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.
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Lade Akande

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