Resilience is a word originating from Latin and it literally means “to jump again.” The American Psychological Association in 2014, defined resilience as, “The process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or even significant sources of threat”. Indeed, the dominant worldview celebrates those who from early on in life have well developed resilient capabilities.
However, if we look closely at prevailing definitions of resilience, they place a burden on individuals to endure unequal systemic conditions. Whether it be circumstances emanating from systems of oppression, injustice and often systemic violence; the spotlight tend to be on how individuals must change rather than on lifting up how these systems wear us down at the individual or the collective levels. The tendency to zoom in on individuals’ resilient capacities, results in us feeling either burdened or ashamed based on where we are placed on a resilient spectrum. A more empowering approach would be to name that which erode our resilience, and to build individual and collective resiliencies capable of dismantling or disrupting power based systems rooted in patriarchy, colonialism, and capitalism.
I see echoes of this trend in my own socialisation and sensemaking of the world, which meant that, for most parts of my life, I gained a strong sense of self from a confidence that I was able to bounce back from challenging life situations. Like everyone else, I felt a sense of accomplishment when I was able to endure traumatic life events, or when I was able to continue functioning even as I experienced periods of severe shocks in my life. I would literally numb myself and disconnect from my feelings and from what my body was experiencing.
Somehow, I knew that tuning into what I was experiencing at an emotional and physical level would mean that I would break down. So, I learnt to shut down those aspects of my experience in order to just keep moving. However, the cumulative effect was that the moment I reached the other side of the storm, my whole body would somehow shutdown, and my experience of such an extreme shut down would mean that I had no option but to then tend to the ignored messages of my body, my heart and my spirit.
Over the years, I abused my ‘resilient’ capability, sometimes laughingly referring to my high pain threshold and my ability to remain functional. Of course, as I lauded this capability, even those in my personal and professional life would celebrate this ‘superpower’ with me, because we live in a world that celebrates it. Similarly, the fact that I didn’t acknowledge that my strength was actually quite fragile, and when I did not know to stop and ask for time out, or even for help, others too tended to normalize this unhealthy pattern by saying, ‘Oh you are ok, you are strong’ instead of reminding me to slow down, to connect and to ask for support.
I think the assumptions and expectations linked to my ‘fragile’ strength was what triggered me to look closely at the dominant narrative I held of resilience. Because I showed the world strength, nobody knew that I too needed care and holding during periods of stress, shocks, loss and even trauma. Nor did I or anyone else in my life recognise that I was accumulating traumas or stresses that literally would come an bite me in the ass later. This meant, that unless I was ready to repattern, I would continue without the care and the support I needed from myself or those nearest and dearest to me in times of distress and even beyond it.
So, as I decided to examine this narrative of resilience through interrogating the systemic roots of why we are told we need to be resilient and what it means. I am not discounting the adaptations we all need in order to adjust to life events such as death, divorce, separations and failure. However, for most of us, those life events are also happening in a world where we experience ongoing pattens of domination, extraction, and supremacy that fuel violence and cause inter-generational trauma and thrive on breaking down the spirit, imagination, and resilience of marginalised peoples, particularly those who challenge the status quo.
We cannot look at our own resilience without understanding the ways in which we have internalised white supremacy culture and its characteristics, such as fear, perfectionism, individualism, either-or binaries, denial and defensiveness, urgency, right to comfort and fear of conflict. If we make the connection between our individual experiences and these systems, we come to a realisation that the ‘resilience’ that we are taught throughout our life, valorise bravery, commitment, sacrifice, and selflessness. On the opposite end, it triggers shame, blame and guilt when we are struggling in this world with our mental and emotional wellbeing and are unable to care for ourselves well, and hence have less developed resilient capabilities.
All this to say, that the resilience we keep on touting is culturally mediated, and laden with social and political implications. Invisibilising the systemic aspects of our experiences in the world, mean that we are less inclined to reveal our fears and our vulnerabilities, and thus feel compelled to lean into private rather than collective coping strategies.
So how do we reframe resilience as revolutionary?
Generative Somatics co-founder Staci Haines describes resilience as: “Our ability to bounce back – like moss after we’ve stepped on it, or to find our intactness again. It is our ability to ‘come back’ to ourselves, physiologically and psychologically, from traumatic hyperalert states to calmed, cohesive states. It is the ability to regain a sense of hope and imagine a positive future. Resilience allows for safety, belonging and dignity to be re-established.” (Haines 2019, 195)
In other words, revolutionary resilience starts by disrupting a current pattern of individualising that which is systemic, while also recognising that individual resilience is needed to resist internal systemic oppression.
In many of the feminist organising spaces I work in, the emphasis is on practicing self and collective care, healing from trauma, and aligning actions and practice with visions of a world where we can all thrive. In other words, we work from a mindset that we are all worthy of care, and that our individual resilience depends on our ability to build our own well-being. So, revolutionary resilience stats with building our capabilities to tune into our experience of our body and emotions, and recognising that it will change according to the situations we find ourselves in. Similarly, there is a need for us to be build a capacity to connect to others and seek solidarity and support.
Some strategies for grappling with revolutionary resilience:
#1: Connect to your experience
It is important to recognise that amidst turbulence – we need safety, comfort and connection. It all starts with a process of repatterning, which creates internal stability, and an increasing ability to return to stability when we are moderately distressed. We also look back at past experiences – rather than just settling into or being triggered in the moment. During this process, we might enquire about what strategies worked, or did not work, and learn to not get lost in the intensity of the current moment.
#2: Revolutionary connection, empowerment and community
Realise that you do not have to do it alone, and then zoom into critical connections and relationships that generate positive forms of collective power. Relationships can be seen as a basis of trust, collaboration and security for times when we are at risk, or in moments of distress. Even when we have authentic self-trust and self-knowing, we build an increasing ability to value the experiences and contributions of others, and thus foster interpersonal openness and trust within groups. Other than finding support in groups, also seek other forms of support and assistance if needed, such as a mentor, counselor, coach or friend.
#3: Linking from the individual to the systemic
As we try to build a healthy relationship with resilience, it is important to also build a creative, organic curiosity about the experiences we are having and the distinction between the individual and systemic aspects of our experiences. In this process, we learn to develop tools and capacities that allow us to look forward, as well as continually zooming in on both individual and collective visions of a world we want to thrive in.