Resiliency: Use This Word With Caution

Resiliency, as symbolized by a flower blooming through a crack in the pavement.

As part of the helping professions, career professionals help clients achieve their goals by providing guidance, advice, resources, and caring support at every step of their work-life journeys. In my practice, I offer coaching in the areas of career, personal development, and life enhancement. My goal is to facilitate and nurture the overall wellbeing of my clients; to help them create a life that aligns with their vision and dreams. Along the way, I’ve learned what works and what doesn’t; what to say and what not to say. One of the words I’ve learned to use with caution is “resiliency.”

Resiliency Defined

Merriam-Webster defines resiliency as “an ability to recover from or adjust easily to adversity or change.”

Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant write in their book, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, that we can think of resilience as a muscle that contracts during good times and expands during bad times.

The Dark Side of the Word Resiliency

Have you ever overheard or been part of an exchange like this?

Cheerleader (career/life coach): “You have SO much resiliency…nothing can take you down!”

Client’s inner voice: But I can’t keep going like this.

Cheerleader: “I would have cried for days…I wish I were as resilient as you are.”

Client’s inner voice: I cry myself to sleep every night.

Cheerleader: “You went through all that and you’re still standing! That takes a lot of resiliency.”

Client’s inner voice: Sometimes I wake up and don’t want to get out of bed. Can’t you see I’m drowning? But, still, they say I’m resilient!

These sound like positive, affirming compliments from a career/life coach, but can you think of any issues that might arise when statements like these are made?

The Problem With Being Too Resilient

While these statements are well-meaning, used to motivate, acknowledge and validate one’s strength to adapt and persevere in challenging or distressing situations, they can also contribute to encouraging and reinforcing potentially unhealthy behaviours, reactions, and responses. Being called resilient time and time again could potentially suppress someone’s ability to cultivate and nurture the skills that are actually necessary to move forward. In other words, too much resilience can be a bad thing, causing some to be overly tolerant of distressing, untenable situations.

Ask yourself; is “you’re still standing” a desirable, admirable outcome when someone has gone through an extremely difficult experience? What about not crying or getting angry?

Again, you may mean well by complimenting someone’s ability to successfully adapt to a challenging situation, but there may be more constructive ways to share and express your admiration and encouragement than by using the word “resilient.”

So, if you are in the role of the “cheerleader,” proceed with caution — you do not want to reward unhealthy coping mechanisms!

If you are in the role of the “client,” consider opening yourself up a little and stepping into vulnerability. People will often react to what they see on the outside; they’ll interpret that and respond through their own lens. If all they see is resiliency, that’s all they can react to. To get the support you really need, to hear the words that you really want to hear, let someone in. Yes, you can be resilient and still hurt.

What Resiliency is NOT — What Resiliency IS

Resiliency is NOT:

  • Resistance.
  • A never-ending resource; it needs to be cultivated and nurtured regularly.
  • About minimizing your experience.
  • Denying, masking, or negating your emotions.
  • Being unaffected by adverse circumstances and experiences.
  • Unbreakable.
  • Barely surviving, but rather successfully adapting to threatening or challenging situations.
  • Hanging on when you need to let go.
  • About winning.

Resiliency IS:

  • Renewable.
  • Feeling and expressing both positive and negative emotions and feelings.
  • Failing, but learning and getting up again.
  • Acknowledging your reality, even if sometimes it’s not great.
  • Having hope and faith.
  • Forgiveness, of self and others.
  • Letting go, and knowing when to do so.
  • Accepting responsibility.
  • Accepting loss and defeat.

Alternative Ways to Express Admiration

So, what to say instead when you are admiring what you perceive to be resiliency in someone?

Think about what exactly you mean and want to convey by telling the person they are resilient. Then break this down and share specific examples or observations.

Here are a few suggestions:

  • Point out a specific behaviour, action, or step the person took and express your reaction to that. You may have been inspired, admired the courage shown, or whatever it was that stood out for you the most.
  • Highlight a strength or unique gift you identified in the individual, acknowledge what that was, and talk about how you think it helped them.
  • Explain what you mean by “resilient,” if you feel it’s appropriate to use the term.
  • Acknowledge the person’s struggles, open emotions, and willingness to reach out for help as part of being “resilient.”

So, go ahead; compliment someone on their resiliency. At the end of the day, you are not responsible for how the word is perceived, but it is good to be mindful of how it can be misinterpreted. Give some thought to moving away from using “resilient,” “resilience,” and “resiliency” as compliments and try to get at the root of what it is that’s forcing someone to be resilient. And then think about what you might do to help.

Fanie Zis, PCC, CCDP, CWS, CES, CCS. Coming from a background in psychology, counselling, and career development, Fanie is a Professional Certified Coach with the International Coaching Federation (ICF) and a Certified Career Development Practitioner with the BCCDA. She works as a Life Smart Coach for the EFAP program through Homewood Health in the areas of career coaching, career counselling, relationship coaching, family support, grief and loss, stress management, and pre-retirement planning. Fanie is also a freelance Life and Career Coach, supporting clients through personal and professional development and life enhancement processes.

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Artfully and sensitively written with practical examples. Thank you.

Hi Iris, you are most welcome! Thank you for taking the time to read the article and for your supportive feedback:)

Excellent! I really appreciate the alternative approaches you shared.

Thanks Michelle!
If you have any alternative approaches to share yourself I’d love to hear them!