PART ONE: Are You Tough or Resilient? How They’re Different and Practical Skills to Increase Your Resilience

By: Sara Hunter, Wellness Advisor, OITE

The difference among scientists at NIH is many, creating labs colored with diverse ideas, insights, and perspectives. But despite these important and notable differences, a commonality seems to be an essence of toughness. It feels like an unspoken norm among scientists of enduring grueling hours and demands without feeling the inevitable wear this creates on our bodies and minds. We move forward with our head down, sometimes out of exhaustion and other times out of complete will to achieve (often both), wearing the stress and busyness this creates in our lives as a badge of honor. We rationalize our way through our days, paying little attention to warning signs from our bodies to slow down or adjust. We continually convince ourselves that a little less sleep and little more work will earn us our worth and be the answer to the problem of feeling constantly behind despite the early mornings and late nights to which we are already indebted.

This takes toughness; there is no doubt about it. But in all this external toughness, there is an internal, silent suffering of self-doubt, fear of never quite being good enough, fatigue, and fruitless striving toward the impossibility of perfection that serves to hide our deep-down insecurity of not measuring up to expectations, mostly created by ourselves. This mismatch between our external behaviors of “toughness” and internal experiences creates the perfect recipe for isolation, unnecessary mistakes in our work, burnout, illness, lack of compassion for self and others, and even feelings of depression and anxiety. The list goes on. 

Clearly, we’re tough because we’ve pushed through; we’ve made it this far. But are we resilient? Toughness is our ability to get through difficult experiences. Resilience is our ability to get through difficult experiences and bounce back stronger and wiser. The former requires a head-down, clenched-fist, heavy-eyed stubbornness that wears on our psyche over time, decreasing efficiency and joy in our work. The latter requires a compassionate, present-minded humility that continuously builds our repertoire of skills and resources, increasing our overall well-being as we’re more agile in our response to the inevitable setbacks we all face. 

So how do we know if we’re strengthening our resilience or shielding ourselves with the aging armor of toughness? Here are a few key questions for you to explore to better understand where you may fall: 

  • Do you pull-back from new or difficult tasks to avoid mistakes?
  • Do you feel shame when you need help or make a mistake?
  • Do you tend to over-work, avoid, or procrastinate out of fear of not getting something exactly right?
  • Do you avoid feedback, especially around work that is challenging or new?
  • Do you ignore, push-down, or minimize signals of distress from your body or heightened emotional responses to stress?
  • Do you experience feelings of guilt when you’re not “on” or working? Or do you struggle saying no, even when you’re overworked?
  • Do you engage in avoiding or numbing behaviors when you experience discomfort or stress?

If you answered yes to some or most of these, chances are you’ve developed a toughness that has pulled you through. Good for you; that’s not easy. But, if I had to guess you’re probably feeling tired, overwhelmed, and unsure of yourself despite your outward successes. Next week, we will discuss some basic tips to begin to move away from the ineffective and exhausting patterns of toughness and closer to a more resilient self.

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