Resilience: to feel or not to feel?

Myth: “Resilience is being tough or not showing emotion.” Not.

If “tough” to you means not having emotions or not feeling- I dare you to reconsider what resilience is about. Most people's idea of tough is to disconnect from themselves, to distract themselves (so as not to feel), or even to dissociate from their pain. We all engage in these strategies in order to survive difficult circumstances that trigger pain in us. These are coping mechanisms and they can temporarily serve us well in the face of major traumatic events. At times it is all we can do, and they can be useful strategies indeed to help us survive. However, disconnecting from intense emotion can become a habit, and we might find ourselves avoiding any discomfort, conflict or difficult situation.

Once suppressed, many of us do not go back and integrate those difficult emotions. At times, we do not have the capacity to compost trying moments into learning and growth. If we did, we would not shy away from adversity as much as we do. Those repressed emotions stay there, unattended to, and almost become forbidden territory. Parts of us that are cut off from consciousness. Sometimes, a general malaise invades us.

Compounded to this is the fact that memories that are encoded with high emotional charge have more power over us, they tend to get engraved more strongly and be the source of potentially limiting self-beliefs or habits of the avoidance or addictive sort.

In my personal and professional experience, when we suppress our emotions and unmet needs, we actually make ourselves weaker, less able to handle tough things in the future. We are anxious to confront situations that involve conflict or might cause us to feel discomfort. Not feeling is not resilience. Not feeling is usually a lack a self-awareness and a blocking of emotion.

New mindset: Resilience is our ability to bounce back, while going through adversity and being fully there.

The origin of the word “resilience” is insightful. It comes from the Latin resiliens, from re- "back" and salire "to jump, to leap." Thus, resilience is “the act of rebounding or springing back." In a way, resilience is coming back to balance after having experienced a situation that has thrown us off balance. (Online Etymology Dictionary).

In this light, resilience is being able to fully feel, and to have the ability to self-regulate. When we can do this in times when it is really rough going, we know our resilience is high. We are adaptable, we are able to bounce back, to resist and still be alright. We learn and grow through the adversity.

Many of us live in the fantasy that we are strong because we do not feel, or things don't affect us. We can hold up this delusion until it gets too difficult. And life often does. Finances, pandemics, relationship difficulties, ill health. I know that 2021 has been one of those years for me, with my father's death, the intentional death of a friend, financial strain and worse. Just when I thought I was getting over one thing, another came like high waves hitting hard. But my NVC practice was there to offer me space to integrate, to feel and still be OK, to learn and grow. In a way, the shape I bounced back to was slightly different from the old one, and I dare say, more resilient.

Resilience would mean being able to feel tough emotions, even heart-wrenching emotions, and to integrate them. In a way, it is emotional awareness and self-regulation. It is feeling whatever comes up in us in response to difficult life situations and having the capacity to stay present, open, aware of ourselves and others. It is the ability to remain flexible and responsive, to not shut down nor become rigid. This is what makes us come out the other side stronger.

Resilience is indeed a characteristic of our human psyche. Human beings are adaptable by nature and able to handle a lot. But, sometimes the challenge exceeds our coping capacity. For those of us who long for more resilience, of the sort that makes us unbreakable yet flexible, is there any way we can enhance it? Is there an alternative to shutting down or not feeling?

A few suggestions from NVC that might help: Growing our awareness of our emotional granularity and increasing our ability to stay with discomfort and intense emotion, while staying open and not shutting down. NVC is my favourite way to do this. Mourning and celebrating, seeing what needs are and are not met, and increasing our ability to live with unmet needs, or to let go of our favourite strategies to meet them. And relying on others in our support circles to lend an empathic listening ear. There has been much research on what makes people overcome trauma, and what makes others develop post-traumatic stress symptoms. The answer is surprising: It is the quality of the relationships people find after crises that seem to have healing power (beyond natural predispositions).

I know that, for me, this year, there have been many times I longed to not grow, to not be where I was, for my external life to be different, and for my inner world to feel better. Despite these cries for desperation, each time I felt overly stretched, I reached out and I reached in. Each time, I dared to feel that tiny bit more, to choose not to repress my feelings, and to be present and compassionate with myself, it paid off is resilience currency. In going towards the feelings, I learnt a huge amount about myself, my patterns and which serve me, which don't. I learnt about my capacity to love despite people doing things I do not like. I learnt about opening up to life more and more, to the pain of loss and to the celebration of life and connections. I learnt a little more about myself, too, valuable lessons.

There is richness in allowing our emotions to flow, neither repressing them nor magnifying them. And there is wisdom in understanding what causes our emotions and what is in our control to change, and what isn´t and is better accepted and integrated.