Are you a ‘weak’ person or a ‘strong’ person? What would you say in response to this question? And what would your friends say? Will your answers be identical? And — thinking of it — what does being ‘weak’ or being ‘strong’ mean to you?
A memory comes to my mind: a teenage girl sobbing inconsolably under the covers of her blanket late at night. Some unspoken pain is wrenching her heart, the pain she is unable to suppress any longer. She is hating herself for these tears and her only consolation is that nobody else is witnessing them. At least her pride is being saved… This girl is me.
I remember vividly how intolerable it felt to let anyone see me crying. I could scarcely allow myself to cry in private. I felt very ashamed. Ashamed of being weak. Ashamed of being vulnerable. To my mind, strong meant being untouchable or at least appearing to be untouched by whatever trouble befalls you.
Working as a therapist I learned that many people interpret strength and weakness exactly the way I used to do. We tend to associate strength with the ability to block out our emotions or pretend that we are unruffled by them. This perception, however, is being seriously challenged and sometimes completely reversed once we begin to engage in earnest self-exploration.
I believe that the issue of vulnerability plays a central role in this conundrum. As human beings we are vulnerable by nature. This is an inextricable aspect of our human condition. Our physical structure is extremely vulnerable and so is our emotional constitution. Yet, instead of owning to it we reject and deny the essential aspects of our very being. Now, would you call it ‘strength’?
One of my clients, who previously had CBT, said that letting go of control and exposing himself to the elements of his raw emotions was the most terrifying thing he has ever done. While doing CBT he felt in control, detached enough from his emotions not to feel threatened by them. It felt gratifying and reassuring at first but didn’t help him resolve the deep-seated underlying issues that caused the behaviours he wanted to change.
Confronting our demons and learning to weather our inner emotional storms takes a lot of courage. And to me — as I came to view it — courage is linked to strength. Being able to do something difficult and unfamiliar, something that requires overcoming your fear signals strength to me. Have you ever tried saying to a friend or to a close person that you have been hurt by something they have done or said? You must be aware then how hard making this simple admission can be. Exposing our vulnerability is a difficult and scary thing to do and for me it means strength.
Even though it may appear to be counterintuitive, owning our vulnerability doesn’t make us more vulnerable. In fact, it helps us to be better equipped both for protecting ourselves against the possible hurts as well as for dealing with them when they occur, including asking for help. It also fosters deeper and more intimate connections with others and inspires trust. Communing with each other without masks is one of the most beautiful touching and nurturing experiences available to us. And it comes about when the strong and the vulnerable join hands and travel together as two wonderful companions supporting each other on the journey.