Three deeply personal lessons I’ve learnt about resilience

Resilience. The catch call of modern work-life. In the first few years of my professional career, I went through a tough patch where I was constantly stressed and anxious at work. Situational anxiety, my therapist told me. Advisors and bosses at work kept telling me I needed more resilience. I silently (or sometimes not so silently) railed against this advice. Sure, the workplace is no place for getting emotional but the more I was told I needed to be ‘resilient’ the harder it got to be resilient. I just couldn’t put words around why I felt like I wasn’t being given a helpful answer.

Fast forward to today. I certainly feel a lot more resilient. I’m less stressed. I find it easier to switch off at the end of the day. I am able to bounce back from negative situations more quickly. I am not completely stress free, but things are a lot better than they were.

The other thing that’s changed is I now have a better understanding of why I found the resilience advice of the past so hard to take. Simply put, it felt like I was being told in a work-acceptable language to just “suck it up”. And sucking it up is not resilience. Here are some other things resilience is not.


Under pressure (Photo by Kelly Lacy from Pexels)

1. Resilience is not defying your values to comply with how someone wants you to behave.

Working in corporate consulting is definitely the test that all those ethics courses at university were trying to prepare us for. Situations blur from grey to black pretty quickly. What made this even harder for me, is I was incredibly uncomfortable with even the lightest shades of grey to start with. I’d developed a really strong internal motivator that told me that the letter of the law was the law and harsh consequences awaited me if I even so slightly deviated from this. Put this in a situation where my teams and bosses put a lot of pressure on me to comply with very grey processes and behaviours and I was in for a lot of stress.

One distinct example I remember was listening to my boss and peer of mine discuss the performance of a junior team member. It rapidly devolved into heavy criticism of this person’s abilities and approach. Not only did I feel this had gone far beyond an appropriate assessment of professional behaviour, but it was also happening in front of a third party (myself) who had nothing to do with this individual’s performance or development. When I tried to raise this feedback later, I was told that “venting” was good to alleviate stress. I left that conversation feeling incredibly uncomfortable and wondering what those same people said about me behind my back.

Reflecting on situations like these, some I still see as heavily misaligned with my values and the type of professional (and human) I want to be at work. Others, I can now see in a clearer context and, having sought out more perspectives from people whose values I can respect, I now see maybe I was the one creating unnecessary stress from myself in an attempt to do the ‘right’ thing.

Resilience is getting a good handle on your values and practising applying those to your decision making, especially in ethically grey situations. This enables you to reduce stress because you don’t feel at odds with yourself over the decisions you make day-to-day. It also helps you be more flexible because you develop a personal sense of ethics. These internal guideposts help you decide where you need to be in strict compliance with the rules and where they are clearly guidelines for use in more general ways to guide the right behaviours.

2. Resilience is not putting up with a suboptimal situation… for a really long time.

I spent a long portion of the early part of my career getting into work an hour early, despite being a night-owl by nature. I spent many of those years working in a meeting room with a team that openly excluded other team members. I saw multiple leaders undermined and eventually leave the organisation because of the team I worked with. When we had work, we worked really long hours. When we didn’t have work, our hours were creatively accounted for, rather than seeking out other teams we could help.

I felt constantly stressed and like I could seldom do the right thing. Even when I succeed and was praised, it never seemed to be enough. Team members who complied with group norms were consistently given more opportunities than those who did not.

I remember once a colleague from another team asked me, “Is there anywhere you feel safe?” He could recognise what I could not. The situation I was in involved bullying and some really toxic team norms. If you spoke up about negative behaviours, stood up for people outside the group, or suggested a different approach that might make one of the others in the group appear less than perfect, you were severely criticised. But before long, you were drawn back into the group, being given feedback about how you needed to change to avoid disrupting team norms.

And I put up with this for several years. The situation only changed because the majority of that team left the organisation. I wish I’d realised I needed a change a long time before that, rather than trying to be ‘resilient’ to that situation for multiple years.

Resilience is the coping mechanisms that enable you to endure a negative situation until you have space, time, or opportunity to change it. It should help you build the skills you need to change it or find support from someone who can help you. And it should help you bounce back once the situation is dealt with.

3. Resilience is not letting people walk over your boundaries.

Whether you see the Myers-Briggs Types as a parlour trick or relatable popular psychology, I definitely find I relate really strongly with the #INFJ Instagram posts. As an empathetic type, part of an INFJ’s more destructive nature is to always put others’ needs and opinions first. We tend to want to make peace more often than we need to be right. But that is coupled with a really strong sense of idealism. So we’re constantly compromising on our idealistic standards, which is a recipe for stress.

Whether it’s my personality or just what I had learnt through experience, I certainly felt that to reduce the ‘drama’ and conflict I needed to comply with expectations and bite my tongue. I came in far earlier and stayed way later than was necessary to get my work done just as an attempt to fit in with the group. Time after time I ignored behaviours I felt weren’t consistent with the organisation’s values or ethics, like that feedback conversation I mentioned above.

This was especially destructive because, by the time I really felt I could no longer stay silent about an issue I was seeing in the team, I was so angry about it I usually couldn’t communicate the issues very professionally.

Again, I was told that this is the way things were. I listened to volumes of criticism for teams who didn’t operate the same way we did. I was told to be ‘resilient’ and speak to HR or the Employee Assistance line to deal with my mental health issues. (There was no mention of HR dealing with the clear values violations that were going on in the team…)

Resilience is knowing when things have gone too far. It is putting in place reasonable boundaries about what behaviours you are willing to accept from someone else. It is learning about what is acceptable in your professional context (and getting out of that context if what’s acceptable there is not acceptable to you.) It is having a support network so you can process and deal with unacceptable behaviours from others.

 

As much as I didn’t appreciate being told that I needed to be more resilient at the time, those people were ultimately right about what I needed. They were just wrong about what resilience looked like. If I had learnt healthy resilience practices at the time, rather than resorting to a “suck it up” brand of resilience, perhaps I could have skipped a very stressful period of my career.

What does resilience look like for you?

#integrity #resilience #work #worklifebalance