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I feel like I need to offer a massive correction to all of the people, you included, I may have fooled over the years:
I’m not actually all that tough.
I know the resting bitch face (which is very handy in repelling unwanted small talk at the gym or grocery store) may have suggested otherwise. Or the fact that I’m blunt, loud, and opinionated. Or that I very clearly do not suffer fools.
The exterior may look tough, but the inside is plenty soft and sensitive.
And, like most of you, for a long time I thought that sensitivity equated to weakness. I thought the only way to get through hard times was to “tough it out.” Put my head down, plow through my problems, and take no mercy (on myself, most especially).
You may be surprised to hear me say that neither 2018 nor 2019 were great years, by a long shot. And while all the gory details don’t need to be put on display (yet — I’m positive it’s a story I’ll tell when I have more hindsight and perspective), I can tell you that, very much against my will, I became a MUCH stronger person (stronger, but not necessarily tougher).
Like most lessons you don’t ask for, this one taught me so much about the true nature of strength. And I have a suspicion that you probably need to hear, as much as I did, what real strength is and what it isn’t.
So, this one goes out to you — especially if you’re under the mistaken impression that you’re weak.
WHAT STRENGTH USED TO LOOK LIKE
I’m guessing that your definition of “strength” is probably the more masculine one. It usually sounds something like:
- Suck it up. Life is hard and unfair, and crying about it won’t make it any easier.
- When the going gets tough, the tough get going.
- If life knocks you down, pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and keep fighting.
- Don’t expose your vulnerability to people. It’ll be judged as weakness.
- Put a smile on. Fake it ‘til you make it.
- Complaining is only something weak people do.
- Showing yourself compassion is another form of weakness. Beating yourself up is the only valid form of motivation.
To be clear, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with the masculine approach. (And by “masculine,” I don’t mean “male.” I’m referring to masculine energy — an inner state of being that’s inherently more forceful and rigid). There’s a time and place it, for sure. And if you happened to be legitimately wired in a masculine way, then having the more “tough” form of strength will come easy to you.
But because of the inherent cultural bias toward that type of strength, a lot of people (particularly us women) don’t feel like we’re “allowed” to explore what a different, more feminine approach to strength might look like.
Whether or not I wanted to, I got a front-row seat in 2018 to what it’s like to build emotional fortitude in a more feminine way. Because I certainly didn’t “tough it out,” but I did become strong.
WHAT STRENGTH LOOKS LIKE NOW
So, here’s what I learned strength is not about.
It’s not about:
- Being stoic. It’s allowing the rage and sadness and grief to flow unabated: upward and out of you, like you’re being purged of poison. (If you had food poisoning, would you try not to be sick? Or would you let it happen, as awful as it felt?)
- Being sunny and optimistic all the time. You’re still strong even in your moments (or days, or weeks) of dark pessimism.
- “Getting over” anything. It’s not about pretending or hiding from yourself or trying to deny how much it sucks that you’re in this situation. IT’S OK TO NOT BE OK.
- Pushing through. It’s being brave enough to let the fear, grief, and rage take you down temporarily, trusting that it won’t last forever. Every feeling is a wave — it has a beginning, middle, and end.
- Having to actively choose to be strong. God knows I certainly wouldn’t have elected to feel this way if I didn’t have to. You can become strong without wanting to, and while railing against it most of the time! It may be easier if you can sometimes find a sliver of meaning or purpose in the trial, but you’ll become stronger even without your express consent.
It’s pretty funny that women, most of whom identify as feminine-dominant when it comes to their innate energy, historically get labeled as “weak,” considering its women who exclusively endure the unimaginable pain and literal labor of bearing children. What could be tougher than that??
And if our bodies are designed to do that, then it’s clear our spirits are designed for great feats of strength, too. It just requires us to believe that the things that come most naturally to us — having unbounded feelings, being soft and vulnerable, having deep compassion and empathy — are just as powerful as any other kind of strength.
(And do I think it’s just women who could benefit from identifying with that kind of strength? Hell, no! It’d be great if all of us could integrate more of that. A lot of the behavior you’ve seen identified as “toxic masculinity” is what happens when there’s a dire lack of feminine energy.)
I’m convinced that the best way to become resilient — as in, someone who can weather storms and breathe through discomfort and keep the faith even in the darkest of times — is to let yourself be as emotional and vulnerable as you need to be.
Because when you let it be hard; when you don’t run away from the fear, the freak-outs, the tears, and the unknowns; when you let it plow right on through you, then you prove that you can do it again.
After a while, you start to say, “Well, here I am again. Crying on the floor. Still sucks as much as ever. But it hasn’t killed me yet. And I know how this goes by now.”
And always, though sometimes I’m annoyed about it and other times I’m profoundly grateful, the world just keeps on turning. Every time I’ve thought, “I can’t do this anymore!” I have, in fact, kept on going. The sun keeps coming up every day, and time keeps on passing, and what I swore I couldn’t bear for another day, I do, in fact, bear for another day.
THE MOST IMPORTANT THING I DID ALL YEAR
Far and away the healthiest, most sane thing I ever did while I was in the midst of many an emotional breakdown last year was reach out to people.
A weird side effect of going through an emotional ringer is that you end up having this golden opportunity to spill your messy, unglorified guts to other humans and end up forging a tighter bond with them because of it.
Nothing builds connection like real vulnerability.
A lot of people witnessed me at my messiest and emotionally ugliest this year. And I’m better friends with each and every one of them because of it. And in turn, my sharing gave them permission to share their messy bits too. I think I can speak for them and myself when I say that we’re all stronger because of that give-and-take.
I don’t know who said it, but, “It’s good to be loved. It’s profound to be understood.”
I feel infinitely stronger, and saner, because a handful of empathetic humans truly understood where I was, and, here’s the most important bit: They didn’t try to change it.
You don’t have to fix or be fixed. Support isn’t about “fixing.” It’s just about witnessing and understanding and empathizing. If you can give and, in turn, receive that, then that will be enough to get you through.
So, here’s to being strong — messy, emotional, not-at-all-OK, about to break — and strong… not despite all of that, but because of it.
I would love to hear your reaction to this. Come share with me in the comments below.
Rachel (& Kristen)
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Hello. I hope you all don’t mind that I’m a guy. I’ve been finding encouragement in these writings, especially after being recently released from a hospital for severe depression and suicidal thoughts. To be honest, however, this article, although encouraging to me, was more of a testimonial of my wife.
Not only did my wife endure the pain of child-bearing three times, but she endured my three-week stay at a hospital two hours away, all while keeping that sweet, sensitive, adorable, and loving personality that she’s well known for. Then last week, she’s in a roll-over accident down a ravine. And although our vehicle was totaled, God spared her life with only a concussion and bruised ribs (Highway Patrol was amazed she survived at all). Still, through all this, she remains sweet, sensitive, adorable, and loving to all. And against my advice, she wants to return to work tomorrow, ignoring the pain in her ribs.
Some people in her family have told her that crying is a sign of weakness. I tell her they’re wrong and she should never hold back any tears.
Anyway, thank you for this article.
We absolutely don’t mind that you’re a guy, Michael! We’re glad that anyone, of any gender, resonates with what we have to say. I’m so sorry that you and your wife have had such a rough time lately. Thank God she’s OK after such a scary accident! And thankfully she has a husband who sees and acknowledges her SUPREME strength. Her family is dead wrong about her tears! Anyone would cry, in her shoes. I hope she can be convinced to rest a bit and take it easy. It sounds like she does a great job of taking care of others, and deserves to take care of herself in the same way.
Thank you Rachel! I feel like I’ve been through the emotional wringer the past couple of months and have been trying so hard to hold it together. But my angst, fear and emotional exhaustion have showed their ugly faces despite my best efforts. (I’ve been trying not to make others around me miserable just because I’m feeling overwhelmed). But thanks for reminding me that it’s ok to be what I’m feeling and not worry about how it’s received. Hopefully, it’s making me stronger to just be who I am without trying to hide the ugly faces.
You’re so welcome, and I couldn’t agree more! Letting other people see our angst enables them to be supportive and helpful. I know for a fact that you are very empathetic and compassionate with other people, and letting them see your vulnerability allows them to do the same for you. 🙂
Yes to all of this! I definitely feel stronger and that I can handle more than I ever thought after a disasterous 2018. The one thing that I don’t have that you do, though, is people. I have my family and they’ve been a great help but my friends have kind of fallen by the wayside since I got laid off. I can’t even get them to ask me how I’m doing. It’s been very isolating and I’ve gotten to the point where I feel like they don’t care about me so why am I going to reach out for their help?
I’m sorry that you don’t feel very supported, Gillian! I was just telling Kristen today that, if nothing else, I want our podcast to be a source of validation and understanding–like a friend who cares unconditionally. But obviously that’s not a stand-in for IRL people! This may or may not resonate with you, but I’ll throw this thought out there for you to consider–Sometimes people are bad at checking in because they don’t know what to say. They may very well care; but they just don’t know how to express it (not everyone has a high degree of Emotional Intelligence). So it’s totally OK if you reach out and say, “Hey, I’ve been feeling a bit isolated. The story I’m telling myself is that people don’t care because they haven’t reached out.” I’m guessing at least ONE of your friends genuinely does care, and would be grateful that you opened the door to deeper communication in this way. In my case, I may have people, but I didn’t necessarily wait for them to reach out to me. I definitely asked to talk to them, and made it clear how I was feeling. Asking for what you need is sometimes the most important thing! Just something to think about. 🙂
This hits home for me. Whatever you’ve been going through, keep going! Sometimes it’s the only thing to do (fortunately and unfortunately, like you said). We don’t ask for challenges, but in hindsight we can see how they stretched us or built strength in us. Last year my word was “assertive”. Much like strength, that carried a negative masculine energy vibe in my mind. I decided to explore what “assertive” meant for me and I faced each day’s challenges head on — some days with more confidence than others. It was sure messy, but I fully showed up. I grew so much last year in the process. This year my word is “equipped” because I know I am equipped to handle whatever life throws at me now. Not by myself but with help. I think it’s Glennon Doyle who wrote about how sistering is literally just standing beside one another for support. Another way to describe it is to bear witness for each other. Vulnerability = strength
Thank you, Leah! I really like the reminder about Glennon’s definition of “sistering.” I’d forgotten all about that! 🙂
I need to send this podcast to my friends and just say “ditto.” I swear you read my mind, Rachel 🙂 Thanks for being vulnerable and always being relatable with your meanings!
You’re welcome! Knowing that there are people out there who deeply relate to this and get it means a lot to me! 🙂
Hi Rachel, You are so refreshing in a world of the social veneer eclipsing us as real, feeling beings. I have a question – have you ever experienced being open, kind and vulnerable to someone and then having them attack you? I went through a rough time last week and needed to withdraw and binge on the Outlander series on Starz (talk about a series everyone needs to see!!!) and when I came out of my cocoon my boyfriend was very ugly about my withdrawal. No matter how many times I’ve tried to explain to him that I need to withdraw sometimes, he doesn’t get it and takes it personally. It’s a no win situation. I need to withdraw to get strong and when I do, he attacks. Any suggestions?
Hey Jeanne, I totally support your desire to binge on Outlander (one of my favorite book series/shows!). And I’ve definitely experienced being attacked and misunderstood when I was attempting to be open and vulnerable. It really, really hurts. And it leaves you feeling so alone and misunderstood. I’m so sorry your boyfriend isn’t understanding your needs! I think this situation reflects more on him than you. It seems to me that he’s got some insecurities that rear their head when he perceives that people don’t want to spend time with him. Maybe he’s an Extrovert, so gets his energy from social interaction. Or maybe his Love Language is Quality Time, and perceives your withdrawing as a lack of love (check out the 5 Love Languages book if you haven’t). I’d also suggest that you introduce him to the concept of masculine/feminine energy to him (if you need a refresher, our episode from April 2018 called How to Work Like a Woman will help you). It sounds like your desire to retreat and recharge is a feminine energy thing, and he may not understand that if he’s wired in a masculine way.
I hope one of those things can improve your communication with him! And all that said, I will offer a tough love comment which is: If he’s not willing to take responsibility for his reaction and address the deeper-rooted reasons for why he’s getting triggered; if he’s not open-minded and willing to evolve, then it may be hard for you to be in a healthy relationship with him. You deserve to be with someone who wants to understand you and doesn’t jump to attacking you!