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?

Resilience, Not Vulnerability, Is the Goal

“Vulnerability” is a word that gets thrown around a lot in the personal growth world as an aspirational state. To be vulnerable is to be genuine, authentic, real. To be vulnerable is to be empowered—another way to say, I am strong enough and brave enough and self-confident enough to do anything!, which sounds an awful lot like having “arrived,” if there is a singular point of arrival in the process of self-expansion. Being willing (or able) to be vulnerable becomes a goal.

Yet treating vulnerability as an aspiration or a status symbol bypasses a deeper consideration of what that state of being actually means.

By definition, to be vulnerable is…to be vulnerable. Open to attack. Able to be hurt. Not protected. At risk. Potentially unsafe.

To leave yourself open to those risks can be viscerally frightening. It can be asking yourself to face your worst nightmare. When you have the expectation that others will see your unarmored body—your exposed Self—and thrust in blades, vulnerability feels like suicide. From that stance, you have to be willing to die to allow yourself to be vulnerable; life behind your armor has to be worse than death in order for you to set aside those defenses.

And that is the state that is touted as aspirational? As having “made it”? Without a clear discussion of the state of being that underlies willing vulnerability, the state itself sounds more like something to run from than aspire to by those who are most in need of the benefits vulnerability allows us to receive, namely: intimacy. Trust. The experience of being held by another human being in our fullness and our truth instead of our façade.

To feel able to lay aside our defenses with someone else is a source of comfort and safety like no other. It is ironic that our greatest sense of safety is accessed via our greatest sense of unsafety.

If we wait until our pain is greater than our fear to be vulnerable, we risk that we never cross into vulnerability at all—what if the pain is never bigger?

If we wait until our pain is greater than our fear, we also risk experiencing a traumatizing degree of loneliness and disconnection from others and from our very self. We risk that the anxiety from feeling unresilient and incapable in relationships might spill out into other parts of our lives. We jeopardize opportunities to engage with others for creative collaboration, professional networking and mentorship, learning lessons that would improve our daily experience of life, chances to share our own hard-won wisdom and skills, and the simple happiness of feeling accepted by others in the human tribe.

If we wait until our pain is greater than our fear to risk vulnerability, we also risk setting a pattern of needing extremis to push us into connection. We might withdraw from vulnerability as soon as we are no longer in that state of pain/terror/overwhelm, only to have the pain of loneliness build back up inside us and cause another desperate risk. Then as soon as the extreme recedes, the experience of vulnerability becomes too unsettling to hold, so we withdraw again. And the cycle repeats. That shifting through extremes does not create a stable life, nor a pleasant one.

What, then, needs to be our inner experience for us to be willing to be vulnerable without that dire nihilism?

Inner safety. Resilience. Trust in our own capacity to survive.

You have to know that you will be able to calm yourself, support yourself, and heal yourself even in the face of the most brutal rejection or attack on your vulnerable state. You have to trust that you will be able to carry on. That you can bear the pain and keep going past it all the way back into inner peace and contentment.

That sense—that we can and will survive the exchange, that we will be whole again no matter what—is the sustainable path into vulnerability with others. It is what allows us to take the risk of opening up, because the risk becomes calculated rather than desperate, and the consequences manageable instead of devastating.

Vulnerability creates closeness, intimacy, and long-term relationships with others. It is a high-reward state, but the risks must nonetheless feel bearable in order for the reward to seem worthwhile.

Developing a sense of vulnerability as a choice and a range of degrees rather than something that happens to us, or an all-or-nothing switch, empowers us to choose when and how we open to others. Controlled vulnerability allows us to offer small extensions of trust and choose based on how the other responds whether to offer more…whether to deepen our connection or to withdraw.

If we are starting from a place of unsafety with others and/or within ourselves, how do we begin to move toward controlled vulnerability? What can we do inside ourselves to feel safe enough to risk letting someone inside our defensive walls?

The first step is to allow the possibility of living in security rather than fear. If we do not even consider something possible, we will never make any attempt to experience it.

Then we must open ourselves to learning, about ourselves and about the world. Feeling secure in ourselves stems from knowing ourselves, knowing our values, knowing the conditions that make us feel safe or unsafe, knowing our capacities and our skills and our gifts (and the corresponding deficits in our natural tool set). Knowing ourselves—and accepting ourselves.

When we are willing to accept ourselves as we are, and as we may become as our experiences expand and change us, we can work on specific skills to make vulnerability a controlled choice. Those include (but are certainly not limited to!)

  • Boundaries work
  • Self-parenting or self-coaching (choosing self-compassion and curiosity over self-judgment and fear)
  • Being willing to be a beginner—to embrace learning as a messy, non-linear process lined with false starts and failures
  • Seeing mistakes not as failures but as information that teaches us what not to do, what we really want, what we can accomplish, and how able we are to stand back up and try again
  • Reframing our past so that we can learn from it without being defined by it
  • Learning to recognize supportive behaviors vs. neglecting or abusive behaviors

Having experiences with others who do not betray our trust when we expose our true selves to them is a powerful rehabilitative experience. We cannot fully heal relational wounds (such as a fear of vulnerability) on our own. But we can work to foster trust in our own capacity for resilience as the first step toward willingly opening up to others. We can choose deliberate action vs. fear-driven reaction purely within ourselves—and that is the inner landscape which allows us to accept vulnerability as proof of our growth rather than the goal of our growth.