Those of us who fit this norm (or appear as if we do), face much less adversity and have many more advantages. We have the wind at our backs, instead of in our faces.

Any discussion of resilience needs to start with an acknowledgment of the social and systemic factors that affect the degree and amount of adversity a person faces, and thus their capacity to learn and master resilience skills.

Resilience is a set of skills that can be learned and cultivated.

Holding this critique of resilience in one hand, I hold out an accompanying reality in the other: there are resilience skills that can be learned and can serve as resources when facing adversity. These skills can make us stronger.

Is it actually true that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger?

The first step, when face-to-face with an adverse or stressful experience that feels like it might kill you (metaphorically speaking), is acknowledging just how big and/or overwhelming it is. “Holy crap. This looks like it might just kill me. And I’m freaked out.”

While it might seem like a waste of time, because you just want to get down to business and clean up the shit show, self-validation or acknowledgment is a pivotal first step.

Emotional validation soothes the amygdala (the emotion centre) and allows the pre-frontal cortex to come back online.

You truly are stronger when your prefrontal cortex is activated.

When your prefrontal cortex is activated, you regain access to your wiser and more holistic self, and you truly are stronger, because you have more access to your inner resources than you did when you were drowning in emotions.

You can then take in and synthesize information and make decisions. Self-validation makes you stronger and is one component of resilience.

The resilience of working through things

It’s not exactly “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” but it’s in that ballpark. It’s more like “There are many failures along the road to success.”

Failure is inevitable… and even necessary

Einstein said that his advantage was not his intelligence, but his persistence: “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer”. (Yes, he really did say this. See The Ultimate Quotable Einstein, Calaprice, 2013).

Google (note: I’m not holding Google up as any kind of model business overall) is known for its iterative design process. It launches quickly but imperfectly. It then takes feedback, revises the product and releases a new and better iteration. Google Maps is just one example of this approach.

The “fail fast and often” approach originated in the startup world, but there’s a nuance to this. The only way failure can be a “good” thing is if you learn from it.

As part of your weekly review, you should be including not only your wins but also your failures. Make it a regular exercise to note things that didn’t go so well this week, then ask yourself, “What is the lesson in this, if any?” Focus on what you can learn in order to support your healthy mindset.

Some failures have lessons and some don’t. Either way, what you tell yourself matters. If, after reflection, you find there is no lesson, you can at least be kind to yourself.

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About the author 

Shulamit Berlevtov  -  Shulamit (she/her) is the Entrepreneurs' Therapist. She is working passionately to mitigate the entrepreneurial mental health crisis through keynote speaking and educational workshops and by supporting women entrepreneurs 1:1 to care for their mental and emotional wellbeing and their money psychology in an era of relentless stressors that can make you want to lose your crap on the daily.

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