What resilience means and why it matters (just not the way you thought) : Life Kit Is the ability to endure hardship and adapt to difficult life situations always a good thing? Psychotherapist and licensed clinical social worker Lourdes Dolores Follins revisits the concept of resilience — and explains why it's OK to let yourself feel angry or frustrated sometimes.

Why you should stop complimenting people for being 'resilient'

Why you should stop complimenting people for being 'resilient'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1117725653/1197916946" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

The ability to overcome and adapt to difficult life situations seems like an overwhelmingly positive thing – right? After all, being called "strong," "tenacious" or "resilient" is usually perceived as a compliment.

But what if glorifying resilience can actually be detrimental?

For example, take the "strong Black woman" stereotype. According to Professor Inger Burnett-Zeigler, author of Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen: The Emotional Lives of Black Women, internalizing that trope "can often interfere with [Black women] acknowledging their mental health challenges and then going on to get the mental health treatment."

So we revisited the concept of "resilience" with Lourdes Dolores Follins, psychotherapist and licensed clinical social worker. She explains why it's OK to let yourself feel angry or frustrated sometimes — and how unexamined resilience can mask structural forces that make your life harder.

This comic, written and illustrated by Connie Hanzhang Jin, is inspired by a Life Kit episode featuring Lourdes Dolores Follins and hosted by TK Dutes. You can listen to the audio at the top of this page.

TK Dutes, Life Kit reporter, is a Black woman with short hair and round stud earrings. "I used to take it as a compliment when people called me resilient," she says, while holding an umbrella in the rain. "But lately I've been rethinking that," she muses as she peers up from being submerged in water. As she dries off, TK wonders, "What does it mean to be resilient, anyway?"
Lourdes Dolores Follins, psychotherapist and licensed clinical social worker, is a Black woman with short hair and a nose piercing. "It's a psychological term," she says. "We're talking about a process that involves adapting positively in the context of significant adversity." For example, a job rejection versus working out. "A lot of people mistakenly conflate resilience with strength."
Think about how our culture talks about people going through illnesses, deaths, abuse and all the other traumas life throws at us. A woman compliments a cancer patient, saying, "You're so resilient and strong!" "I'm just trying to live," he sighs. And for Lourdes, as a Black person, she knows this idea of being "strong and resilient" has a dark past. The words float over a shadowed chain.
Lourdes continues, "It's a leftover from slavery, it's a leftover from colonization, it's a leftover from indentured servitude ... when you talk about people as if they're animals, as if they're subhuman, then you are only commenting on their physical capacity, which has morphed into resilience." Her words float over a of couple scenes – a white hand dividing up a continent, for example.
TK wipes tears from her face. "I don't want to be resilient anymore," she says. "I just want to be able to cry, without shame. I want things to be less hard. I feel like somewhere along the way, we've lost the opportunity. The first thing I feel after an emotion is embarrassment."
"Well, you know that's how neoliberalism works, right?" asks Lourdes. "To me, neoliberalism is designed to focus on not just people's worth as workers, but really on individuals and separating and dividing us." Workers sit isolated in cubicles. "We're constantly imbibing this idea that you got to be strong, you got to be hard, you got to be on a grind all the time," she says, juggling many tasks.
Well, how do we deal with all this? Have conversations with people in your community. Check in and support each other. TK asks a woman with long curly hair, "How do you feel?" The woman responds, "Honestly? Exhausted." "I'm sorry," TK sympathizes. "How do you want to feel?"
If you're in therapy, have a conversation with your therapist about working on increasing your levels of self-esteem, social support, self-compassion and problem-solving skills. These things will help you feel more confidence and control over (some parts) of your life. Though, "not everything in [your] life, because we do live under capitalism and white supremacy," adds Lourdes.
Let's move away from using "resilient" as a compliment or a way of comforting folks. Instead, ask, "What is forcing people to be resilient? And what can we do about it?" If you're complimented, you can respond with, "What makes you say that?" or, "I appreciate the fact that you recognize my ability to endure hardship. I just wish I didn't have to."
Build your ability to recognize when you're being resilient, as well as when it's time to lean into your emotions and transition into resistance. Leaning into your anger, frustration, disappointment, or sadness about what you have to endure can be powerful, if you can use your emotions to collaborate with others to change things. Tears drip down the page, transforming into powerful ocean waves.

The audio portion of this episode was produced by Audrey Nguyen and Vanessa Handy, with engineering support from Stacey Abbott. We'd love to hear from you. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at LifeKit@npr.org.

Listen to Life Kit on Apple Podcasts and Spotify, or sign up for our newsletter.