When we’re burned out or struggling with our mental health, the last thing we may want to hear about is resilience.

When we are told to be resilient, we often feel the pressure to appear stoic and unfazed. However, having – and expressing – mental health struggles doesn’t speak to how resilient we are. In fact, burnout can stem from having to be resilient in the face of hardship, over and over.

If someone expresses to you that they are struggling, responding with talk about “developing resilience” can cause harm even if you mean well. “Resilience” often feels like a dirty word to someone who is struggling.

Asking others to act strong can be harmful  

By immediately recommending resilience, you may unintentionally cause the other person to shut down or stop reaching out to you about their struggles. They may feel as though they cannot open up about their pain, for fear of being labeled as “weak” or “overly negative.” 

In reality, being vulnerable and talking about what you’re going through is one of the most important things a person can do for their mental health. It is a sign of emotional strength and has even been shown to reduce depression risk.

Struggles aren’t usually caused by a lack of resilience

Just because someone is struggling, doesn’t mean that they’re not resilient. A common misconception is that people who are resilient are free of struggle. In reality, resilient people still experience stressors–even if they’re able to bounce back quickly. Also, when you’re burned out, your brain physically changes, and you may become a slave to overwhelming emotions.

Helpful Twitter thread explaining the neuroscience of burnout.

Secondly, when recommending resilience, we are essentially ignoring the context of someone’s struggle. Many struggles, like burnout, are not within an individual’s control. The other person also may not have access to resources that aid resilience (money, food, shelter, healthcare, social support).

As Canadian resilience researcher Michael Ungar, PhD puts it: “Supportive spouses, caring families, nurturing employers, and effective governments are very often the difference between individual success and failure.” None of these are within an individual’s control.

In ignoring the context, we dismiss an important consideration–that someone else’s struggle might not be possible to overcome with willpower alone.

By jumping to resilience, we assume that they haven’t already been resilient, and we ignore the possibility that their resilience has been worn down by chronic struggle.

What’s more helpful than resilience for someone struggling or burned out?

There are other, more effective ways to support someone who is struggling, instead of telling them to be resilient. 

Offering emotional support

Your social and emotional support may be a key building block in the other person’s resilience. It is important that you practice actively listening to your loved one’s concerns. By validating their struggles and expressing genuine curiosity, you are showing them that they are safe to express their emotions with you. 

Acknowledge the other person’s current inner strength. When you offer validation and reassurance, you bolster their inner strength when they are going through a particularly tough time.

Recommending emotional regulation tools

No matter how resilient a person is, anyone can benefit from incorporating emotional regulation tools into their daily lives. Such practices can include grounding exercises and mindfulness (think deep breathing and meditation), and can lessen the impact of stress and anxiety in the moment. When we are grounded and calm, we are more able to face adversity with a clear mind. 

Encouraging therapy

In addition to providing our friend or loved one with social support, we can also assist them in seeking therapy if they are ready. Be mindful of how you approach the conversation around therapy. 

Suggesting therapy can be tricky because 1) therapy can be expensive, 2) some people may find it hurtful or offensive to be told to seek therapy, and 3) people may believe that mental health treatment is unhelpful or just time-consuming.

However, therapy may be a vital support in what your friend is going through. It’s often worth the risk to start a conversation. 

When navigating the conversation…

  1. Actively listen to their struggles, without jumping to advice-giving. Telling someone, “I’m here for you, let me know if you need a listening ear” can go a long way. 
  2. Offer to come up with solutions if it feels like your friend is stuck on a problem, (e.g. “it sounds like things are feeling a little tricky to navigate. Do you want to hear my thoughts/ideas?”). However, try not to tell them what to do.
  3. Normalize therapy. Just because someone is needing mental health treatment, does not make them any less resilient. If you’ve been to therapy, disclosing that can go a long way in normalizing help.  
  4. Work with them to find resources.  “I am always honored that you’re willing to confide in me, but I really don’t know what the best path forward is. Are you open to looking for a therapist?” If your loved one does not have access to health insurance, there are other ways of seeking support, such as through sliding scale clinics.  

If someone uses unhealthy coping strategies, can they still be resilient?

Many of us have unhealthy coping strategies that we turn to from time to time, which doesn’t make us any less resilient. These strategies may help us deal with or numb distress in the moment, and turning to them may be an act of resilience in difficult circumstances. The best possible solution (i.e. cheapest, most accessible, most effective) may technically be considered “unhealthy,” while still being a cornerstone of getting through tough times. 

That said, if you know someone whose coping strategies may be causing more harm than good, there are ways that you can support them. First acknowledge that these strategies have served them, in one way or another. Validate the immense pain that is behind the unhealthy coping. 

Taking a non-judgmental stance is important here, because it helps reduce defensiveness. Again, after all, many of us end up turning to some kind of unhealthy coping skill at some point in order to get through a particularly challenging patch in our lives. 

One way to support the other person without judging them is to simply invite them to join you in a healthy coping strategy. This is a form of modeling healthy coping, and it is often easier to do something healthy in the company of a loved one.

You can go on a walk together, take turns venting over coffee, or try body doubling to maintain productivity despite your struggles. Your plans do not have to be fancy or require a lot of energy in order to feel helpful. 

To take away…

It’s important that we are mindful of the words that we use to uplift our friends and how they might be perceived. Telling someone to be resilient, or that they ARE resilient, might not always come across as supportive for various reasons. However, there are more constructive ways of supporting your loved one through a hard time that do not involve encouraging them to be “more resilient.”

When someone you know is burned out or going through difficulty, remember that there may be more to the story than you know. They may in fact be more resilient than you might assume.