Here’s What’s Really Happening When You Act Resilient

It’s time to stop insisting everything’s fine when you’re actually drowning

Photo: Gary Yeowell / Getty Images

For many of us, a significant percentage of pandemic life has been dedicated to processing how difficult it is to live through pandemic life. We’ve encouraged one another to acknowledge that we’re not okay, made all the intellectual arguments for why social isolation is so crippling, delved into the ways in which being stuck in our homes is breaking our bodies and our minds. We’ve shouted from the rooftops that this is hard.

So why does it still feel so unnatural — maybe even a little embarrassing — to be fully transparent about how not-okay we are? As we insist on normalizing not-okay-ness for those around us, why do we not extend that to ourselves?

The emotional drowning response

It’s a common response to stress and trauma, especially for high-achievers and ambitious people: the idea that at all costs, we must be, or at least seem, okay. I’ve come to consider emerging from trauma miraculously unscathed to be part of my personal brand. I know it’s garbage thinking, the emotional equivalent of the “cool girl” trope. Yet always being okay defines the way I think about myself. My most trusted coping mechanism is denying that I’ve been affected at all.

There’s something called the Instinctive Drowning Response that kicks in when the human body senses it’s in trouble in the water, and it looks nothing like the shouty flailing you’ve seen on TV. People who are actually drowning are quiet. The instinct to breathe takes precedence over the ability to call for help. Other people often fail to recognize someone who is drowning because they’re not yelling and waving and openly struggling — their arms are too busy pushing the water down, desperately trying to stay afloat.

An emotional drowning response looks a lot like this, pushing down emotion like so much rising water.

This kind of behavior gets rewarded. People love capable stoicism in the face of extreme bullshit. It can be a relief to think of yourself as tough and resilient rather than silently suffering. And for me, it’s much easier to accept their praise than actually grapple with difficult feelings. In the short term, it feels better than asking for help.

Achievement is a disguise

The summer after my freshman year of high school, my mom and sisters and I visited some of my mom’s old friends. It was our first family vacation after my parents had separated. It had been an incredibly hard year, defined by my father’s ongoing mental health crises. One of my mom’s friends said to me: “How do you do it? How are you so well-adjusted and composed despite all this?” I recorded this as the new organizing principle of my life: When you simply go about your day and ignore your feelings, people praise you for being brave and strong.

Back then, I coped by succeeding — being on the honor roll, playing first part in my high school wind ensemble, lettering on the varsity ski team. I carried this coping technique with me throughout my adult life. When I was in my thirties, my dad committed suicide, and when I calmly reported this to my therapist, she complimented me on my resilience. Really, I was numb, but since I got so much validation from performing okayness I just went with it. And now, I’m handling the pandemic this way. I’m drowning in parenting and professional stress, but you’d never know it from the homemade eclairs I baked my family for Valentine’s Day.

People who are drowning don’t look like they’re drowning, because they stay upright in the water. They look fine. But I think this is a good moment for us all to look around — at ourselves, at our loved ones — and clock who looks fine, who looks like they are handling everything with calm resilience, but is potentially really drowning. And then reach out a hand to pull them out.

Give your inner guardians new jobs

In his book How To Write An Autobiographical Novel, Alexander Chee writes about what he calls his “guardians” — the interior versions of himself that push him to always seem okay as a self-protective measure. “You can’t get rid of the guardians who’ve kept you safe until now,” Chee’s therapist tells him. “You have to give them new jobs, the jobs they have they’ve been doing since you were a child.”

What are the guardians that have helped you to manage difficult situations? What new jobs can you give them?

Chee thinks of his guardians as different versions of himself, emotional iterations. Since reading his essay I’ve come to think of mine more like a team responsible for running my life (which may largely be wishful thinking on my part). I find it easier to reassign them new jobs if I can give them personalities as well.

That overfunctioning past self who learned long ago to act like everything is just fine/good/great thank you very much? I’ve turned her into an eye-rolling teenager responsible for gut-checking me when I don’t actually want to do something but I’m halfway to saying yes just to prove that I can. I’ve also added the Kindly Brontosaurus to the team to help me ask people for things like moving a 5 p.m. meeting to a more mom-friendly time, or giving me two hours to myself. There’s another one I think of as “The Editor,” reminding me firmly, but kindly, to see a new therapist, or to schedule a chat with that friend who always tells it like it is. The Editor’s role is also to ask, “What can you ask for right now? Realistically, what could be different?”

The guardians can serve as cheerleaders — maybe you need yours to tell you that you can make it through a truly awful week, or that you should apply for a job that you might not get. They can be your taskmasters. And they can also be lifeguards.

If you’re in crisis, maybe you need a team of lifeguards, reminding you to tell the people in your life how you really feel. No one can help save you from drowning if they think you’re just contentedly bobbing in the waves.

Annaliese Griffin is a writer and editor who most recently led the Quartz Daily Obsession, an award-winning newsletter. She lives in Vermont with her family.

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