What if being strong was not always being strong?

Sabine's story: In a workshop I led recently there was a beautiful moment when a participant, Sabine (name changed), was able to, for the first time, let-go and get support from her partner in life. She had learned very early to rely on herself, growing-up with very un-supportive parents and in the typical English boarding school environment. The coping mechanisms of being very responsible and very caring for others carried her through childhood. However, they also meant that as an adult she was a bit trapped in that role of being strong and very afraid to let got and acknowledge her own emotions and needs. When she did there was an immediate relief and shift, not just in herself but also in her relationship with her life partner. She started to enjoy life more, feel more alive and connect more deeply with her partner. Before she had been very focused on achieving and not very able to give herself a break. Whenever she achieved something she would feel as if it wasn't good enough and work harder.

For me this was so beautiful to witness because I went through a similar process and what it has taught me is that being very performing (from the outside) can in fact be a product of automatized strategies we develop to react to our early childhood and adolescence environment. Very often there is a perception that only people who do not fit-in anymore or are not able to cope with the so called demands of the world are in a way suffering from the consequences of difficult situations. But we often overlook highly performing people who achieve a lot.

You might ask why this is worth looking at. The fact is that when we are driven to high performance as a survival mechanism for example as a result of very harsh up-bringing, schooling or other challenging situations we often learned that being vulnerable, needing help, not knowing something and being dependent is not safe. Often people who are in that pattern initially minimize the difficult experiences they went through and so are not aware that they are in fact still being unconsciously run by the past. Or they are very afraid to open "Pandora's box" and look inside because they have a fear that if they do everything might fall apart.

Now although being independent, highly driven to achieve and self-sufficient is great, when we fall into the pattern described above life can often feel draining, un-inspiring and like a long tunnel with no end. There are these adrenaline highs of course and momentary respites when a success is achieved or a big project closed but people in the being strong pattern find themselves working hard a lot of the time and the sense of satisfaction comes from a feeling of righteousness because they are achieving, working hard and self-sufficient. But often not from the experience itself. It's as if the "juice" in life was missing.

Stepping-out. Crisis moments are usually the catalysts for change with this pattern. Moments when the original mechanisms of being strong are just not working anymore. Often these are brought about by relationships with others. Like for example in the case of Sabine above.

The benefits. We get a different experience of life, where we are not constantly still driven by past experiences and unknowingly chasing what we then thought of as safety. The new experience is more peaceful, joyful and there usually also is a sense of ease and a sense that things are perfect the way there are. From that foundation everything becomes more joyful: work, relationships and just finding time to rest. Also there are more choices. Maybe not all of the time but a lot more...

Getting help. Key here is to take it slow and not to address this transformation with the same high-achieving, demanding self-talk but rather to learn how to develop self-compassion and learn to slow it down.  Somatic Experiencing is a wonderful method here because it allows to take very small bites at the fear of letting go, and then at the emotions that come-up when we do. 

For immediate help:

  • Plan regular free time with nothing scheduled where you decide in the moment what you will do and just follow your very desires in the moment, even if that means staying on the sofa all day (initially you can start with 2-3 hours and the extend to a full day). Key here is not to go for activities that you think you "should" do now that you have some time off (e.g. like going to the gym or finally doing that tax report or catching-up with your familly) but rather really moment for moment deciding what you would like to do
  • Identify the self-talk that comes-up when you are trying to do just exactly what you feel like and imagine that you are switching radio-channel to self-compassion. What would a very compassionate voice say in that moment?
  • Practice connecting with sensations and how you feel in everyday life (not just when taking the day-off)