Moving From Being Tough to Being Strong

By Matt W Sandford, LMHC

In part one, we examined the tendency to resist tears and what they represent, and to develop a protective layer of toughness as a way to handle life’s hurts, disappointments and rejections.  I proposed that this way of managing negative emotional experiences stunts one’s emotional growth and limits one’s ability to cultivate meaningful and lasting relationships. I had offered that I would follow up with some alternative ways to approach the risks and pain of life.

1.    Feel Your Feelings

When we’ve been hurt, many of us learn to protect ourselves by deciding that we are not going to show our hurts again. And so we “layer up”, meaning we shield ourselves with the mask of “I’m okay” and we cover our heart under layers of armor. But, we never knew that the process of protecting our heart was also going to result in burying our heart - from ourselves and others. I may be safe, but now I’m lonely and empty inside.

The way back is through the process of shedding the layers and unburying your heart. You start by unburying your heart to yourself. You begin asking honest questions about what is going on inside and you stop running away from the pain. You let it come and you feel it. At first, if there is a lot of fear about this, you may want to set a limit to it by giving yourself 10-15 minutes in which you journal your thoughts and feelings. If you are having trouble, or particularly if there is trauma or abuse in your background, it may be beneficial to consult a counseling professional.

2.    Cultivate Discernment


While unburying your heart, you’ll want to work on developing your ability to discern safety in relationships. Your goal is to be able to unbury your heart and connect meaningfully with others. But, let’s face it. You aren’t going to dare anything like that unless you can feel safe. And you may be doubting whether that is even possible.


There are safe people out there. I mean people who can listen to your story and not judge or mock or think less of you. People who won’t be trite, just telling you to “buck up” or “be strong” or you “gotta have faith”. People who won’t be quick to give advice or fix. But you have to learn how to spot safe people – as well as those who aren’t safe. I would guess that a good portion of your pain is due to people who weren’t safe, which is why it is now hard to believe that safe people exist.


By the way, the world doesn’t only have two categories of people, safe and non safe. Most fall into the middle ground, or regular folks who are a mix. What I mean is that most folks are sometimes safe and sometimes not safe, or another way to say it is, most of us can be kind and compassionate and can also be selfish, arrogant and self-protective ourselves. So, the goal here is not to hold back and wait until you can find a perfectly safe person. No, discernment provides us a way to minimize our risks but not to eliminate it.


3.    Practice Boundaries


Developing and practicing good healthy personal boundaries is the way to develop discernment and protect yourself without “layering up”. Boundaries are lines of definition. Property lines define what belongs to the United States and what belongs to Canada. Personal boundaries define what is me and what is not me, psychologically and mentally and emotionally and volitionally speaking. What I think and believe is mine, what I feel is mine, what I chose is mine. Boundary violations are when another person tries to impose on what is mine or take what is mine or mar or destroy what is mine. Some examples can be: when someone mocks you, manipulates you, bullies you, criticizes you, pressures you, or flatters you.


Developing healthy boundaries involves discovering what you think, feel, believe, fear, dislike etc. so that you can identify when your boundaries are being threatened. Then, the next step is to communicate your boundaries; and not only when they are being threatened. You are the representative of what is yours. You are responsible for letting others know what you think, feel, want, don’t want and what your preferences are. When you don’t bother to do this, that’s when others will impose their preferences – not because they want to hurt or overrun you (sometimes that may be true) but many times it is simply because they did not know what your preferences were.


Discernment here means learning how much to share about myself to whom, and observing how people respond to my boundaries. Boundaries should be fluid. You will want to manage the height and thickness of the boundary based on the responses of the other and based on their track record over time. It would be wise to begin a new relationship with the boundary fairly high, meaning to choose to reveal safer or less vulnerable parts of myself first, such as my opinion on a movie before my feelings toward my father. As I practice the maintenance of my boundaries, I will learn how to protect myself without hiding and learn how to identify safer people, with whom I can cultivate emotionally healthy relationships.


4.    Develop Dependence on the Safest Relationship


But let’s face it, you can do these things well and still get hurt. You can’t protect yourself from every attack, or every meanness. If even good people sometimes are mean or rude or insensitive, then what about the not so good ones! And since I am offering that hiding or “the stiff upper lip” approach is very flawed, I want to recommend a way to come “out of the castle” of self protection and still survive. Fundamentally, the notion of hiding and becoming tough is about self reliance and there is the problem. For the problem isn’t that you can’t protect yourself from everything, the problem is in the trying. When we try to protect ourselves in this way, we have taken over the role of God. We have made ourselves the decider of what is good for us and what we need to experience and what is too hard for us to handle. It is not actually our role to determine such things, but rather it is our role to depend on the one whose job it is to determine the course of our lives and take care of us. I am by no means advocating that we become fatalistic and just resign ourselves to whatever comes along. What I am referring to is a shift in our allegiance and attitude. A shift in allegiance, meaning letting go of our need to control the circumstances, and a shift in attitude, meaning a choice to trust, which we need to do often, reminding ourselves of the things that are true – that God is in charge, that God is perfectly wise, that God is working for my best in every moment, etc. You see, I can’t depend on any person in a complete sense, but I can depend on the God who stands above and behind that person and every interaction.


5.    Putting It all Together


Let’s go back to the notion of moving from being tough to being strong. The old

way was about self protection – hiding my feelings, avoiding intimacy, not letting people know if they hurt me or if I needed help, and generally putting on a front of “togetherness” – to fool not only others but myself as well. But being strong looks different. It fact, by the culture’s definition, it probably doesn’t look strong at all. But the culture is mistaken. Strength is shown in the courage required to be authentic and vulnerable and to deal with people’s insensitivity or meanness not with caustic attacks in kind, but to protect ourselves by being aware of what we are feeling and expressing one’s boundary. This is strength – being able to show restraint, not behaving childishly with rants or insults or lashing out with violence. The strength to feel your angry, wounded, shameful, disappointed, rejected, bullied, overwhelmed, anxious, fearful, or confused emotions without giving them control to do as they please and perpetrate back on the other what you received. Even if it was the conditioning you experienced growing up, even if you have not had good models of doing this well, even if no one you know is managing themselves with strength in this way. Why? Because this is what God defines strength as, and what God praises and what we are called to live out. This is how God has provided for us to live emotionally healthy and have healthy relationships.


It takes real work – the kind that builds true strength.


Let’s be courageously vulnerable!



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