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The Harmful and Ridiculous Lie of “Mentally Strong People”

Take what you need posterLast year, when I was in the hellish gutter of one of the worst depression and anxiety episodes of my life, I kept seeing articles pop up in my Facebook feed talking about “mentally strong people” and the actions they take every day. At the time I felt anything but mentally strong. I was just trying to get through each day, moment by moment, without completely losing my shit. Some days I managed to hold it together; others, I was in one of the office bathroom stalls quietly praying to just not exist. It’s not that I wanted to die, I just didn’t want the continued pain of being. And then my internal critic would angrily ask why I was so mentally weak because mentally strong people – according to these various articles – don’t hang out on the toilet and contemplate the option of nonexistence. They’d be out there, kicking ass, making all the right moves, being generally awesome.

And that’s the insidiously subtle message of these articles: that if you’re not mentally strong…well, you must be the opposite. And when you’re struggling in a state of depression and anxiety, what other possible explanation could there be?

Yet, I persevered. I suffered, but I persevered and somehow came out on the other side to where I am today. And today is joyful and hopeful and meaningful. Does that perseverance make me mentally strong? Who knows but every time I read these articles and blogposts about mentally strong people, I don’t relate one bit.

This week, I saw another article about “mentally strong people” and felt angry because I wager there are people out there just trying to keep their shit together and don’t need any more of these types of messages. (Here’s my Facebook rant if you’re curious about the genesis of this blogpost.) If you care to see what I’m talking about just do a Google search for “mentally strong people” and you get plenty of these types of articles:

  • 10 Toxic Relationships Mentally Strong People Avoid
  • 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do
  • The 9 Essential Habits Of Mentally Strong People
  • 12 Common Lies Mentally Strong People Don’t Believe
  • The 13 Tough Habits Of Mentally Strong People

Now that I’m in a more healthy mental and emotional place in my life, I see this tripe for what it is: at best, lies masquerading as someone else’s vain attempt to claim toughness and superiority; at worst, linkbait for those who are worried they’re just not measuring up to some impossible standard of success. The more I think about it, it’s probably both.

Turns out I’m not alone. As I was doing the Google search referenced above, I came across this similar critique from Denise K. Shull in Psychology Today:

Despite the widespread appeal of the message, I can’t help but wonder: says who and based on what? How do we actually know what so-called mentally tough people (whomever that is and whatever the standard is) do? There isn’t a shred of psychological research referenced. It appears to be an opinion grounded in the rapidly deteriorating cases for positive thinking and intellect’s superiority over emotion. Sure there are a few valuable truisms like “don’t give up” but the undercurrent of stoicism running through the list is as likely to harm as to help.

Take the reader who is feeling any form of “bad” over a challenging economic situation. What’s the net effect? Does the idea that they are weak if they can’t always suck it up make them feel better about themselves? Does it make them feel more like they can go out and create a new economic opportunity? I actually suspect that deep-down, this list makes them feel more inadequate – or in other words, weaker.

Want to know how to be mentally strong? I honestly have no idea. And if someone claims they do, they’re sizing you up as a sucker. But here’s what I can say from my experience of wandering the mental and emotional wastelands. All we can do is live each day the best we can. Appreciate that we’re going to have joyful experiences and terrible ones. Find ways to see ourselves for the goodness and gift that we are. Perhaps, to be mentally strong is to simply love. That’s all. Isn’t that enough?

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We’re All In-between Swims

This one’s subtitled: An essay on learning (and trying not to drown).

Once upon a time, I decided I wanted to experience the excitement and anxiety of learning something new – the art of whitewater kayaking. Ever since my first rafting trip as a teenager, I knew I wanted to paddle my own boat. The kayakers looked like they were enjoying the river in ways that we on the large raft were unable. I told my buddy next to me that someday I wanted to do that. Someday. So, a few years ago, I decided to stop letting life get in the way of something I yearned to do. I signed up with a local kayaking school and set out to pursue a goal that I had put aside for too long.

However, the first course did not go quite the way I envisioned. I naïvely thought kayaking would be much easier than it actually was and that I would pick up the instruction much faster that I actually did. In reality, I felt awkward in the unstable boat and unnerved by my inability to master something that on dry land looked so easy.

Yet I walked away from that experience with three powerful lessons that offered insights into my own sense of learning and living.

Lesson #1: Just because you’ve been on a river before does not mean you already know what you’re doing. I’ve been rafting before in whitewater and even done some flatwater kayaking and I thought those experiences would give me an edge in quickly learning how to paddle a kayak. One mistake I made was that I didn’t approach this new experience from a place of “not knowing,” but instead tried to filter it through past experiences that may have gotten in the way of actually learning. Recognize each experience, regardless of how familiar it may be to you, as an opportunity to learn something new.

Lesson #2: Don’t be afraid to do something new because you might look like you don’t know what you’re doing. Guess what? More than likely, you don’t know what you’re doing! This means you might notice some uncomfortable feelings like incompetence and helplessness. About half-way through the lesson, I committed a typical newbie mistake of panicking when I accidentally capsized my kayak. Trapped underwater in my kayak, I thrashed and flailed trying to get my boat upright. Two instructors came to try to rescue me before I remembered that I could rescue myself by ejecting from the boat. When I surfaced and caught my breath, I realized that my classmates had witnessed the whole episode with a mixture of fear and thankfulness that it wasn’t them. Yet regardless of how I must have looked, I learned very quickly how to remain calm while underwater and how to get myself out of a capsized kayak. Remember that embarrassment only lasts for a few minutes, while the lessons you gain through trying something new last much longer.

Lesson #3: We’re all in-between swims. After I managed to get back in my kayak, one of the instructors said, “Even the best paddlers get themselves into jams. Dude, we’re all in-between swims.” As I rejoined my fellow kayakers, the full force of that statement hit me. Individuals who choose to fully experience life inevitably encounter challenging situations that are bigger than themselves. Sometimes we can paddle through the situation and sometimes we have to eject. It’s about not letting our fears get in the way of fully learning and living. Be open to not getting it right all the time and understand that failing can often lead to the greatest learnings of all.

So, are you taking tentative action in order to always remain upright in your boat or are you pushing yourself and allowing for the possibility of tipping over? The first option is one of safety, the second is risky, but one of true growth. If you’re playing it safe now because you’re afraid of capsizing, ask what it’s costing you. Maybe it’s a life of significance, meaning, and fun. Start paddling in your life and see where it takes you.

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