This week I sat with a young man who was broken and in pain. Sitting with him in his hurt, I watched and listened. Over and over again, he spoke of the need to show others he was impenetrable to pain. With sadness in his eyes he muttered, “nothing can hurt me.”
That night I lay awake thinking about our conversation. As I tossed and turned it occurred to me that I once shared the same mindset as this young man. Like this child, I carefully and diligently crafted my armor of toughness growing up. Some people described me as a “spitfire”, but it was all a selected persona. It was a character I created to keep myself safe. I foolishly believed toughness was the same as strength.
These tethers are a trap that run deep in many. What values have you compromised for the sake of showing your toughness? How do you push away the outside when the inside is feeling vulnerable? What part of you do you choose to show when you feel weak or less than? Do you respond as a know-it-all or with anger and vengeance? How does being “tough” serve you? Here are some of the pitfalls I experienced while shedding my need for toughness:
Hiding the you within. The need to be tough comes at a cost. It binds us from ourselves. If we are safely hidden, we cannot be hurt. Instead of wanting to share who we are with the world, we hide and distract others from truly knowing us. In doing so, we hide from ourselves as well. Our mind and our spirit become strangers within us, roommates that seldom talk and coexist. When we turn away from opportunity to avoid failure we stunt the possibilities that were meant for our growth.
The fight to remain tough. As a young woman entering marriage I remember arguing with my husband. He said something that I still ask myself daily, “Mel, who in the hell are you fighting?” As someone who needed to be tough, I always felt I needed to fight. The person or the cause was irrelevant. I needed to fight because it was ingrained into the fabric of my being. I fought about the weather, dinner plans, and what we were going to watch on tv. It became a deceptive sense of worth. I deduced that if we are tough on the outside, we can’t be hurt on the inside. Yet another lie I told myself to preserve my safety.
Toughness is about winning. Years ago I gave up the need to be “right” and the desire to control. I decided to have faith. I decided to let life have its way with me and just maybe I would end up better for it. If you believe you need to be tough, you are seeking a false sense of security, where life is divided into winners and losers, the powerful and the powerless. Not every moment is meant to be conquered and contrary to belief, pain is meant to be felt. Our greatest moments are felt in our loss. Without the aching heart, we may forget it is beating. Our hurt plants the seeds for what we can be if we allow ourselves to be shaped in the light instead of darkness.
I don’t care. This phrase is on repeat with many of my students. If I don’t care I don’t have to feel. I once worked with a student who told me, “Why should I care about a teacher who will only know me for a year? Why should I do what she says? Why should I care about anyone?” We cannot make others care. We cannot make them see value in others. However, my goal is to help them see that by caring about their actions they are showing how much they care about themselves. Kids seem to think they can punish teachers they do not like by underperforming and getting in trouble. What they fail to see is that they are only hurting themselves. Showing you do not care does not make you tough, rather it makes you unaccountable to the person you should care about the most- yourself.
In a world full of tough be strong. I ask all of us to remember the difference between toughness and strength. Showing kindness and love to all is tough. Giving others grace and forgiveness is tough. Sacrifice and service is tough. Doing what’s right when it is unpopular is tough. Speaking truth and shining light on injustice is tough. The world is filled with “tough”, but when you are brought to your knees, put down your armor and remember toughness evades, but strength heals.
The next day I went back to this student and shared my insight. He sat on the floor looking up at the ceiling. I droned on as he sat in silence. I was worried I lost him to boredom with my lecture. I ended with, “I just want you to know how I feel when I think I need to be tough.” He sat up and looked me straight in my eyes and said “same”. My heart was full. I will always work to build strength over toughness. I will always work to cut the ties that prevent others from being their truest, most beautiful selves.