I used to be one of those people who was extremely guarded to the point of appearing standoffish and antisocial.
I had many excuses — some are good reasons — for this:
- I am an introvert: Dealing with people is hard for me to begin with.
- I did not have an emotionally secure environment growing up: Of course I became closely-guarded.
- I am too gullible and trusting: No wonder I have to protect myself.
I put my intellect and analytic ability to good use: I looked for ways people are trying to rip me off, take advantage of me, or deceive me.
If I didn’t protect myself, who would?
Here’s the problem:
What your head knows is very different from how your heart feels. Just because you have all the intellectual tools does not mean these magically transform into emotional reserves.
In other words:
Becoming Mentally Strong Does Not Guarantee Emotional Resilience.
I read enough “self-help literature” to know “What People Think of Me is None of My Business” and how I shouldn’t care too much about what other people think, and that hoarding other people’s approval is the quickest path to personal hell. I acted like the good conscientious student of life and I went to class and did my self-help homework.
I can tell you from decades of personal experience, through all this “self-help”, I did not feel emotionally resilient. I had all the intellectual tools at my disposal, and I consider myself pretty smart and mentally astute. But this did not magically translate into emotional strength.
Until one day I realized this:
Mental strength comes from cultivating brain-based tools. When I think of mental strength, I think about knowing how to deploy the right intellectual tools at the right time, in the right dose, for the right person.
I view the development of brain-based tools as a “bank account”. You have to regularly add knowledge into your bank account to grow what you know, and you have to periodically “balance the checkbook” and ensure you haven’t let any unchecked assumptions let your overall knowledge balance “drift” and deviate.
Emotional strength comes from surviving pain.
I view the development of heart-based tools as a “muscle”. You have to be willing to exert it, to stress it, to put microscopic tears in it. And you know what? Just like a muscle, sometimes you injure it, push it too hard, and that muscle rips and tears, and you are out of commission. You feel a world of pain and sometimes even breathing hurts (just like physical muscle! I also know this from personal experience, through rock climbing or childbirth! …I digress). You then have to let yourself recover and HEAL, before you head back out and work those muscles again.
In other words, you have to believe in your capacity to SURVIVE the hurt and LIVE THROUGH the insults/injuries with your Self INTACT. And — this is important — You Have To Be Willing To Put Yourself Out There Again, and Risk Possibly Getting Hurt Again.
This is why I view emotional resilience as more muscle than smarts, all heart and some brain.
I didn’t get emotionally strong by withholding myself from hurt, by shutting other people out, by packaging myself in false bravado. At least, I tried this way and learned this way did not work. Have you seen people who have lost the use of a muscle? That un-used muscle didn’t get stronger from being protected: that muscle atrophies. SAME AS YOUR HEART. Hiding your heart causes your emotional resilience to atrophy –not to grow stronger.
I grew emotionally strong by opening myself up to others, letting people in, and admitting my vulnerabilities.
Of course, I used brain-based tools I have gained to be very deliberate about selecting people to get close to, but this is more of a due-diligence when creating friendships or partnerships than “guarding against all possible harm.”
If I get hurt, then I use my brain to look at what happened (did I ignore a red flag or a signal?), acknowledge the pain in my heart, permit myself to wallow and feel bad — cut out a toxic or one-sided or dishonest connection — then I choose to get back out there, with my heart, receptive. It is a choice to put myself out there, because reflexively I want to withdraw.
If you want to see the most accurate examples of “No Pain, No Gain”, you should see people who have survived the worst kinds of emotional traumas and pain.
They may not all be super-smart people, but they are so emotionally strong, they exude a depth of center and acceptance that is impossible for me to describe. These people have survived hurt, they have lived through insults/injuries/traumas AND THEY HAVE NOT FORGOTTEN WHO THEY ARE (their “Self”). They choose to keep trusting and keep opening up and keep connecting.
I am still an introvert.
I am an introvert who have put in more than a thousand hours of social skills practice, to the point where socialization has become easy — even enjoyable for me. There are people who told me, “No, I can’t believe you’re an introvert!” and I tell them I am indeed (“I am, I’m still not really into people”) only I had a lot of practice.
I still remember some childhood wounds.
I honor those wounds by practicing conscious parenting to my own child, to ensure he feels secure and have a safer environment to build his own emotional resilience. I am often rewarded by being a witness to how he processes hurts and fear and pain, because I then remember once upon a time when I was a little girl, how I was just like that.
I am still gullible and trusting.
I choose to believe people and trust people until they show me that they are not the kind of influence I want in my life.
In the end, I think I have learned to trust my self and the inner resources I have to draw upon through life.
Jane Chin’s piece was also published in Inc. online.