Toughness is a word often associated with the ability to endure pain and discomfort.
This view of toughness doesn’t give the word enough credit. This month I want to talk about how this old view limits the power of mental resilience and the ability to take on challenges.
The old idea of toughness still permeates our culture. My guess is it is still the predominant idea of what it means to be tough. This idea of toughness means having a thick outer shell that doesn’t let anything in. Tough means not feeling things and not being affected. Toughness in this way is about not showing any vulnerability. In many ways it means becoming cold and unfeeling.
Tough men are to be like robots often pushing ourselves to greater levels of achievement and riches. We cannot fear the consequences…the insomnia, anxiety and depressive symptoms. We just keep going without any awareness of how this makes us feel inside.
I see this old toughness mentality in my office quite often. Men who are confused when I ask them to notice what they are experiencing inside. At first, they don’t know what I’m talking about. As I explain to them how important it is to listen to the signals in their body they start to slowly allow these internal feeling states to emerge.
Fake tough is not tough.
The problem with the present view of toughness is that it is killing men in the United States at an alarming rate. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 2001 to 2021 the suicide rate for men in the U.S. has increased by 36%. There are a lot of factors in why this has happened. I’m going to guess that one of the major reasons is the need for men to appear strong and invincible when inside they are falling apart.
This tough invulnerability often limits men seeking help or getting any support before they believe they have run out of options.
This idea of toughness is often a way out of the discomfort that is actually happening. Men will use substances, aggression, repression of emotions, positivity and other strategies to avoid the pain they are feeling inside. The real truth is that it is hard for men to handle the pain they are feeling and they often avoid it.
Being truly tough involves a much more nuanced way of being connected to ourselves than just avoiding the pain and discomfort we feel. As this strategy of fake toughness fails our bodies call us to turn towards what is happening inside us. We must learn to navigate the difficult emotional experiences we are having from moment to moment when challenges arise. This involves turning into the turbulent feelings that arise in our bodies as well as the rush of thoughts going through our minds. We learn to stop avoiding our inner emotional world and instead we confront it with gentle courage.
The more we learn to do this the more capable we become in being able to handle our lives. This allows us to make more informed decisions. We feel our head, heart and gut coming together to help us know what to do in the moment. We don’t feel like we are faking it but we connect with our intuitive nature and listen and feel what is true for us in the moment. This is what it means to be resilient. It means no matter the challenge in front we can handle it because we don’t have to run from the feelings inside or act inauthentic about what is happening. We can be fully honest and meet the moment with a sense of wholeness.
How this shows up in my life.
I can remember playing varsity football as a junior in High School. During one practice I was asked to block the All-state linebacker on our team. This guy probably outweighed me by seventy pounds. As I cut inside I slammed my right shoulder into his body and fell to the ground. I recall groaning on the ground because I hurt my shoulder. The linebacker looked at me and laughed. I got up and immediately ran back to the huddle ashamed of my pain. I would not seek any help. I would not tell anyone that day that I hurt myself.
These are the moments we face in our lives. Whether being shamed by a much larger man or being called out by our partners or kids, men are taught to run from the feelings that we experience. Whether this is emotional or physical pain it is the same response. Don’t feel it. “I’m fine.”
This training actually leads men to be much more vulnerable in their lives. This old/fake toughness makes it so much harder to live our lives connected to loved ones because we have to fake what we are feeling.
The truth is, everyone around us knows that we are bullshitting them.
I have changed so much since that time as a 16 year old kid playing football. I have worked hard to be honest with what is happening inside me and talk about it with the people who love me. I still fail all the time but I keep coming back to climb the mountain again and again. The more I try and be honest about my feelings, the more I realize that the only one that is shaming me is myself. Everyone else is just trying to love me. I have to let them in. I do this by really being tough and feeling what is happening inside me.
If you or someone you know wants to learn how to find real toughness I encourage you to reach out.
Wishing You The Day You Need To Have!