Resilience myths

Written by
Changeboard Team

14 Jun 2011

14 Jun 2011 • by Changeboard Team

Building your resilience

The theme of ‘Building your Resilience’ seems to be the ‘new kid on the block’ when browsing the self-help shelves at the airport bookshop. So resilience in the face of adversity is a human necessity. But, thumbing through the pages of most of these books, I feel dissatisfied with their advice. Some of it is crass. Most of it doesn’t go nearly far enough.

Vulnerability, learning & growing

Firstly, there is little agreement as to what is meant by resilience. Some are using it as the latest buzzword but are really talking about managing stress. Many describe it as the ability to ‘bounce back’ from adversity, conjuring up a picture of a boxer’s punch-ball returning to its original position after being hit or of Superman with bullets bouncing off his chest. I don’t find this a helpful concept. It perpetuates an unhelpful macho attitude encapsulated by the famous Nietszche quote: “whatever doesn’t kill me makes me strong”. This kind of Superman quality is just that – something out of a fantasy comic. It suggests that resilient leaders don’t let anything get to them, a reality perhaps only for psychopaths.

Real, human, resilience is more about remaining vulnerable enough to feel for and with others; being strong enough to live with uncertainty and ambiguity; and learning and growing rather than crumbling through adversity. If we are the same after adversity, we have missed an opportunity to develop character qualities that are not formed in easier times.

Nelson Mandela didn’t become the leader of the South African people at his inauguration, but during the harsh conditions of Robben Island. This was when his character was formed, when he made a choice to seek reconciliation and unify the nation rather than building resentment and plotting revenge.

Identity, meaning and purpose

My second disappointment is that many books on resilience base their advice solely on techniques derived from cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). CBT identifies events that produce an adverse reaction in you; looks for the underlying beliefs and thinking patterns that contribute towards the negative feelings and, finally, helps you to rewrite your habitual thoughts and limiting beliefs into a healthier internal dialogue. NICE accepts CBT as helpful in treating depression, OCD, PTSD and anxiety, and, don’t misunderstand me, CBT principles can be very useful. But I don’t think CBT goes nearly far enough.

Deeper questions need to be asked: questions that our fast-paced lives have no space for; questions more comfortable to ignore – at least on the short-term. But they are questions that bring perspective, and a sense of security, stability, focus and direction as we find answers to them. They are deep questions, concerning our identity, meaning and purpose: ‘Who am I? Why am I? What difference do I want to make and to whom? What do I want to spend my life on? Some are deeply spiritual questions.

Reaching new levels of understanding

In recent years, the National Institute for Mental Health in England has recognised that helping people establish a positive identity and a sense of meaning are crucial goals towards recovery and that people recover more quickly when treatment embraces their spiritual needs. The just-published government mental health strategy: ‘No health without mental health’ also names ‘a greater sense of purpose’ for service users as one of its desired outcomes. So much for the remedial setting, but what is the place of deeper questions at work?

In my practice, I have dared to ask deep questions;  questions that have helped my clients define an identity beyond their work roles and a sense of meaning beyond their end of year results. Many times I have found, as people have grappled with deep questions, a more distinct and resilient sense of self and a stronger leader has emerged. Sometimes this has led to dramatic changes in direction, sometimes just a better focus on what matters most. And these are not just ‘remedial cases’: I have worked with highly successful managers and leaders of businesses that have shifted up to a new level of effectiveness as they have tackled these questions.

Personal mastery

Let’s get human about resilience and remain vulnerable enough to help others through difficult times. Let’s be bold enough to ask deep questions. If we don’t, we may be building a sandcastle that will be swept away with the next high tide rather than truly building resilience.

Roffey Park’s new Personal Mastery and Resilience Programme provides space to ask these questions using Roffey Park’s Deep Questions ModelTM. For more information visit

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