The teenager was almost past me when I read the caption on his tea shirt, “Mr Strong to the Rescue.” He was thin and of average height, hardly the stereotypical picture of strength.
What does Mr Strong look like to you? And what of his counterpart, Mr Weak? If someone can lift a car, does that make them strong? Am I weak because I can’t run for as long or as far as a marathon runner? If someone has been ill all their life, are they weak compared to someone who has never suffered a day’s illness? If one person can be wiped out by someone’s criticism, when it is met by laughter by someone else, does that make them weak? The thought of public speaking makes many people quake, does that make them weak when compared to someone for whom it’s a piece of cake?
For many of those I meet, and perhaps because of the work I do, strong seems to have a particular meaning that we should be able to meet any challenge that life sends us with no emotional pain at all. Men and women of all ages seem to have a belief that they should be able to meet anything that happens with total equanimity, whether it be illness, conflict, or even the death of a loved one. Culturally it seems, many of us have the expectation that nothing will touch us! It’s okay for others to need support and care, but we must be strong at all times.
The sub-text seems to be “I should be bigger than this!” Perhaps that’s true. However, I’ve never found it terribly helpful. If I’m feeling sad, then telling myself I shouldn’t feel like that doesn’t ease my sadness, it adds a sense of rejection, isolation and dismissal to an already painful situation.
Being strong seems to be a widely accepted ideal to be aimed for, but little guidance is available on how to achieve this nirvana. If we’re physically out of shape, we can train until our stamina and agility are improved. But how do we build emotional strength? The answer many people have to this question seems to be to put their feelings aside, and in time they’ll go away. Again, I’m not convinced. Ignoring emotional clutter is no more effective a strategy than ignoring any other type of clutter. It doesn’t go away on it’s own!
If I had a broken leg, I’d probably have to rest it for a while to let the healing occur. Yet many of us expect ourselves to recover from emotional wounding with no time for healing. For example, most employers give little, if any, time off to employees who have suffered the loss of a loved one. A couple of days, which in many cases is insufficient to cover funeral arrangements, is all that’s available. I’m not criticising employers here by the way, merely pointing out that as a society we are slow to recognise that emotional pain can be as devastating as physical pain. No one would say to someone with a broken leg, “Oh, get over it,” or, “Just suck it up,” and yet that’s what we often say to ourselves about grief, or anger, or a broken heart.
We all have our share of skills, we all have things we’re good at, and things we’re not so good at. Often though, when we measure ourselves, we put our worst against the best of others. We fail to take into account that we have developed different aspects. Few people excel at everything, and few have no strengths at all.
And there is no need for us to be strong at everything. One of the advantages of living in a community or society is that there is room for specialisation. We can choose what we want to learn and develop in ourselves, and concentrate on that, if not for our main occupation, then just for the joy of it.
We can forget that life is not so much a competition as a journey. All of us can learn from others who have perhaps faced the same problems we are facing now. (In education it’s a process known as proximate development. The teacher learns something then passes it to the student, who in turn becomes the teacher and passes it to someone else.) So it is with help and support. We are all both strong and weak. In areas that we are strong, in our skills, knowledge and ability, we have the capacity to pass it on to others. In areas where we are weak (or as I prefer to think of it, awaiting development) we can learn from others.
We can limit ourselves by labelling ourselves as “weak,” or we can get around it in another way, by learning from others, or by asking for help, or allowing others to support us. Labelling ourselves as weak keeps us in the victim, powerless place. Reframing it as “yet to be learned,” “yet to be developed,” “work in progress” or even “not on the agenda for now” allows space for something to change in the future.
In his best selling book, Think and Grow Rich, Napolean Hill describes his unfailing faith that a way would be found for his deaf son to hear. It took 20 years, but he did indeed find a way. Deafness from birth would be considered by many to be a weakness, but Hill refused to see it as such, preferring to hold the hope that things would change and they did. His son went on to use hid deafness as a platform for a successful career in a new form of artificial hearing devices.
And perhaps in the same way, what is often perceived to be weakness, feeling what we feel, expressing what we feel, is a strength in the making too.
It’s all about how you see it, isn’t it, Mr Strong? Or is your name Mr Weak?
Jude Fay is a psychotherapist at AnneLeigh Counselling and Psychotherapy, Naas and Celbridge