Growing up, it seems that most of us are presented with the idea of strength as a variation of stoicism. We’re often taught that being strong means being quiet about our darker emotions. We’re told that strong people project happiness; they keep their darkness to themselves. Strong people don’t lose control in front of others.
This idea of strength is entirely unfair, though. We as people experience a full spectrum of emotions—we all do. We are not always happy, always on top of things, always held tightly together. Sometimes, all of us slip, that is actually how we grow and become stronger people. Without our falls, we would have far fewer personal victories to claim. Some of life’s greatest accomplishments come in those moments that we can put our shortcomings behind us and rise up above that. That is true strength.
And building strength is often a messy process. You build strength every time you find yourself stumbling into an angry rant when your ex has set you off. You build strength every time you make up an excuse to leave the dinner early because the anxiety of being there is eating you alive (but you did, to your credit, make an appearance). You build strength when you allow yourself five minutes to step outside and cry—even if you know in that moment that the reason for the tears is a completely unreasonable circumstance.
We grow as people when we experience things. Not allowing ourselves to feel, to work through the details of ourselves, that isn’t strength at all, that’s avoidance.
I was on the other end of a text conversation with a friend a few months ago who was having a terrible night. All of the anxieties she had been simmering with were unfolding, and she felt herself unraveling as the evening went on. In one of the later messages from the night, she admitted that she just wanted to excuse herself to the bathroom to cry for a second, to release all of the negativity that was overwhelming her. But, she added after this admission that that would be silly—wouldn’t it?
The thing about being on the other end of the phone is that it allows us to experience our friends’ joys and sorrows from the outside. Really, it didn’t seem all that ridiculous at all. She was feeling overwhelmed, she just wanted a minute, there was so much feeling trapped inside. She just wanted to release everything. As I listened to her, I realized that this admission did not make her weak at all, it made her all the stronger for trying her best to work through her situation.
But even if I understood in that moment that letting yourself feel is key to finding your own strength when I looked at life from the outside, how many times had I given myself contrary advice?
How many times had I held back tears to prove to the world that I was strong? How many times had I kept my truest thoughts to myself for fear of seeming weak? How many times had I avoided situations that I knew would be overwhelming to avoid letting people see me in vulnerable place?
When you break it down, our ideas of strength seem to often be centered on the ways that others view us. We are taught to see strength through everyone else’s eyes. For each struggle we approach, we question our stance – will people find me strong in this moment or will I seem weak to them? Will they understand that there is more to me and more to this struggle than a single, isolated event? Will they think I am weak for allowing myself to experience the dark, the negative, the difficult so openly?
The thing about strength is that it is not something that others give to us. Strength is a gift that we give to ourselves.
Strength is not caring who sees you tear up a little on the walk over, because at least you found the strength to go at all. Strength is venting out the negative feelings to allow space to move forward more positively. Strength is doing what is necessary for you to grow as a person.
And, despite what you may have learned, true strength often comes from simply allowing ourselves permission to guiltlessly feel.