When you need to be strong

01 May 2018

My lovely client’s expression switched from radiant to anxious as she told me about a situation that had just come up which she had to address.

“I have to be very strong…”

“My friend told me I have to be very strong,” she said.

“Scary!” I replied.  “I don’t know how that makes you feel but just hearing those words makes me feel horribly inadequate.”

My client nodded ruefully. “It didn’t make me feel good at all.” she said.

“There is nothing like being told that you have to be strong to make you feel inadequate – at least that’s how it works for me.  It suggests that you have to be so much more than you habitually are. I totally understand that your friend meant well. However that way of “languaging” her support makes me think of an unset jello.”

My client’s enthusiastic nodding made it clear that she felt exactly like an unset jello.

Now, my client is a beautiful, gentle, graceful soul.  She has experienced more than enough emotional abuse for one lifetime and, like all emotional abuse sufferers, she has been well schooled in her – alleged – weaknesses.

On the other hand, like all emotional abuse sufferers, she has been through any number of significant traumas.  She has come through them.

True strength for gentle souls

She came through them not with both guns blazing but with her values and her humanity intact. As I see it, that is true strength, the kind of strength that is consistent with the gentle, beautiful soul that she is.

Most of us have, I suspect, been brainwashed by stereotypes and Hollywood.  When we think of emotional strength, we tend to think in terms of some kind of emotional Terminator, an Arnold Schwarzenegger in heels and make-up exterminating alien feelings and behaviors.  (Not a pretty thought, I have to admit.)

We have an idea of what “strength” should look like – from the outside.

Strength as seen from the outside

You would know for sure that you were a strong person if you had,

  1. a) Transformed an abusive partner to become a loving, caring partner – by any means at your disposal.
    b) Shown yourself to be capable of smiling and remaining unaffected by the high levels of abuse and ill-treatment that you face(d).
    c) Measured up to your own – or someone else’s – Superwoman fantasies.
    d) Been fantastically successful in  your dealings with difficult people in all your intimate relationships (and every other area of your life).
    e) Never been overcome by pain, trauma, or loneliness. No matter what you have been through.
    f)  Had the knack of reducing all bullies, abusers, thugs and low-lives to putty in your (perfectly) manicured hands.

Most of us assume that we can’t possibly be strong because we do not have the wherewithal to “tame” the most significant abusers in our lives.

Trained to crumble in the face of abuse

Actually, most of us have been trained to crumble in the face of abuse. We have been taught to regard ourselves as weak – because that serves an abuser’s purpose.

So, when my lovely client heard her well-intentioned friend say, “You’ve got to be very strong.”  those words triggered some very old beliefs about her inadequacy and the monumental effort needed to rise to the challenge.

Clearly, going down the “very strong” route wasn’t going to work.  Especially since it hardly gave my client a useful road-map.  (How on earth was she meant to DO “very strong”, anyway?)

I suggested to my client that we come to the problem from a more helpful perspective.

A more helpful perspective

First off, since simply mowing down the opposition is not a viable real life option for my client (or anyone normal, in real life) we needed to find strategies that she could apply.  We agreed that clarity might be a great starting point.

Being aware of what is and is not realistically possible, is always a good thing.  (One ploy that the abusers in my past used to great effect was to impose an unrealistic expectation on me.  They could then make me feel like a complete fool for not meeting it.  My father once berated me for half a day for failing to convince an insurance company that when I hit a stationary vehicle it was that vehicle owner’s fault!!)

Once you know what a realistic outcome in the circumstances looks like, you won’t feel the need to berate yourself for your unrealistic failure to move mountains.

Win the ones that truly matter

If you have to engage in a war with an abuser, you may well lose quite a lot of battles along the way.  That may well not be your ideal outcome.  However if you can keep your eyes on the objective(s) that really matter, you can come through without that horrible, corrosive feeling of failure.

When you have to fight with an emotional abuser, you will surely lose plenty.  That is to be expected.  All that it means is that your abuser is much better at being a nasty, lying, devious, spiteful, cruel son-of-a …. than you could ever be.

What you win, through the process of not descending into the snake-pit with him, is the sense of your own dignity.

An abuser sets no store by the values – like humanity, decency, honesty and kindness – that you hold dear.  Your dignity resides in your inability to stoop to his level.

Gaining clarity on what was and was not possible already reassured my client. However, we did not stop there. Instead, we did that thing that she had not thought to do once the words “be very strong” came along to paralyse her.

Don’t forget the resources you already have

My client and I started to look at all the occasions in her life when she had surprised herself.  (Admittedly, that is easier to do when you have someone who can bring those occasions to mind for you. That does not mean you cannot do it for yourself but only that you may have to push yourself a little to focus on those occasions.)

Together, we reviewed a number of key moments in my client’s life when she had shown extraordinary strength – not by using superhuman powers to win out over the “baddies” but by keeping going in impossibly difficult situations.

We took time out for her to acknowledge the self that had managed to keep going and find a way through difficulties. And we agreed that she could bring that awareness into the new challenge.

At the end of all of this, my client had ditched her old, patterned narrative about inadequacy and weakness. Instead, she felt much more able to do herself justice in the challenge that lay ahead.

Like my client, you don’t have to be any stronger than you already are.  What you need most is just some clarity about what is and isn’t possible.  Plus some acknowledgement of the resources that you already have really would not go amiss.  If you need more personal input to find your way through the challenges that you face, get in touch.


Annie Kaszina, international Emotional Abuse Recovery specialist and award-winning author of 3 books designed to help women recognise and heal from toxic relationships so that they can build healthy, lasting relationships with the perfect partner for them, blogs about all aspects of abuse, understanding Narcissists and how to avoid them and building strong self-worth. To receive Annie’s blog direct to your Inbox just leave your details here.

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