While it hasn’t aged all that well, my household is a fan of the American version of The Office. The bumbling, so-often-inappropriate, but somehow endearing boss Michael Scott is frequently quoted. ‘I’m not superstitious. But I am a little stitious.’ is a favorite line that always brings a giggle. Michael, it seems, is always making a mess of something, misunderstanding something, or just plain struggling with something. Yet his character is fiercely optimistic and no matter what has happened to him before, Michael seems never to give up.
My father would call that ‘a glutton for punishment’. And while Michael Scott is a horribly flawed character worthy of his own deep-dive into self-worth, cultural competency, and more, Michael is also an incredibly resilient character. Often to his own detriment.
Michael Scott is caught in a resiliency circle. And while hilarious as portrayed on The Office, the reality of being caught in a resiliency circle can actually be pretty horrible. It’s a groundhog-day-like pattern, where any number of toxic events (small ‘t’ traumas most frequently) happen to us and we just keep enduring them – over and over and over. We’ve been habituated as a society to ‘never give up’ and we’ve had personal responsibility (you got yourself here) mixed with a dose of ‘quitters never win’ to create a poisonous blend that won’t let find relief from anyone or anything that is bad for us. Because we can take it.
It's true, too. If you’re in a resilience circle over a bad relationship, a negative workplace, a strained friendship, a toxic family member, etc., chances are pretty high that you are enduring it and will continue enduring it for a while. You keep using your resilience tools – Michael Scott’s tools are his unwavering optimism, blind dedication, and tenacity – to face things every day. Sometimes that is what we have to do. When met with our own teenage child’s moods, boundary-pushing, or poor decisions repeatedly, as a parent we have very little choice but to engage our deep resilience to help get our child through that period, hopefully teaching them to use their own resilience as well. Some resiliency circles are deep and systemic too. Like poverty and prejudice. People submitted to these inequitable circumstances fight heroically with their resilience tools and still have lower levels of baseline physical health and higher rates of chronic disease. And these results have been correlated not only to the access issues that abound but to actual cellular changes that occur when traumas are repeatedly inflicted. [For more on that research, I suggest reading about childhood ACES and their long-term effects or The Body Keeps the Score, by Bessel Van der Kolk.]
A resiliency circle is exhausting. And like the name implies, it doesn’t have an exit ramp. How long can you run in the circle? And at what cost to your mental and physical well-being? Eventually, resilience fatigue sets in. We give up. We succumb. We ‘burnout’: the term so often used to imply we’ve done something to ourselves, when very often there’s burnout because of an unhealthy resiliency circle that capitalizes on our ingrained work ethic, deep economic inequities, and takes advantage of our strengths until it all works against us.
You both need – and have – resiliency tools, but you need to use them wisely. Just because you can be resilient doesn’t mean you should feel obligated to continue to endure a toxic workplace, an unhealthy relationship, or a prejudiced neighbor. And while you have your own toolbox to combat these things, remember also that being resilient solo is a lot more difficult than calling for reinforcements. Engage others (a friend, a therapist, clergy, a coach) in supporting you; step out of the circle. You are more than what you’ve endured and you deserve Thrivorship, not Survivorship.
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