Strong or Unbreakable?

A guide to increasing your inner strength.

Our culture and society confuse strength with defense mechanisms.

Like armor, defense mechanisms shield our inner selves and give people a different first impression (and second and third…) when they look at us. Defense mechanisms help us present what we want others to see. Examples may include not crying, not talking about ugly emotions, not talking about things that may make others uncomfortable, not touching on sensitive issues, and not confronting an issue.

Used like armor, these defense mechanisms can make us seem unbreakable. Often you might hear people commenting about someone grieving a death, “he’s super strong, he didn’t shed a tear.” “Look how strong he is, he didn’t even take time off work when his mom died.” It’s as if we believe life rewards people who endure hardships without expressing feelings. Although there is no prize, we compete for the trophy of “I don’t cry, it doesn’t hurt and I don’t need anyone”.

Inner strength is just the opposite of relying on defense mechanisms. It takes strength to be vulnerable. This strength allows a person to break and be okay with it. This strength permits us to talk about the emotions that scare us, about the issues that “we should keep hidden”.

Strength is being able to say “I can’t take it anymore, and I need help”. My patients who tell me “this is overwhelming and I want to process it” are truly strong. Strength allows us to cry without apologizing. Inner strength allows us to say NO, even when we realize that it is going to complicate things.

Being strong is a skill that can be acquired.

First, you need to know yourself very well… this requires a process of deep introspection to discover who you are – this is essential.

Learn to identify the emotions you feel and let them live in you for as long as necessary. By the way, emotions last minutes — it is unlikely you will cry non-stop for 24 hours, so don’t be afraid of emotions or of your body’s reactions to these emotions.

Name the emotions and share them with someone you have a close and trusting relationship with. Talking about how you feel — contrary to what you might think — makes you feel better, even when emotions are negative. Being with someone you love and who loves you is extremely important because a basic human need is to BE SEEN. We need others to see us and validate us.

Get close to your pain – know it… you need to know it in order to deal with it. You have to talk about what hurts you the most. If you keep running away from your pain, one day it will catch up with you, and you will be swept up with emotion when you least expect it. (Believe me, being emotionally swept away is not pleasant at all.)

Perhaps a better way to think of it is that you must get to know your “monster” – get to know your monster so well that you know where he came from, how he got there, and what his purpose is – and one day, when you are ready, usher him out of your life. Of course, your monster may resist at first, but the more you work with him and not against him — the faster he will eventually go.

Set limits. My favorite author, Brene´ Brown, is a researcher and social worker who discusses the meaning of limits. I love this: limits are the space where I love myself, and I love you, and you love me, and you love yourself. Setting limits is doing things that benefit you and not doing things that do not benefit you, even if this means making others uncomfortable. Maybe you will make someone uncomfortable when you don’t do what they want or expect from you, but your strong limits will allow you not to become resentful of others who are disappointed in you. Limits allow you to continue loving others while loving yourself.

Everything is easier in words — doing it is more complicated; but I promise you that when you practice setting BOUNDARIES you will find that you are more at ease with yourself and with others. This tranquility often does not come instantly — it is with the accumulation of experience, and constant practice you will master setting and maintaining boundaries.

As you see, it isn’t easy to be strong – Hopefully you will meet strong people and have their stories to guide you in your journey to build inner strength.

In closing, I wish you a lot of strength – because strength is what will get you ahead and strength is what will allow you to live a fuller life.

Ana Marcela is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in the State of Texas (LMFT).

Ana has extensive experience in trauma, grief, infidelity, couples in conflict, anxiety and depression. She runs a private practice, Therapy Works Counseling, with locations in Frisco and Dallas, serving children, adolescents, adults, couples, and families in Spanish and English. Therapy Works also offers workshops for couples, facilitates groups for adolescents suffering from depression and anxiety, and gives talks on various topics. ​

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