Rethinking Resilience: Does the Concept of Pushing Through Actually Hinder Growth?

This past April, I attended a speaker series at an independent school, which included a presentation about empathy in the workplace. The speaker, Liesel Mindrebo Mertes, engaged the small group of teachers, parents, and administrators, fostering a safe space for vulnerability and connection. She talked about loss and the impact of grief following the onset of the pandemic and how schools could lead from a place of compassion and extend grace to their communities. I listened to the stories of grief that attendees shared, and I shared my own journey with a room full of people I had never met. I felt energized and inspired to encourage school leaders to begin thinking about how they can create containers for students, faculty, and staff to reconnect with one another and to lean into vulnerability, honesty, compassion, and grace. Now that we’ve survived, how can we reestablish stability and create better conditions for students and teachers to thrive?
Within an hour of attending the presentation, I had typed a first draft of this article. Perseverance is not always the best approach, I soon discovered. Sometimes what we need the most is the time and space to process and integrate our experiences rather than being so focused on producing results. The end-of-the-school-year grind kicked into overdrive, and exhaustion coupled with a lack of motivation prevented me from crossing the finish line. I attempted to finish this article multiple times, but I started to realize that in my urge to push through—my conditioned resilience mindset—I was slowly losing the essence of what I was hoping to communicate. Rather than push through for the sake of completion, I gave myself permission to pause—a luxury that is not often afforded in the workplace or life in general—and come back to writing when I felt like I had better perspective. By interrupting my own internal dialogue, I was able to more clearly see how the notion of resilience may actually hinder forward movement. Maybe it’s time to rethink resilience and the pedestal we’ve placed it on. 

The Dark Side of the Resilience Message

Resilience—the ability to face obstacles with a tenacious mindset fueled by a perspective that every challenge is an opportunity to build back stronger—is regarded as the universal remedy for coping with stress at home, in the classroom, or in the boardroom. It’s been nearly 20 years since Carol Dweck introduced the concept of growth mindset, and it has proven to be an effective strategy for producing successful outcomes. A growth mindset asks us to persist in the face of obstacles as opposed to avoiding them or giving up. In theory, this is a mindset and skill we should strive to develop. But in the wake of the pandemic, the renewed focus on “resilience,” which calls on us to have a growth mindset, has led to an over-glorification of its role in coping with individual and collective stress and trauma.
More than ever, society is desperately leaning on resilience and celebrating the ability to bounce back quickly as a measure of success. The faster we can pull ourselves together and keep moving forward, we tell ourselves, the more opportunities we will have to be productive—we can even rewire our brains to become well-oiled resilience machines! A compliment to the capitalist framework of always doing more, getting better, and moving forward, resilience is a “survive and thrive” strategy that has been packaged and sold as the perfect antidote for moving through life’s biggest challenges. What we do is valued more than how we feel, and that message of productivity, in part, has produced the most sleep-deprived teens in human history, as study after study has shown. Productivity is more important than rest, grades are more important than mental health, and data shows that both rest and mental health are suffering at higher rates than ever.
At times, we need to lean on the power of resilience and its ability to support the nervous system in immediately integrating stress; this can increase our ability to respond with a level of clarity that can otherwise be blurred by sitting with intense emotion. If we spend too much time diving deep into emotions like shame, blame, anger, rage, guilt, grief, and hopelessness, we might struggle to get out of bed each morning. It’s a delicate balance. But if we continue to push the narrative of resilience to avoid vulnerability, at what point might we be standing in the way of growth?
What happens when we consider how the concept of resilience impacts marginalized communities? What if the daily fatigue of experiencing race- and ethnic-based trauma and stress is actually being intensified by the constant call for resilience? I recently stumbled across this social media post: “I dream of never being called resilient again in my life. I’m exhausted by strength. I want support. I want softness. I want ease. I want to be amongst kin. Not patted on the back for how well I take a hit. Or for how many.”
As a woman of color, I felt this in my soul.

Rethinking Resilience in Schools

In many ways, resilience has served us well these past couple of years, but perhaps what school communities need now is the space to process, rest, and reconnect with meaning, purpose, and joy. Educators and school leaders need to ask ourselves what can come of the destruction we’ve witnessed and experienced. And we need to ask what role does resilience and the slow, messy, and unique process of growth have within the learning environments we create? But, perhaps rather than relying on the adults to produce new ideas and systems, we should turn to the students, who are most closely affected by the overwhelming call for resilience and who have profound insights that often come more naturally from a less conditioned mindset.
That’s what I did in spring 2022, during my Advanced Physical Education Yoga and Mindfulness class at University High School of Indiana (IN). I gave an assignment and some prompts to get the teens to share their thoughts related to this statement: “Resilience is the ability to bounce back quickly. Growth is messy and takes time.” Here’s what they had to say:
“Resilience is the way you respond, growth is the way you change.”
“I used resilience to push forward and ignore any negativity that I encountered. Looking back, bottling everything up and pushing forward ended up being unhealthy and created baggage I later had to deal with, but in the moment, it kept me going.”
“I neglected my emotions and experiences because I was trying to avoid them. I did not fully process and move on from what happened, and I realized that I was still holding all the emotional stress and trauma because I never truly faced reality.”
“I think I notice I’ve grown when I can set healthy boundaries and get more comfortable with being uncomfortable.”
Having created this space for my students and listening to what they shared, I see more than ever that as educators, we need to monitor our people-pleasing behaviors and curb the desire to help, fix, and advise others in order to avoid experiencing uncomfortable emotions. Instead, we need to create more space for presence and deeper connection, extending this grace to our students as well as ourselves. What might this look like?
  • Teachers and administrators sharing personal stories of when resilience was helpful, and when they needed time to grow and change
  • Providing a safe space for students to take breaks and process difficult emotions throughout the day
  • Educating the community on coping strategies and incorporating relaxing classes into the curriculum
  • Helping to ensure that students are getting sufficient rest (i.e., reduce homework loads or make homework optional, and take a systemic look at how many hours a night students spend on assignments)
  • Offering and encouraging mental health days for students and faculty/staff to take when needed
  • Listening when students are sharing about what’s coming up for them without feeling the need to respond with advice, and reassure them it’s OK if they don’t bounce back quickly from every difficult experience
  • Examining unhealthy habits and measures students take to maintain grades and looking for ways to mitigate the attachment to grades and self-worth
  • Being more lenient with deadlines
  • Taking time to reach out to students you suspect might be struggling and remember students may not always be forthcoming when they are going through difficult times
By quieting our innate need to fill empty space and instead trusting the opportunities that can arise internally and in our communities, perhaps we can grow through this collective experience together.
Lade Akande
Lade Akande

Lade Akande is director of wellness at University High School of Indiana in Carmel, Indiana. 


GP LeBourdais
11/28/2022 12:27:21 PM
Lade, thank you so much for this post. I've also been thinking and writing about resilience in the context of student mental health and have recently published a white paper on the subject (accessible here:

Do you think that focusing on resilience per se can lead to the kind of emotional exhaustion you cite? I've conceptualized it more as a byproduct of telling stories about growth (as you encourage).

In this sense, it may operate like happiness does in the research of Emily Esfahani Smith: trying to be "happy" tends to prevent people from becoming so, but striving to find "purpose" often leads to happiness as a matter of course.

Do you think growth and resilience might work in the same way with students?

Lade Akande
9/18/2022 10:00:09 PM
Thanks for your comment, Craig, and for sharing your themes for the Growing Together club. I love the way you framed resiliency and growth as one's ability to face internal chaos before moving forward, and I agree that resilience doesn't explicitly call for us to suppress emotions. I do wonder since resilience is often measured as the ability to bounce back quickly, if some may avoid or ignore certain complex emotions or sacrifice rest in order finish a goal or produce a certain end result in a timely manner. Per your suggestion of first pausing to check in with how we are feeling and then moving from there, we might learn that instead of bouncing back quickly, what we really need is more time, space and rest before moving forward. Thanks for the work you are doing in your school!

Craig Knippenberg, LCSW, M.Div.
9/15/2022 8:06:45 PM
I've never thought that resiliency meant sublimating your emotions. Whatever the adversity, one should start with their emotions first, then look for ways to move forward. At my K-8 school I designed a project called: Growing Together. Students were asked five questions: What did you like about COVID? What was challenging for you? Did you take up new hobbies are improve on old ones? How did you help your family, friends or school? What is something you learned about yourself that could help you with stress in the future? The students then illustrated or wrote their answers on a paper hand. The hands were assembled in a circle for each grade level. The student answers on all five questions were amazing. It's very difficult to move forward without first expressing your emotions. As Nietzsche said: "Out of chaos comes a shooting star". Growth and resiliency means facing your internal chaos and then moving forward.

Marilyn Rincon
9/15/2022 6:00:37 PM

Thanks for your reply! One big takeaway from the comments section for me is when you stated: "In the article, I mentioned that shifting between resilience and growth is a “delicate balance” and if we spent too much time deep diving into difficult emotions we might struggle to get through each day. However, that doesn’t mean it has to be either resilience or growth, but rather a balance and consideration for the differences in each and what is needed for both." Balance is always the key.

I chatted with a good friend about this (she is also a teacher) and she also stated what you stated; so many of our young people lack access to support in their social emotional growth and health. Schools are a major part of SEL needs being met for many children. I mentioned to my friend, and will mention here, the documentary Katrina Babies on HBO Max where people who were young when Hurricane Katrina happened are interviewed and essentially asked to process the experience on camera. One young woman started to tear up and explained that no one had ever asked her. So many people, young or elder, are not truly asked how they are feeling and/or doing; no one is offering to hold space for them. SEL cannot be done away with. Still, I agree in a balanced approach. As you said, an opt-in approach, utilizing therapy talk but also somatic experiences, and, as my friend said, asking people what SEL and self-care looks like for them and creating opportunities for people, whether students or staff, to engage in SEL that truly feels appropriate and nourishing for their specific mind, body, and soul.

This is an awesome article, such rich food for thought. Thank you, Lade!

Lade Akande
9/15/2022 2:45:54 PM
Thanks for your feedback, Marilyn. I agree with you that choice is an important piece of the SEL puzzle, and that a one-size-fits-all or mandatory approach may actually be counterproductive, especially in the workplace. I love the idea of organizations sharing support resources in the community with their staff rather than trying to take on the responsibility of being all things to everyone. Biggest takeaway for me is to have an "opt-in" approach for wellness engagement in order to meet people where they are.

Lade Akande
9/15/2022 2:23:21 PM
Thank you for your insights, Gabriel. I think you bring up many important points. I’ll do my best to respond:

In the article, I mentioned that shifting between resilience and growth is a “delicate balance” and if we spent too much time deep diving into difficult emotions we might struggle to get through each day. However, that doesn’t mean it has to be either resilience or growth, but rather a balance and consideration for the differences in each and what is needed for both.

Grief is a wonderful example because it is a lifelong healing process. I have worked as a certified grief facilitator for an organization for grieving children and families for the past nine years and a couple of the principles that guide the work are: “caring and acceptance assist in the healing process” and “the time and intensity of grief are unique for each individual.” It’s through the process of talking about grief and acknowledging intense emotions that people learn to tell their stories. This takes time, but in the long run, it certainly helps. We often say “grief delayed is grief denied.” The first year following the death of someone typically leaves survivors feeling numb. In my direct experience with grief counseling, the emotions and feelings are often extremely intense well into the second year following the death. However, most employers only allow three days for bereavement, and sometimes five days if the funeral is out of town. Understandably, people need to get back to work, but what I was getting at in this article is that there is room for organizations to think about how to best support people from the lens of compassion and grace.

Another good point is that talk therapy can sometimes be counterproductive. This is because talk therapy is a cognitive approach. Since symptoms of stress and trauma manifest physically, we also need to consider how we can support the processing of difficult emotions somatically, or in the body. My suggestion for adding relaxing classes into the curriculum, such as the Advanced Physical Education Yoga & Mindfulness class I referenced, gives school the opportunity to teach students tools to help regulate the nervous system, which is optimal for supporting learning and neuroplasticity. When students are traumatized or experience chronic stress, the brain is not primed to truly learn. Compartmentalization can be good to get through the required parts of the day, but so can acknowledging the emotional reality and tending to that in an intentional way so that we can show up as the best version of ourselves. Otherwise, trauma and stress remain stuck in the body and can become the breeding grounds for anxiety, depression and other mental health issues, again impeding the learning process.

Your question about the function of schools is interesting and actually inspires me to write another article. Even as independent schools, we need to remember that not all students have access to therapists and SE support outside of school. In fact, Indiana has one of the worst student to counselor ratios in the nation at 531 to 1. I think you are suggesting schools should focus solely on learning, but learning what exactly? What role do we have as educators to help empower students to be able to face the inevitable challenges that life will bring? I would say, start with looking at the school’s mission. Our mission at University High School to EXPAND THE HEARTS AND MINDS OF STUDENTS and to nurture excellence through academic, creative, and physical achievement” meaning acknowledging and tending to the whole student, not just academic success.

Thanks again for your thoughts and insights!

Marilyn Rincon
9/15/2022 2:23:18 PM
To respond to Gabriel Maldonado, your thoughts really resonate with me because I have been chewing on similar questions and thoughts. I know that it's overwhelming for me, personally, to have too much SEL in my workspace (which was intense during the beginning of the pandemic as leaders tried to support their employees, etc.). Of course, I love mental health days, a nice break room with snacks, coffee, and water, and a real work-life balance. But I'm not big on whole group SEL sessions where holding space for co-workers is mandatory. I bet I'm not alone in this sentiment. I preferred, and still prefer, work to be work; I have other spaces and people that support my social and emotional well being. I can imagine that some of the young people that we teach may feel similarly.

Regarding the article, it's such good food for thought. It made me think about having a focus on grit, which embraces the growth mindset much more holistically in my opinion.

Gabriel Maldonado
9/15/2022 5:34:03 AM
Might providing spaces for emotional expression actually be counterproductive for the students emotional well being? One area this has been studied is grief research where following a traumatic death, it was the grievers that got back to life - quickly and without overt expressions of emotionality, dealt with their emotions better than those exteriorizing, getting talk therapy, or talking frequently to friends about their grief. The best way to move on was, well, to move on and not re-emote. Emoting and activities like talking about feelings (or talk therapy) appears to worsen the recovery trajectory. Maybe schools are indeed places to chin up and focus on learning rather than on one’s emotions? These are the most accommodating of times for students in generations. More students get therapy and SE assistance than ever. This has nit dented the rise in emotional dysfunction and psychological unwellness. Maybe we got this all wrong and it’s the Oversupporting, overemphasizing emotionality sand the expressions of feelings, and more broadly the validation of feelings as measures of reality (if a feel strongly it must be true, my feelings are always valid) instead of realizing that feelings and emotions often lead us astray in both our perception of reality and as solutions to our problems?

Lee Thomsen
9/14/2022 12:19:11 PM
This is precisely where Social Emotional Learning brings in a wonderful balance. We start teaching kids in PK about whether they are in the "red," "yellow" or "green zone." i.e. are you in a place where you are ready to learn, and if not, how do you allow yourself the time and space to be in that moment and emerge from it?

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