Think back to all those times you’ve experienced yourself or someone else cracking under pressure. Times when you or the other had a mental breakdown and couldn’t see the woods for the trees. How often at those moments have you heard or uttered the phrase: “I have been trying to be strong for too long”?
And how often have you told yourself “I have to be strong” when times got tough? Or how often have you given that advice to someone else?
Though I appreciate and praise your good intentions, here’s my advice: stop it.
Why are we trying to be strong?
It’s completely natural and completely understandable to want to be and stay strong. I think we all have that voice in our heads that tells us to try to be strong whenever we’re faced with our emotions.We want to put up a brave face, and show to the outside world that we’re tough.
For most people, there’s no reason to question that desire.
So that’s exactly why I’m going to ask the question: why is that?
Why is it so important for us that others see us as strong? Why are we afraid to show any kind of vulnerability?
It’s evolution, again
It’s starting to become a bit of a running gag on this blog. But evolution can explain virtually everything about human behavior, and it can explain this too.
The easy answer is that, historically, the strongest people had the biggest chance of reproducing. Obviously all animals want to reproduce with strong, fit, and healthy specimens of their species. Because that will lead to the biggest chance of survival for their offspring, and therefore their genes. And that drive is really the only reason any animal still exists today.
So on the one hand, there’s that. On the other hand, there’s competition. Not only to be the strongest one, but also to be the one coming out on top. And you can do that by sabotaging your competitors. Obviously, showing your weaknesses makes you vulnerable to attack. Literally. Not only from predators, but from competitors too.
Showing vulnerability makes us feel uncomfortable. It gives us a sense of fear, of not being safe. And while that has been true throughout most of evolution, in today’s society, it’s causing more problems than it’s solving.
Of course men are physically stronger than women, on average. But it makes no sense that we expect men to be mentally stronger too, as if they shouldn’t feel strong emotions.
I have to be honest, the phrase “man up” really digusts me. For several reasons.
First of all, it’s kind of sexist if you think about it. When someone is feeling emotional, you’re telling them to be more of a man. And thereby less of a woman. As if being emotional isn’t manly, and being womanly isn’t good. It perpetuates gender stereotypes that frankly have no place in this world anymore. But that’s a story for another time.
More importantly, telling someone to “man up” is a symptom of macho culture. Men are being taught to bottle up their feelings, or preferably not even have them at all. They’re supposed to be tough, not vulnerable. They should be strong.
And while it’s alright to wish for someone to be strong, it’s not alright to put them down for not being strong. And that’s what we’re doing now as society.
Trying to be strong only makes it worse
Ask yourself, what happens when you’re experiencing some heavy emotions and you tell yourself to be strong?
In all likelihood, that means you won’t be addressing the emotions you’re having. You’re probably pushing them away instead.
In a lot of cases, there’s also a sense of not being allowed to feel those emotions. As if you shouldn’t feel them in the first place.
Very frequently, we beat ourselves up over experiencing certain emotions. We call ourselves weak for feeling insecure, or depressed, or angry, or jealous.
So instead of addressing the cause of those emotions, and processing them, we try to dismiss them. We tell ourselves that strong people don’t have those emotions and we try to push through.
Hopefully, by now, it should be clear what the problem with that strategy is.
Emotions aren’t optional
We treat our emotions as if we should be able to erase them. As if it’s possible to just not feel them.
And if you’ve been telling yourself to be strong for a long time, you may have gotten pretty good at it. Or at least, that’s what you think. Because in reality, you haven’t learned to erase those feelings at all. You’ve only learned to mask them, to push them away.
“So what,” you might think, “if I push them away they won’t bother me anymore, right?”
Actually, they’ll just bother you more in the long run. That’s why I asked you those questions at the beginning of this post.
Most people who keep pushing their feelings away will eventually crack. Eventually, they’ll break down under the pressure, or they’ll explode. Those feelings will come back with a vengeance.
And that’s the moment people say “I have been trying to stay strong for too long”.
Trying to be strong undermines healthy coping skills
Every time you decide to “man up” and push those emotions away, you’re not dealing with them. You’re trying to ignore them out of existence.
The fact of the matter is that all of us experience emotions. We all have feelings. And unless you’d rather be a robot, it’s not an option to try and prevent having feelings.
The healthy thing to do, is to learn how to handle those emotions when they come. Instead of pushing them away, you address them in a healthy manner.
That doesn’t necessarily mean everything has to turn into a sobfest. It’s completely okay to shelve emotions for a moment when it’s not appropriate.
But you have to remember that, as long as those emotions aren’t dealt with, they’ll stay there somewhere in the back of your mind until they get a chance to pop back up.
They’re like a cork that you’re trying to push under water. The harder you push it down, the faster it will fly back up when you lose your grip on it.
Maybe you think that being strong represents how good you are at pushing those corks under water. Or how good you are at keeping them under water.
But the whole mentality of “trying to be strong” doesn’t focus on dealing with your emotions in a healthy way. It’s come to mean repressing your feelings and trying not to be bothered by them.
There’s no mention at all of what you do with those feelings afterwards.
The proper way to handle your emotions
Every significant emotion you feel needs to be addressed. Even if it doesn’t matter, if it doesn’t really impact you, you’re better off if you process them.
Because emotions mean something. They tell you something about your mental state, about what’s going on in your head. They have meaning.
You have to realize that your feelings come from somewhere. And if you don’t want to feel certain feelings anymore, you need to address the cause, and not try to mask the symptom.
Acknowledge your emotions
Don’t try to wave off your emotions. Take a moment to notice them, acknowledge them, and then choose what to do with it.
If you choose to shelve an emotion for a while, because you’re in a meeting, or you’re watching a movie with friends, that’s fine. But I urge you to come back to it later and find out where it came from.
If you find out that it didn’t mean much, that’s fine. So does that make this exercise a waste of time in that situation? Not at all! Because the next time that emotion pops up again, you’ll know what it means, and you’ll be able to let it go easier.
If it turns out to be coming from a deeper, more pernicious root, that’s fine too. That means you’ve identified a problem. And identifying a problem is the first step towards healing.
Even if you haven’t come around to solving the underlying problem, you’ll know how to interpret that feeling the next time around. Just being aware of it makes it easier to work on the issue.
By frequently doing this, you’ll learn to recognize which of your emotions make sense, and which you can disregard or set aside for the moment. You’ll learn what makes you tick, and why you feel the way you feel. And that helps you identify any underlying problems so you can start working on them.
Example: my jealousy
Take jealousy, for example. I’ve struggled with jealousy and envy for many years. What I did was pushing those feelings away, because I felt like I shouldn’t feel them at all. I took them as a sign that there was something wrong with me.
Jealousy gets a bad rap. Pop culture sees jealousy as something that is wrong, as something only weak people feel.
But jealousy can’t be solved by just saying to yourself you shouldn’t be jealous. Instead, it tells you that there’s some kind of insecurity deep within you. Something in your way of thinking that causes you to be jealous.
For me, it was definitely insecurity. I was worried because I thought of myself as lesser, as undeserving, or at least as less deserving than the others, and I kept comparing myself to them.
I never got rid of my jealousy when I tried pushing it away. It just came back up every time. Every time I was faced with a similar situation, it kept coming back again and back again. I kept pushing it down without ever addressing it. And it wasn’t until I decided to look at where my jealousy came from that I could start to heal.
The cure for my jealousy wasn’t telling myself not to feel it over and over. It didn’t help to tell myself that I didn’t need to be jealous, it didn’t even help when others told me. The only thing that worked, was cultivating a sense of self-worth.
And from the moment I started believing in my self-worth, feeling confident in who I am and what I have to offer, those feelings of jealousy dissipated.
Know that all emotions are okay
Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you’re not allowed to feel what you feel. It’s not possible to just stop feeling a certain thing, so how in the world should you comply then? Why do we expect people not to be human?
Here’s the kicker: all emotions are okay to have. It’s just not okay to act on all of them.
The important thing is not which feelings you feel, but what you do with them. But that still doesn’t mean pushing those feelings away or trying to ignore them. It just means that, even though you might feel them, you don’t allow them to influence your actions.
It’s okay to feel jealousy. But it’s not okay to act on that jealousy and sabotage someone else.
It’s okay to be angry at someone. But it’s not okay to take that anger out on that person.
It’s okay if you feel like someone hurt your feelings. But it’s not okay to get back at them, or be mean about it, or give them a cold shoulder.
Don’t make someone else the victim of what you’re feeling. You really don’t have to pretend like you don’t feel those emotions. But you can be mature about it and talk about it with the other person, for example.
Let other people feel what they feel too. Let their feelings exist. As long as they take care not to act on it all the time, there’s no harm in it. Don’t take it personal. And when in doubt, talk about it with each other.
Being strong needs a new definition
We currently define being strong as being able to repress your emotions and not letting them bother you. As if the true goal is to not feel those things at all.
But that’s not what strength really is. Just feeling certain things doesn’t make you weak, or inferior.
I feel like “being strong” should mean that you know how to handle your emotions properly. Without continuously letting your emotions influence your actions. Without making other people the victim of what you’re feeling. And without pushing it down without addressing it so it’ll just explode later.
We shouldn’t be encouraging people to run from their emotions. We shouldn’t kick them when they’re already down. It’s not okay to tell people they’re not good enough because they’re feeling certain things.
Why don’t we just recognize it as a sign that they need help and support? Instead, why don’t we try to build each other up? Why don’t we help each other grow?
Strength comes from the courage to face your issues, and to work on them. It comes from not letting your emotions influence your behavior, regardless of what you feel.
It doesn’t mean that you don’t feel anything negative. Instead, it means that you feel all of it, but you don’t let it take hold over you.
If you’re feeling depressed, it’s not a sign of strength if you just bite back the tears and try to ignore what you’re feeling. Strength means that you know when to ask for help.
Being human comes with a wide range of emotions, from positive to negative, from mild to extreme. Accept your emotions. Accept your humanity.
True strength comes from being able to face all those emotions, and deal with them in a healthy way, and not trying to flee from them.