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Why being very resilient can be bad for you

16 November 2018 Anthony Eldridge-Rogers

There is much talk and discussion about the need for resilience across numerous contexts in behavioural health and organisational development.

What I noticed though is that calling a person or group of people resilient can be either a criticism or a compliment depending on the context. So remainers in the Brexit vote consider Brexiteers resilient to what they feel are common sense arguments about the UK leaving the EU. They cast their resistance as stubborn and unwise. They don’t like that the Brexiteer is resilient - or at least their beliefs are. The Brexiteer takes pride in such a position. Flipped the other way the Brexiteer thinks and judges that remainers just can′t see that we need to get out of the EU - that it’s an impediment to a shining future for the UK and so on. They too feel the remainers are stubborn and misguided. Again, we can call this resilience.

Sorry if I’ve triggered you one way or the other about this current and difficult issue but it’s such a good example of how resilience is so very contextual.

Moving into another human domain, one of the places you see high levels of resilience is in people who are addicted to substances. Alcoholism or addiction is tough to change as a set of behaviours. It’s very resilient to change. 

People I coach who’ve had these kinds of addictive experiences are often surprised when I point out that they have personally experienced a masterclass in resilience. When we talk through all the strategies and personal resources they used to resist change (i.e. stop abusing themselves with substances) they have a real penny drop moment when they realise that they are capable of great resilience, although, in the case of addiction, it is built around a set of behaviours that are destructive to both them and those around them.

Therefore, resilience around a set of behaviours is not always desirable. In fact it can be downright dangerous and bad for you. A person or group of people that sticks to their guns no matter what can find themselves destroyed or seriously harmed.

So why are we so fixated on resilience? 

Why are we not so interested in flexibility or the ability to change? 

Here is the dictionary definition of resilience:

1. the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.

2. the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity

Sounds good right? But it all depends on context. 

In my example of Brexit, both Leave and Remain camps are resistant to the difficulty of having their positions attacked by media and those who disagree with them. They try their best to recover to their initial position. And feel worthy that they can do so.

So what brings about change then? Imagine that everyone in the UK was 100 percent resilient in their behaviours and beliefs. Imagine we fixed them right this second. Imagine that everyone who ever voted for a political party only ever vote for them and would never vote for a different one. Society would simply breakdown. 

We rely on the ability and actuality of people to change their beliefs, points of view and behaviours. We want them to lack resilience in favour of something else. The something else is what is called anti-fragility. Resilience is the resisting of outside forces and information that would change someone’s belief and behaviour but anti-fragility means that when things happen to you, you can use them to become stronger and better equipped.

Therefore, when new information and experience comes into the life of a person who is anti-fragile, they select what they need, change themselves and adopt new strategies to become stronger and more capable.

By now you might be mulling over your coaching experience and those people you meet and coach who seem to be resilient to change and others who thrive on turmoil and situations that others find uncertain and fearful. 

This is the play between resilience and anti-fragility. Of the two, anti-fragility is what makes dynamic and energetic social systems and individual lives. If asked to choose between the two I would choose anti-fragility any day. Resilience is a worthy state of being but is not appropriate for the full human context of change.

For anyone to create a life where they want to reach their full potential, they need to be willing to grow and change from the pressures of life which are placed against them or which they choose. 

To remain the same is an illusion. No one remains the same over time. So resilience should not be used to avoid change and revolt but it’s often taught for that reason. Resilience should be seen more as a resting place on the road of change where we can consolidate, reflect and integrate before we take the next steps towards our potential.

So next time you hear resilience as a topic ask yourself the following -  "What would the situation look like from the perspective of anti-fragility?", that is, growing stronger by adapting positively to and handling the forces that would change you or your client.