Redefining Emotional Strength, by Krista Cheuk, Associate MFT
What does it mean to be “strong” in the face of a tough or traumatic situation?
This is such an important topic to me, because everyday I see how our idea of emotional strength sets the tone for how we feel about ourselves and work through the fallout of tough or traumatic situations. For many people, the idea of emotional strength conjures up an image of someone silently bearing pain and stress. This person never lets anyone else see them at their most vulnerable. In this value system, the stronger the person, the less you know about what they are going through or how they are affected by the circumstances in their life. This person goes about their life, seemingly unaffected by whatever trauma they have faced.
If you feel like you can relate, I want to challenge you today to be curious and open about this image of strength in your life and its effect on you. What if being strong actually meant being honest with others and ourselves about our pain and trauma?
Suffering in silence can lead us to isolate ourselves from others and impact our sense of self. When we try to hold ourselves to the stoic, “suffer in silence” standard, we can fall prey to shame, or the sense that there is something wrong with us at the deepest level of our identity. As humans, we use emotion to process and make meaning out of the events in our world, and the things that happen to us inevitably affect us emotionally. When we attempt to disown these emotions, but find ourselves feeling them anyway, shame can grab hold over our lives. We can feel that we are failing the standard we have set up for ourselves, and therefore there is something wrong with us. As a result, we may try to withdraw ourselves from our friends and family, thinking they will judge us as we judge ourselves. We may be crippled by anxiety. Or, we may try to numb out our pain by self-medicating with alcohol, busyness, social media, etc. So often, the stoic standard of strength calls us to withdraw from others when we need to reach out for support and to know we are not alone.
Vulnerability is a vital ingredient in the cure for shame and opens the door for support and healing. One of my favorite movies, Inside Out, gives a great picture of this idea in play. The main character finds herself gripped with sadness over a challenge in her life, but will not allow herself to feel it. Instead, she focuses on being the “happy” girl that she thinks she needs to be for her parents. Feeling ashamed that she is unable to will herself out of her pain, she demotes sadness to being an unwanted emotion. Unfortunately, the effort it takes to keep her sadness and pain from showing is too much to bear and she spirals into a bout of depression. She withdraws from her close relationships. Only when she has the strength to be vulnerable regarding the pain of what she is going through is she able to reach out to her family and find the support and love she needs. She finds, in short, that she is not alone in her sadness and can begin to find healing with the support of others.
Bessel Van der Kolk (2014), a leading researcher in the field of trauma work and healing, identified safe relationships as one of the key ways to finding healing from trauma. Our support network can calm us down in a way that may have trouble doing for ourselves. When we can drop the mask of “being ok,” and we are honest with ourselves about our struggles, we can find the reassurance of a trusted loved one or a trained professional. Hiding our pain and emotions can impact us in negative ways. However, when we are able to see our vulnerability as strength, we not only can begin to accept ourselves as we are, but we can also make it ok for others to be honest with their struggles.
Van der Kolk (2014). The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Penguin Group, New York, NY.