True Resilience: Not Just Sucking It Up

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You know the old “Suck it up, Buttercup” saying? Most of us grew up on that, not knowing what true resilience is. We think we’re fine if we just take the hits, grit our teeth, and keep plugging forward without complaining.

Wrong, and the stats don’t lie. We know suicide is more likely than line-of-duty deaths in most first responder circles. Yet, we’re still perpetuating the notion that if we just suck it up we’ll be fine.

But that’s not true resilience; it’s just ignoring the problem.

So, what is true resilience? How do we get it, and how do we change the mentality so resilience is a bigger part of first responder culture?

There’s a way. Ready?

True Resilience

Think a moment about the word resilience. What does this mean to you?

You may consider resilience to mean the ability to tough it out and last longer. Maybe to you, resilience means not whining about your scars or complaining about your situation.

Sounds reasonable, that is until what’s festering inside makes its way out.

Want to know what true resilience is?

The Apple

Image two apples, shiny, crisp, and just ripe. Now toss one on the ground. Be sure not to break the skin. Let it roll around in the back of your vehicle. Play catch with it. Be rough. Just don’t break the skin. For the other apple, be cautious. Set it carefully in the seat. Don’t drop the second apple but place it gently.

Since you’re careful to not break the skin of the first apple, the two look similar still. Now let them sit on the counter for a bit. Let them age a day or two.

When you cut into the two apples, you know one will look different. The apple you tossed around and played harshly with will have bruises and brown spots. The other will look clean and crisp and much better for eating.

The Psyche

Our mental health, our psyche, our inner selves, is much like the apple. While we may not show our scars and bruises, we still bear them and they still affect us. If ignored, those bruises fester, causing us to build barriers around them. We create walls to protect ourselves, to shut others out.

On the outside, two people may seem the same, but on the inside, we have no idea what their psyche looks like. We don’t know the effects life has had on them or how they’re doing. We have to rely on them opening up. For those who are bruised like the first apple, this becomes less and less likely. After all, who wants to show their bruises?

How to Achieve & Foster True Resiliency

It’s never too late to build resilience, true resilience. The first step is self-checking and seeing if you’re doing a few things for yourself on the regular.

The Mindset

First, check your mindset. Relax. It’s not about being all sunshine and roses. First responders have ugly jobs and that would be unreasonably unrealistic. Your outlook can be grim (if that’s how you are), but your personal outlook should be sturdy and healthy. Some examples will help here:

  • “No one’s on. Tonight’s going to suck,” while also thinking, “I’ll get through it one hour at a time.”
  • “That call was awful and disturbing,” while also thinking, “I’ll need to decompress. I don’t want this keeping me from enjoying my kids this weekend.”
  • “It’s so hard to get a job,” while also thinking, “I need to keep trying, even if I change direction.”

See? You can have a realistic view of something while finding an honest and positive direction to take your thoughts. It’s not about creating a silver lining that doesn’t exist. It’s about finding a mindset with a concrete, actionable direction to stay focused and move forward. This too shall pass.

The Goals

Remember those actionable items in the examples? They only work if they’re goal-oriented. Whether it’s short-term or long-term goals, having goals helps you get through adversity and obstacles in your day-to-day life.

In the first example, the person wants to get to the end of the shift. Simple. It doesn’t have to be monumental. In the second, that person wants to hang with their kids without worrying about whatever that call was about. The third example has a goal of getting a job.

These are straightforward goals but goals nonetheless. If you stay goal-focused, especially in harder times, you will see past those moments and move through with more motivation. This is key to building true resilience.

The Honest Healing Process

Whether you’re healing from a broken wrist or a mental breakdown, true resilience requires an honest healing process. You can’t go to bat with a broken wrist any more than you can watch your partner’s six during a mental breakdown. Seriously, nothing is okay about that.

You need to take care of you so you can take care of others better. Read that again.

The honest healing process is just that. You start with being honest.

“That call hurt.”

“I’m not okay.”

“I don’t want to do this anymore.”

Now, don’t unpack and live there. Feel what you need to feel and find an exit. You don’t even need to say it out loud, just be honest with yourself.

Okay, maybe you’ve done that and you’re wondering, “Now what?”

See above. The mindset and goals are what get us from place to place mentally. Those are your apparatus. Sometimes it’s a smooth ride and sometimes lights and sirens are blaring like crazy. Get to where you’re going and know that you don’t have to go alone. [For support, we have a bunch of resources at FRC.]

Changing the Mentality of True Resilience

Building it up instead of sucking it up makes responders last longer. That’s true resilience. We can’t pretend the injury isn’t there. We can’t ignore the festering unseen wounds. The skin will break eventually and what’s inside will show.

If we start now, if we build channels and resources and protocols to allow responders to decompress, process, and navigate first responder life in a healthy way, they will last longer. Coping mechanisms are important too but having a resilient responder means secondary tactics are less needed and more effective if needed.

Let’s build a new mentality around true resilience. Let’s create and foster an environment where first responders can attend to those unseen wounds and bruises. Our responders put on brave faces every day, but there’s more to them than what the public sees. It’s time to build true resilience and a better future for first responders everywhere.