Long ago Charles Darwin spoke about the survival of the strongest. He proposed that, through the trials and tribulations of time, only the strongest of the species will make it through.

The concept of strength has changed as we have evolved. Physical strength is no longer enough for survival. Emotional strength has become necessary too. Survival is a matter of enduring the stressors of day to day life and those who are considered as emotionally stronger emerge successful. Stress management and emotional strength building techniques have become as important as gyms and protein diets.

What is this strength that everyone talks about? What does it really mean to be strong?

The word has been interpreted; re-interpreted and misinterpreted so many times that no one is really sure what it actually means to be strong. The dictionary defines being strong as the ability to withstand force or pressure.  While the dictionary explains the word in plain and simple terms, the human understanding of it comes with its own fallacies.

The omnipresent strength fallacy: No person however strong is strong at all given times. Irrespective of whether the strength is physical and emotional, it is not all pervading. Even the toughest and the strongest have moments when their strength is not enough. They too have been in fights and situations where they felt that they were no longer able to carry on. All of us in life have been or will be in battles where we felt short of being strong because unless we are talking about the Supreme Being, none of us can be strong enough all the time. It does not mean that our strength is failing or we have lost it forever. We have to accept that there are things or circumstances that can overwhelm us. It is not possible to be positive and strong all the time. Strong people accept these situations. They don’t put themselves down for feeling tired or overwhelmed.

The either-or fallacy: Antonyms exist in grammar textbooks.  In life, most things exist on a continuum, even the most tangible ones like hot and cold. Life does not exist in black and white. Not being strong once in a while does not make a person weak. Even the strongest have their weak moments, moments where they feel that they can’t carry on. Being strong does not mean that we can’t have these moments or that we can’t be vulnerable at times. Being strong means acknowledging these moments, learning from them and moving on. Strength does not mean never having to feel weak. A healthy person does fall sick occasionally. He/she takes measure to overcome the illness and allows himself to recover.  The greatest strength is often allowing yourself these so called moments of weakness.

The ‘no tears’ fallacy: Considering life is not a shampoo, it is safe to assume that this phrase in not possible in real life. We have been brought up to believe that strong people don’t cry. We have often consoled people crying or in distress by asking them to be strong. Nothing can be further away from the truth. Everyone feels pain, whether physical or mental, and everyone should be allowed to express it. Strong people feel pain. They also feel sad or hurt. They experience anxiety and panic. They do feel hopeless and helpless. The only difference is strong people acknowledge these emotions as part of being human. They allow themselves to express the negative feelings like they allow the positive ones. Strong people cry because it is an expression of emotion and not a sign of failure.

The omnipotent fallacy: Being strong does not mean you have to face things alone. It certainly does not mean that you cannot ask for help.  Most people consider asking for help as a sign of weakness. They believe that showing your vulnerable side to someone or accepting your inability to handle things alone makes them weak. It is similar to those people who do not believe in taking treatment even when they are suffering because they consider it a sign of weakness. No definition of strength requires you to endure pain and suffering, physical or emotional, just because you can. Dealing with pain of any kind is not a test of tolerance. It does not require building a threshold. Being strong requires you to understand the importance of timely actions to prevent further distress. If that action requires taking external help then it is the smart thing to do.

The Atlas fallacy: Atlas was a young youth who carried the burden of the entire earth on his shoulders. There are those who believe that being strong is their moral responsibility; that they should be strong not for themselves but because there are others who need them to be strong. We can certainly be a strong support for someone in need, but we can’t fight fires on all fronts. A person who does not allow himself to grieve or feel the pain because he needs to be strong for others, is neither helping himself nor those others.  Imagine a man carrying the luggage of his entire family just because he is strong. How long do you think will his strength last? Will his family ever learn how to be independent and carry their own luggage? Now imagine the same family sharing the burden. Would their combined strength not last longer? Even when we work on our physical strength, our trainer tells us not to overdo things or lift weights beyond our capacity. Strong people know that they can be of support to others only if they work within their capacity.

The Android fallacy: A strong person is not a machine. He or she is not devoid of feeling any emotions or getting affected by things around him. It is a common misconception that to be strong you have to be ‘heartless’; that you have to be brusque and rough to be tough. In reality the gentlest heart can have the strongest mind. Our ability to feel emotions and express them is what makes us strong. It connects us with our fellow beings and allows us to gain strength from those around us. A strong person doesn’t ridicule those who show fear or sadness; doesn’t label them as weak. A strong person can cry with them when they are sad and yet offer support. Our ability to feel and express all emotions, positive and negative, makes us stronger every day. Ask a forest ranger and he will tell you that the strongest animal in the forest is the mother protecting her young one. Even the delicate doe will find the strength to protect her fawn against her predator. Where does she get her strength? From the tenderness of maternal love.

Emotional strength does not need heavy work-outs and protein diets; it simply needs a healthy dose of love.

Dr. Gauri Nadkarni Choudhary
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