Reading many articles on burnout, physicians are understandably frustrated with being asked to be more resilient in the face of the pandemic, staffing shortages, and oppressive systems, to name a few. Often, when wellness is eluded to, physicians are encouraged to take better care of themselves or show “resilience” when truly what’s going on is that we’re asking them to adapt to unhealthy systems and show intense perseverance without signs of emotional exhaustion.
It may be helpful to differentiate resilience from other terms, such as grit, motivation, or determination. Resilience refers to withstanding, overcoming, or adapting to adversities and challenges despite hardship; and maintaining good physical and mental health. Here’s where we might confuse that term with grit, stick-to-it-iveness, or perseverance. And if that’s the case, physicians are righteously upset about being encouraged to simply stick with things a bit longer and be more persistent or determined. But there are a few caveats that are often overlooked with resilience.
First, resilience is multi-faceted and determined by experience, culture, temperament, and social and systemic support. We are not meant to be always resilient in every situation. Some of us might find that we’re resilient for periods of time when we have support and in situations where we feel safe. That’s normal. Second, resilience is built in relationships. The best antidote for trauma and stress is in a relationship with safe, stable, nurturing people with whom we can regulate our nervous system. Finally, resilience is built in communities and systems of support. When we look at research on resilience, those who feel seen and heard in supportive communities feel resilient.
Arguably, it’s not that physicians need to be more resilient. We’ve failed to provide them with the goodwill to be human and embrace their “whole selves” (people who are resilient often but not always), access to safe and consistent relationships to heal, and systems that support their well-being.
Physicians have persevered despite hardships. They have shown grit. Now, let’s give them supportive spaces, relationships, communities, and systems so that they may have the ingredients to feel resilient more often.
Amy King is a psychologist.
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