All too often, we confuse strength with stoicism. We see an apparent absence of negative emotions and presume courage. We see an unadulterated expression of sadness and assume fragility.
I see this sometimes with new therapy clients. Like most of us, they’ve bought into the American dream (or American nightmare), where hard work, free will, and rugged individualism are viewed as keys to success and anything less is perceived as weakness or failure. When I ask how they feel about entering therapy, they report feeling weak for needing professional help, and even weaker if they are referred for psychiatric medication or a higher level of care. They feel ashamed when they cry in a therapy session, and they apologize to me. They berate themselves for not being strong enough to handle their mental illness, or the bad hand of cards they were dealt in life, on their own. They chide themselves for letting a breakup erode their confidence, for bursting into tears after being admonished by their boss, for letting life’s twists and turns and ups and downs affect them at all.
Taken to its logical extreme, this line of thought implies that it is a sign of weakness to experience and / or express negative emotions; strong people never experience negative emotions, or if they do, they suppress them; and strong people solve all of their problems on their own, without leaning on friends or family, and certainly without seeking professional help.
In reality, none of these statements are true. Vulnerability should not be confused with fragility. Experiencing and expressing a full range of emotions is not a sign of weakness. It is a manifestation of humanity.
My view of strength is quite different. In my mind, a strong person is someone who has a well-defined set of personal values and uses these values as a compass to guide her on her life path. She makes decisions and chooses actions that are consistent with her values. She maintains her principles with conviction, especially in the face of adversity. She is confident, tenacious, determined, responsible, and conscientious. She is not easily swayed by external pressure or public opinion, but she remains open to new ideas and various perspectives. She cares for herself so that she can maintain her fortitude. She mindfully accepts all of her emotions and experiences them fully, but she does not allow unpleasant emotions to prevent her from living a valued life. She seamlessly integrates logic, emotion, and intuition. She takes risks and makes mistakes. She has some successes and some failures. She emerges from her failures with grace, humility, and newfound wisdom which she applies to future endeavors. Her self-identity is well-defined. She lives unapologetically.
Having a mental illness has nothing to do with weakness, and seeking help for a mental illness is the antithesis of frailty. Consider what people with mental illnesses must endure. On the whole, they are more vulnerable to intense negative emotions, poor self-esteem, and self-destructive behavior. They face misunderstanding, stigmatization, and discrimination on a daily basis. They deal with family and friends who “just don’t get it,” an ignorant society, and a lack of awareness about their conditions. They struggle to navigate through a healthcare system that considers their disorders trivial and their treatment optional or, in many cases, fails to consider them at all.
Those who complete treatment successfully and manage their mental illnesses adaptively are amongst the strongest people I have ever had the privilege of knowing. They own their recovery and take responsibility for staying well. They make a point of living lifestyles that are conducive to health and happiness, even in cultures that teach otherwise. Armed with effective coping skills and hard-earned insight, they pursue life in a deeper, more meaningful way. They know when they need help and they know how to get it without delay. They make use of whatever tools they have, such as therapy, psychotropic medication, exercise, spiritual practice, or meditation. They surround themselves with a positive social network and they utilize family and friends for practical and emotional support. They are able to derive meaning from their suffering, and quite often they draw upon their own experiences to help others. They are wise beyond their years, and they don’t take their hard-earned sanity for granted.