When we speak of a person being mentally ‘strong’ or ‘weak’, what do we mean? What assumptions are we making? And do our conceptions of ‘strong’ or ‘weak’ hold up under closer scrutiny?
The concept of a person being mentally ‘strong’ or ‘weak’ in our culture, partly constructed via our interaction with family, subcultural groups, media representation and everyday conversation, tends to have a similar ‘flavour.’
Phrases such as ‘having a stiff upper lip’ or ‘gritting our teeth’, are commonly used to suggest strength, I would argue, however, that they are in fact indicative of suppression and desensitisation. If we are approaching our experience with an intention, or response, of suppressing it or being insensitive towards it, then that isn’t entering an experience - it’s experientially turning away from one. So, these images that are often put forth as representative of strength or bravery are employing a strategy that insulates one from having a full experience, rather than ‘courageously’ immersing oneself in one.
I am not criticising this approach per se. It is a survival strategy that could be useful in extreme situations. Perhaps, to an extent, we have inherited this strategy from the generations before us that have experienced war; in order to be able to function and get through a war, desensitisation and suppression may be necessary. However, it is a coping strategy of endurance, rather than a display of strength, and is certainly not optimal for wellbeing.
Another cultural influence on our perception of ‘strength’ is access to, and control of, abundant resources – the ultimate representations of which are a king or queen; an emperor or president. Access to the latest technology, control of how resources are gathered, and an overwhelming military might are the overt signs of external power. However, all of these examples of power are solely concerned with the manipulation of the physical world, whereas the dimension of the mind can function very differently.
When examining strength, that we may term as ‘inner' or 'mental', its dimension is utterly different. In fact, I would argue that it’s not even applicable to use the word strength; and that ‘inner strength’, so far as it’s conventionally conceived of, does not exist. What does exist are varying degrees of the individual ability to cope, of resilience when encountering emotionally challenging or traumatic experiences. What determines someone’s degree of ‘resilient response’ is directly proportionate to how much acceptance that individual has of themselves and the experience they have gone through. It is the lack of a schema around ‘being strong’ that gives one the ability to ‘bounce back’, to be resilient.
Obviously, there are other factors that can help one adjust and accept a difficult experience, having supportive relationships, good health and a reasonably harmonious home environment are clearly factors that serve to mitigate one’s stress level. However, in regard to how we think about ourselves and our experience we find time and time again that having a rigid structure around ideas and expectations of being strong, being in control are what contribute towards and perpetuate our suffering.
For example, it is common for clients receiving counselling to comment themselves with phrases like ‘I should have been…I’ve got to…’ or ‘I must…’ terms that express fixed expectations of ‘the right’ behaviour. They may have not spoken at all about their experience at all to anyone, prior to therapy, due to a lack of acceptance within themselves or through wanting to maintain the impression of a ‘strong’ exterior – because the ‘should’.
Stress and tension build up from resistance, a lack of acceptance of how we may have felt or behaved during a difficult experience and, equally, a lack of acceptance of how we are now. Often, the reason we cannot accept the above is because we have a fixed idea of how ‘strong’ we should have been.
If we have spent time talking with people and observing how we experience the world, one does not need to be a therapist to realise a universal occurrence – that a great degree of human suffering comes from, what I will loosely call ‘thinking.’ I use the term loosely because I am talking more about a disposition, a way of reacting, than an obvious thought or inner dialogue.
For example, if I have an intense experience of social anxiety as I walk into a room of strangers, I am not necessarily thinking a coherent thought in the moment that I experience that reaction. It’s not something that can be easily articulated but I can have strong beliefs and responses (typically fight or flight) towards that environment without perceptively thinking. It’s an inner response to an outer stimulus, dependent upon previously established core beliefs such as – ‘I might say something stupid; I might look stupid; I might be asked to do or speak about something that I’ll do badly; I may have a panic attack; they may see me for who I truly (coming from a negative self-image/low self-esteem) am; I am unacceptable’. I may not be thinking the above type of statements about myself but I can still be operating from them as beliefs.
Our typical response to feeling vulnerable or fragile needs to be thoroughly reconsidered though. Many of our most valued experiences in life are as a result of surrendering to experiences in which we may feel vulnerable, small, fragile etc. – our feelings of awe witnessing a vast landscape like the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls, falling in love, taking part in extreme sports like skydiving.
To experience love for our family requires vulnerability, a receptivity and acceptance that is awe inspiring in terms of its power. It’s only by embracing the utterly overwhelming and engulfing nature of these experiences that we draw such awe and inspiration from them.
Historically, we have had precursors of this knowledge and wisdom as a practice. The European knights’ code of chivalry was about conducting oneself with deference and respect to all. My own experience in my father’s country, Sri Lanka, made an impression on me in regard to perceptions of strength. If two people have a disagreement in Sri Lanka, it is the softer, quieter spoken and politer of the two, that is considered most admirable, worthy of respect, essentially the stronger of the two. If someone loses their temper and becomes aggressive in Sri Lanka they are typically seen as coarser and more primitive minded, not as a victor or more dominant.
Asian martial arts have a long history of acknowledging the principle of embracing acceptance. The term ‘ju’ in judo and ju-jitsu (Japanese martial arts) refers to yielding, meaning ‘the yielding way’ and ‘yielding art/skills,’ respectively. One trains to know and sense openings and opportunities that arise as a result of one yielding. It is by yielding that a way through presents itself. Via accepting the movement of one’s opponent, rather than conflicting with and opposing one’s opponent’s force, a more harmonious experience is achieved. As the great Chinese sage, Lao Tsu wrote ‘when two great forces oppose each other, it is the one who knows how to yield that will be victorious’.
Of course, I am not advocating that we seek out situations or relationships that will likely bring about negative experiences, feelings of fragility or vulnerability. We still need to apply our own intelligence and wisdom to discern what is healthy or not. Nor am I suggesting that we simply accept a bad/harmful situation and do nothing to improve it, the implications are quite the opposite. It is through acceptance that we are able to act. If we encounter an extremely challenging or threatening situation it is through acceptance, through meeting whatever is presenting itself to us, head on, that we find a way forwards. Not accepting, wishing things were other than they are, freezes us up, just operating under hope or denial, instead of engaging our will into the arena of what is actually occuring.
Really, what I am attempting to communicate here is that we need a complete overhaul of how we conceive of strength and weakness. What is typically apprehended as weakness or to yield etc is a factor of, ultimately speaking, love, perhaps even synonymous with it. I would go so far as to say that, perhaps, acceptance is the primary quality of love.
Sacrifice and understanding are often equated with expressions of love. However, the prerequisite of both of those is acceptance. We accept that we will experience some loss through our sacrifice, it cannot be called a sacrifice without it. To truly understand someone else, we accept the person as they are. If we attempt to cajole or steer them somewhere else then we cannot truly understand them.
Acceptance/a yielding disposition/non-judgement (however we may term it) is primary, both in order to love others and ourselves. So, ironically it seems, what we may initially experience or perceive as weakness, as exposure to vulnerability is, for many of us, the strongest force we will ever experience, love.