Think of all the ways we are taught that being tough is better than being “weak.” We learn to defend ourselves physically and emotionally, that hard bodies are healthier, that objects last longer when they are built tough and sturdy. We are told to try harder, move faster, never give up. Many of us are told to stop crying as children, or worse, punished for crying and showing other emotions. In today’s society, women are especially cautioned against being meek and overly-feminine and instead encouraged to grow into kick-ass, formidable powerhouses. Men are all too familiar with the urging to be stoic and steadfast, immune to depth of feeling and vulnerability. But is this the way? There is something valuable, at times, to pushing ourselves, not quitting and certainly not being doormats and pushovers, but I find time and time again that the best solution is gentleness.
This doesn’t mean becoming slovenly and lazy or completely giving up on caring and putting forth effort. Nor does it mean having zero boundaries and not pretecting ourselves in a healthyway. It means having strength and resolve coupled with serenity – a quiet, intuitive strength, with plenty of flexibility and breathing room. The sound of a cello instead of nails on a chalkboard.
I developed toughness quite young. In addition to having two two rowdy brothers and an intense father, dynamics in the family were chaotic and confusing, and when you’re a child, that can be frightening. So it seemed the best I could do was be as guarded as possible. I mostly hung out with guys in high school, and this especially helped me be on the defense. It felt far too vulnerable to be feminine and receptive, far too risky, so I adopted a don’t fuck with me attitude and wasn’t afraid to speak my mind. At the same time, I felt I was losing a part of myself. A part that could trust, that felt she deserved to be cared for and loved. I pushed people away with all sorts of behaviors, and I carried this into most of my twenties. People regularly claimed that I was overly-sensitive, defensive, and that they had to walk on eggshells with me. Because I had grown so frightened of getting hurt over there years, and because I always perceived threats to be lurking in the midst, I didn’t trust the world. I thought everyone was out to get me to do serious damage. The best I could do for a long time was put up mega walls and attack you before you could reach me. So yes, there were definitely eggshells about.
The irony is that I never actually felt tough and defended. The child in me felt vulnerable and afraid, so this other part was always putting up her dukes – but it didn’t actually make me feel safe. It just made me feel less. It also reinforced the victim mentality and that the world was a hostile and unfriendly place. I needed to comfort myself, not defend it. This took years to understand and implement .Even though today I have come to trust that there is (usually) no bad guy lurking about, I can still harden and think I need to protect myself with walls. But I am often being tough and strong for nothing.
I was told in a Voice Over class I took this weekend (just for kicks) that my voice comes across authoritative, even threatening. A guy joked that I should make a living reading Gothic novels. Yikes. I mean, I always knew this on some level. My dad has been telling me since childhood that I have a voice for the news, and much of my success as a teacher comes from my ability to command a room and wrangle kids, but I always thought it was more calming. I don’t want to be intimidating. I don’t want to be that strong anymore. I had to be defensive for a lot of years in order to protect myself, and then I kept doing it because it was all I knew, but I don’t want it anymore. I rather be open and receptive, not authoritative and intimidating.
I believe whatever is happening to us on one level is usually happening on all levels. So if I am being too tough and strong with my voice, I am probably being that way with my body, too, or some part of my psyche. I still can carry a lot of physical tension, even when I practice yoga, take walks, meditate, and get massages. It is second nature for me to worry and harden. I carry tension in my neck and shoulders, I clench my fists without noticing, and I have always had TMJ in my jaw. My breathing and physical body are usually the first indication that something is up emotionally. I went through years of chronic pain, only to discover that most of it was because my nervous system was in a suspended state of stress and fight or flight. My body was literally in shock from always feeling that something was going to hurt me and from the trauma that lurked underneath. I’ve always been a breath holder – I thought I had asthma as a little girl because I struggled with deep breathing, but it was actually grief and fear, hidden beneath the facade of everything is fine! Hidden beneath learned defenses.
One of the most noticeable effects of recovery for me was feeling this softness start to settle into my being: it was as if layers of ice encasing my heart started to melt. It’s nice to see progress and also where I can continue growing and shifting. But I really like softness today. Most everything is better that way: blankets, chocolate chip cookies, skin, hearts. Softness is so much the way, and it doesn’t mean we become weak. In a way it is even stronger, because we are willing to take the biggest risk of all – letting our guard down and inviting the world in. Having the courage to really open our hearts. With that vulnerability, we can practice trust, and if it doesn’t go well, oh well. Try again. There’s goodness out there. Lots of it.