Talking Tough

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately.  Much of my introspection and, honestly, dissatisfaction with my personal growth of late, comes down to some notion of strength or toughness…and my perceived lack thereof.

Focusing on self-selected attributes that butches and other masculine-identified people use to help define their identity, “strong” and “tough” occur most often in these conversations.  I even did a mini-survey of my butch and masculine-identified Tweeps and IRL friends recently to see if “strength” played a role in their personal identity. Though not a scientific poll, I was not surprised to see that all respondents agreed that it did play a role in their identity.  And setting aside gender and gender stereotypes for a moment, I have noticed that nearly all people I know on a level close enough to make the inquiry, regardless of gender or other demographic differentiators, have said that strength plays a role in their notion of themselves.

I wonder why that is? Is it the stigma of ‘weakness’ or privilege of ‘strength’? Or does the ideal of strength, in itself, have appeal and value beyond the normative social biases?

What is “strength”, anyway? We’ve romanticized, idealized, and genderized this concept in our society to the point that I’m not sure there is a viable definition today. Of course, the definition depends on the particular quality of strength we’re talking about: physical, emotional, mental, political, ideological, etc. They each have unique characteristics that differentiate them.  But at some point, all the primary attributes converge and form the essential nature of “strength”, regardless of type.

For me, strength embodies three main characteristics: (i) the ability to bear a load; (ii) resilience to recover from that burden; and (iii) resignation to the call for strength, or a will to be that load-bearing, resilient force.

For all my life, I’ve had the latter, a will to be strong.  In part, it’s because it is valued by my family and by society. But also it’s because I have an independent desire to be needed, essential to certain people in my life.  I do fairly well at the first aspect, as well:  bearing load.  For me, these two go hand-in-hand.  The will to be strong and the ability to take up the burden feed one another.  Physically, my frame and musculature are made for load-bearing.  Mentally, I’ve been trained to think and reason and lead and solve problems. Emotionally, I’ve been conditioned to empathy and faith, which practically beg for burdens to bear.  And ideologically, I tend to a certain degree of conviction, perseverance and stubbornness, which breed a tenacity that I associate with moral and mental strength.

But resiliency is my challenge.  Although my body heals itself fairly well and a good night’s sleep can work wonders on my mind and mood, I still struggle with the tension between empathy, conviction and internal sense of obligation or ownership of a burden on the one hand, and the price or toll of bearing it, on the other.  You see, while I feel the call and know my ability to be strong for myself and others, I have not mastered the ability to separate the burden from myself.  This leads to an unfortunately high frequency of tension headaches, nightmares, gut trouble and tears.  All are signs, in my skewed world view, of a flaw in my strength, of a terrible lack of resilience.  And in my Southern/Puerto Rican/Christian/Military/Midwestern inculcated psyche, that flaw equates to failure.

So back to the initial question: why do we value strength so much that it is one of the most frequently cited attributes used to define our ideal selves?

While every person is different and must answer for themselves, for me it comes down to a feeling of success when I’m strong and failure when I’m weak.  Right, wrong or indifferent, this is the fundamental answer for me.  It’s the reason I’ve been thinking so much about it lately, too.

As you have seen in so many of my past posts, I’ve embarked on a journey of self-discovery, enlightenment and improvement.  Positivity is a big part of this effort, as well as authenticity. I’ve discovered and accepted and begun to refine my true self and best nature.  I’ve found a partner to share the journey. And I’ve begun the life-long work of living openly, fully and authentically.  These are huge strides and I’m proud of myself and my progress so far.

Yet…I still feel the cloud of disappointment wash over me every time the tears flow after a hard, stressful day, or in the midst of a heavy, meaningful discussion with Lulu, or at an unexpected sign of love and support from someone I’m close to.  These tears and the emotional fragility that spawns them scream “weakness” at me, resonating with a certainty of my inadequate resilience, insufficient elasticity and brittle emotion.  Too, when faced with a lack of ready resources to undertake a burden for a friend or loved one (whether it’s a lack of time or money or ability), my mind rings with accusations of unpreparedness, which equals lack of resilience and failure.  On an intellectual level, I realize that this is, to a degree, irrational.  Not every problem is mine to bear and not every instance of weariness is failure.  But on a psychological and emotional level, it stings sharply to feel that I’ve let down myself and others in any matter simply because I was tired (physically, or otherwise) or at my limit in some way.

Because, in my head, bearing the burden and being resilient are equally critical components inside of and that maintain the bubble of will to be strong, so that “strong” is a function of all three in balance.  When one is out of balance, the bubble bursts and all the strength drains away.

Never mind the melodrama in that analogy. It is nevertheless a fairly accurate picture of how “strong” works in my life.  And when it is at its lowest ebb, my hold on everything that makes me who I am is at its weakest, too.  That’s why I value strength as a defining characteristic of my identity: it unites the traits I find closest to my heart and allows them to function in practical ways; when I am strong, I can be the best possible me.

So, keep this in mind when someone close to you gifts you with the opportunity for you to rely on their strength—don’t dismiss it. You may be helping someone hold onto what makes them the most perfect them they can be.

1 comment so far

  1. MainelyButch on

    Hello! I wrote about my take on this and linked my blog back to this post on your blog! I think they will send you a ping-back notice…excellent topic !

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