The myth of strength

Emotional strength is a myth. It’s easy to come up with loads of examples of physical strength, but what do we mean when we say someone is emotionally strong or weak? Do we think they’re able to bounce back from a shock? Or do they successfully cloud their true feelings?

If I had to name someone in history who was emotionally strong, I’d think of a person who showed no empathy or kindness. I’d think of steely-willed, soulless figureheads like Maggie Thatcher. It is hard for me not to connect emotional strength with being tough, and consequently an absence of compassion. Because what brings me down and makes me feel powerless is when those I care about suffer and there is nothing I can do about it.

Sometimes people say I am courageous. I honestly can’t see the meaning in this. I don’t perceive myself that way and I know myself much more intimately than anyone else does. I spin these compliments into something negative, assuming that those who deliver them are suggesting I’ve achieved something by not committing suicide. I’m not being brave, I’m just surviving. I don’t really have a choice.

I used to think I was weak because I had failed at life. Particularly when I was admitted to a psychiatric hospital. It felt like I’d reached the end of the road. I had lost control and everything had unravelled. But I came to understand that failure doesn’t equal weakness, just like success doesn’t equal strength. It’s not our successes that make us strong, it is the way in which we respond when things go wrong.

I had the privilege of seeing this first hand in group therapy. I met people who were committed to themselves and their recovery, who were prepared to search for a way through their fear, trauma, addiction and depression. It was humbling.

Strength is picking yourself up when you fall down. It is examining your thoughts and feelings and exposing them to others for criticism. Taking the risk of showing a room full of people how you really feel, what you really keep under the façade. Ultimately, I have learned that piecing your life back together when it has been shattered takes real, authentic strength. It takes guts and determination. It hurts. It really fucking hurts and it is exhausting. And this strength grows out of something much more basic than bravery or courage, it stems from the will to survive.

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