In the face of injustice, some people will rise up, rebel, and challenge systems of oppression, while others will do nothing. The psychology of rising is highly complex and a much too-large topic to tackle all at once. Let’s take the first step. What are some of the basics behind why some people rise and others do not? Learn more about the philosophy of rising, resiliency, and how to rise up to the occasion.

Rising Despite Adversity

The act of “rising” has rebellious connotations, even in its most simple forms. Maya Angelou’s poem, “Still I Rise,” details the violence and racism Angelou experiences in America—“and still I rise,” she writes. She is confident in her worth and shows her oppressors the love she has for herself and other Black people. By living fully, breathing, and existing, Angelou rebels against a society designed to make it difficult for her to succeed or experience joy. In the face of adversity, racism, and discrimination, Maya Angelou continued to rise each day. 

The question of rising in this context becomes, how do people who experience intense adversity, such as racism, continue to rise? 

Resiliency in the Face of Racism

International research points to key themes that help people achieve resilience in the face of racismThese include acknowledging and challenging racism, emotional distancing, developing a strong sense of identity, and seeking support from loved ones. When instituted, these pillars can help a person who experiences racism rebuild their self-worth, purpose, and confidence—empowering them to rise

The Power of Social Support

One psychology study by Sannisha K. Dale and Steven A. Safren delved into how one group in the U.S. achieves resilience: Black women living with HIV (BWLWH). In the U.S., BWLWH not only represent the highest percentage of women living with HIV but also experience worse health outcomesDespite repeated experiences of “trauma, racism, HIV-stigma, and stressors they face as women,” many BWLWH are able to “bounce back.” The study found that BWLWH were resilient due to the social support from their family members, friends, peers, and care providersThese people helped them both overcome their adversities and focus on improving their well-being and health. As social beings, humans gain strength by leaning on their communities. Often the resiliency of one individual is thanks to a much larger support network. Dr. Franonia Pollins was misdiagnosed with HIV: she shares her story in “The Sexy Side of Success.”

Rising Up

When people who do not experience adversity rise up in the presence of injustice, they are exhibiting a different form of rising. Some people will rise up against American immigrant prisons, solitary confinement, and the school-to-prison pipeline. Others will not. Why do some people get involved in social movements, stand up for what is right, and put their lives on the line, while others do nothing? 

Motivation Through Emotion

Social movements sociologist James M. Jasper argues most of it comes down to the presence of emotion. He explains, “social movements are affected by transitory, context-specific emotions, usually reactions to information and events, as well as by more stable affective bonds and loyalties.” In other words, rising up in the face of injustice is often motivated by how much a person actually cares. Action speaks louder than words, and often a person’s access to the emotion behind a cause motivates them to consistently take action.

White Silence, White Violence

The reasons for not taking action against oppression can be misconstrued. Robin DiAngelo describes the violence of White Silence, which is when a white person does not stand up against racism in conversations about race or in their actions. Some white people rationalize their silence in the following ways:  “It’s just my personality—I rarely talk in groups;” “I don’t know much about race, so I will just listen;” “I don’t feel safe… so I am staying quiet;” among other rationales. DiAngelo argues that regardless of the ways white people may rationalize their inaction and silence, “it functions to maintain white power and privilege.”

As it relates to engaging with anti-racist social movements, rising up against injustice should not depend on a white person’s comfort level. Not speaking out, standing up, or rising up against the oppression of others is violent in itself. 

Rising Up to the Occasion

Another form of rising is when someone “rises to the occasion.” This happens when someone performs at a higher level when faced with a new challenge. Sometimes situations arise that are impossible to prepare for, and people need to rise up to the occasion. 

Why do some people rise up to the occasion, while others do not?

Tonic and Phasic Strengths

Psychologist Ryan M. Niemiec explains that in positive psychology, there are two kinds of strengths that people have: tonic and phasic strengths. Tonic strengths are the strengths that arise the most often for the individual across many contexts and situations. They are the most central to who we believe we are and help shape the way we see ourselves.

Niemiec explains that the most common phasic strength is “bravery at a time of crisis or challenge.”

For example, the people who successfully save a child from drowning or defend someone being bullied. He says, “In such situations, you rise up, and exert your bravery.”

We use our phasic strengths, in contrast, much less frequently. We overlook these strengths because they are not often called upon. Yet, our phasic strengths are the ones that appear in times of heightened challenge, when we face situations that we do not often come across. Neimiec explains, “When the situation calls for it you bring it forth very strongly. You rise up, rising to the occasion. You do what is necessary and you do it strongly.”

Marcus Doe’s Phasic Strength

When TEDxMileHigh Imagine speaker and Liberian refugee Marcus Doe was only 14, he was thrown into an impossible situation. His father had been killed by rebel forces in the Liberian civil war. For over 16 years, he grappled with the trauma of losing his father at such a young age, focused primarily on revenge. After 16 years, Doe discovered a strength he did not realize he had: forgiveness. By forgiving the man who killed his father, Doe was able to free himself and extend compassion to someone he once held a deep hatred for. Doe discovered a way to rise despite how traumatic his circumstance. Watch his TEDxMileHigh talk to learn more about how Doe came to this realization.

How to Rise Up to the Occasion

As we have discussed, there is no simple answer to this question. Rising in the face of adversity requires community, healing, and rebellion. When someone rises up against injustice, it requires consistent humility, compassion, sacrifice, and dedication. And rising to the occasion requires the utilization of skills and strengths you might not know you have. Rise up because it is right. Rise up because you are courageous. 

If you would like to attend TEDxMileHigh’s upcoming free virtual event: Rise, register here.