Toughness Is Not Resilience

Culturally we’re in a transition away from toughness, and it’s being met with resistance from the people who still use tough as armor because they don’t see any other way to be strong. They perceive their psychological defense against feeling things – feeling hurt when someone is mean to them, feeling afraid when faced with an overwhelming situation or a dangerous one, feeling sad for someone else’s pain – as being calibrated to “how the world works.”

I used to be tough.

I used to turn away from pain and fear, to force myself to do things anyway, to wall off the part of my psyche that told me of pain, mine or someone else’s, unless the pain conformed to a set of narrow acceptable circumstances (someone died, a relationship ended, I or someone I cared about got laid off, etc.).

I used to feel like I could not trust people to really be there for me, so I would just…not need them. I’d do it all myself, handle it all by myself, have no one to blame but myself. It gave me comfort to not need others, and it made me feel strong to think I did not need anyone. I was tough. I could handle it.

Being tough got me through a lot of hard times. I am sure I could have kept on using it, but I finally realized that I was being cruel to myself to be tough. And being cruel violates one of my two or three most deeply held values. The moment I recognized the cruelty in toughness, I knew I could never be tough again.

If I wasn’t tough, though, how could I face the world? How could I deal with pain, risk, disappointment, rejection, loss, and change? Going through without getting lost in the emotions takes a lot of strength. Did being not-tough mean I was going to be victimized by life now? Was being a victim worse than being cruel? Did I have to live in fear, or choose which value to compromise?

I decided there had to be some way to be strong and not-tough. So I set out to find out what that might be.

What is tough, in a physical sense? Hard to pierce, like leather, calloused and hardened; hard to chew, if you mean meat; hard to cut or carve if you mean wood. “Thick” can sometimes be an equivalent, as can “dense.” Tough is a barrier. But what happens if that barrier of toughness is pierced? What happens to what is beneath it?

Absolute agony. Because there is nothing beyond the toughness to protect or help cope with the pain. Tough is a barrier that fails utterly if it is breached. If tough meets something strong enough to break through, it breaks. It does not bend; it does not absorb the blow.

This truth – tough can’t help anymore if it gets broken open – is why tough people can’t imagine being not-tough. When you recognize that your only defense against the pain you cannot bear to feel is toughness, you cherish your toughness. You increase it. You pity the people who are not-tough because they seem not very strong, not really able to cope with life too well.

And the world provides plenty of examples of people who are neither tough nor coping with the challenges of life. Tough might not have been wrong to look at some of the other responses to pain/challenge/overwhelm (such as collapse, breakdown, paralysis, avoidance, drugs, neurosis, etc.) and think itself a better choice.

But better is not best.

Especially because, at its heart, toughness is about fear. The fear that something will hurt too much to bear – avoiding that pain is why it’s better to be tough.

But when you say it like that…tough doesn’t really sound so strong anymore, does it? Tough doesn’t really sound so capable, or so confident. Tough can’t actually handle all situations, because if anything ever happens that breaks the barrier of toughness, no other tools or strategies exist.

When I considered what might take the place of toughness, what came to mind was an image: thick, rigid walls that could withstand a lot but also be broken, vs. a flexible surface that might bend under a blow but then spring back. Taking a hit and spreading the impact over a wider surface, like turning so a punch makes a bruised back instead of a broken rib. The flexing shield might hurt a little more on the smaller things, because it allows more hits, but it does not break no matter how big the blow. And that’s the difference.

That sort of organic elasticity is my inner image of resilience. Resilience is the quality of being able to return to the original form or position after being bent, stretched, compressed, or distorted. In people it refers to the ability to recover from loss, illness, setback, or change and move forward with hope. To experience tragedy and yet find happiness again, not allowing one’s life to become defined by the hard or painful experiences.

For me personally, resilience is born from the belief that I can handle anything, survive anything, and that I can trust myself to respond the best I can to any situation. Self-trust created the transformative shift. When I was tough, I did not trust myself to be able to handle pain; I did not trust myself to heal; I did not trust myself to try again. But I learned that I can feel my own pain, and hold it gently, and let it go in peace. I learned that I can trust myself to move out of the shadow and into the light. I learned that failure is just a setback, and that I can and will find other ways to a goal.

I don’t have to be tough anymore, because I have become resilient.

If I can cope with pain and grieve it out, I do not have to fear it becoming all I ever know. If I can trust myself to make a good decision every time, I do not have to fear what might happen. If I can find a way to tap into courage in the face of fear, I do not have to avoid what makes me afraid. I am free to simply live, and accept the things that happened outside my control, and stack the odds in my favor with the things I can control.

What about you? Do you feel resilient, or do you feel fearful or hopeless? Have you been tough, or have you been non-resilient in other ways that have kept you stuck where you are? What are your fears?

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