strong-strength

Why Being Strong Isn’t Always A Strength

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Introduction

My life script is ‘be strong.’  Sounds good, right?  Being strong?  However, being strong isn’t always a strength.

My parents were of the old-school stiff upper lip brigade.

I saw my father (ex-military) cry once – when his elderly mother died.

I always called my mother “my rock” – she was so strong, so grounded and so together….

…until dementia made her a shadow of her former self.

One of her favourite sayings was:

“It’s a great life if you don’t weaken.”

Whilst she was always saying to me, as a child and teenager:

“Tracey – you need to toughen up!”

No surprise then that my life script is ‘be strong’.

How Do You Know Your Life Script is Be Strong?  

So, how does this life script show up in your behaviour?

  • You put on a brave face no matter how hard you’re finding things
  • You don’t discuss your problems with anyone as you don’t want to burden them
  • You avoid asking people for help and see it as a sign of weakness in yourself (but not in others)
  • You bottle up your emotions and rarely cry, even in private
  • When you do cry or show extreme emotions you tend to feel ashamed
  • You berate yourself: “I should be stronger/better/more resilient than this…”
  • You keep telling yourself: “I’ll be fine” or “It will be OK when…”

But sadly it isn’t – and it won’t be if you continue acting in this vein.

Adhering to the ‘be strong’ life script undermines your strength.

Why Does Being Strong Undermine Your Strength?

The truth is that when you’re struggling, the behaviours that manifest themselves with a ‘be strong’ life script don’t help you.  Predominantly for two reasons:

  1. They stop you talking about stuff
  2. They prevent you completing the stress cycle.

Why Talking About Stuff Works

The psychologist Dr Dan Siegel coined the phrase ‘name it to tame it’ when it comes to emotions.

From a neurological perspective, when you talk about an emotion or even label it, you need to access the language centre in the brain.  As the language centre resides in the pre-frontal cortex or rational brain, this mental shift naturally dampens the emotional brain and hence the emotional response.

You are therefore able to distance yourself from the emotion, get a different perspective, take back a sense of control and see it rather than be it.  It no longer overwhelms you.

It’s one of the main reasons why talking therapies (and indeed Coaching) can be so effective in helping people resolve problems or get unstuck.

Why Completing the Stress Cycle Matters  

In their excellent book ‘Burnout – Solve Your Stress Cycle,’ the Nagoski sisters talk about the importance of completing the stress cycle.

Often in response to stress in modern times, we deal with the stressor without realising that we haven’t dealt with the underlying stress.  Why?  Because we haven’t completed the stress cycle.

When you think about your survival system it evolved to deal with immediate life and death matters.  Dealing with the sabre-toothed tiger about to attack your family or the woolly mammoth blocking your path.  You quite literally fought or fled these predators which in turn released all the pent-up energy and stress in your system.  You completed the stress cycle.

In modern times, daily stressors are often more imagined than real and they are rarely matters of life and death.  Think about the things that stress you out the most.  Work deadlines, your boss, sitting in a traffic jam, your partner’s untidiness, getting your kids out of the house in the morning. In the grand scheme of things, these are pretty minor and yet they can wind you up big time!

In the last year to 18 months, stress and anxiety have increased dramatically, especially for young people.  Whilst fear of getting seriously ill with COVID or fear of losing a loved one has, for the majority of us, been imagined not real, it has still felt like a matter of life and death upping the stress response dramatically.

Add to that the fact that many of our usual coping mechanisms were unavailable to us for long periods of time, and it’s clear that we’ve been storing up trouble for ourselves when it comes to not completing the stress cycle.  It’s exactly how chronic stress, mental illness and burnout come about.

Moreover, it is often those with a ‘be strong’ life script who appear so tough and resilient who are most prone to these conditions in the medium to long-term.

How To Complete the Stress Cycle

Essentially, completing the stress cycle is about releasing the energy, so good ways to do it include:

  • Physical exercise
  • Diaphragmatic breathing
  • Positive social interactions
  • Laughter
  • Affection e.g. a big hug
  • Letting it out e.g. crying

It’s also worth remembering that as you will experience stress every day, it’s important to complete the stress cycle every day so building in daily activities, habits and rituals that allow the release of that pent-up energy will be good for your mental health.

Summary

I, of all people, understand the ‘be strong’ mentality.  As a parent, a partner, a leader and even as a friend, you want to be strong, to be there for others, to act as a protector and, for some, to avoid showing any signs of ‘weakness.’  And there are times and places where this is appropriate. However, as with any strength when it’s overplayed it can become a weakness.

Remember being strong isn’t always a strength and being honest about how you are feeling, sharing a problem, asking for help or showing emotion is not a weakness either.  It is a sign of emotional maturity, courage and strength.

Moreover, it helps you complete the stress cycle.  The best way to avoid chronic stress, mental illness and burnout.

As an extremely good and resilient friend of mine, who has been struggling with depressive symptoms for a few months now, said to me very recently:

“I feel so much better for a week of being honest about everything with pretty much everyone who matters – including work.”   

So, if you are battling on right now, bottling it all up and hoping things will get better of their own accord, try it and see.  You’ll be amazed at the difference it makes!

 

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