20 | We Seem To Confuse Weakness For Strength (and vice versa)

There’s been a shift in the conversation about strength and character. Some weird messages have infused mainstream culture and are clearly impacting how people relate to one another (and themselves). We sometimes confuse weakness for strength and write off strength as a weakness.

In this episode of The Gentle Rebel Podcast, I want to dive into weak traits that I’ve seen confused with strength. We will think about the characteristics of genuine strength and consider ways to create conditions for more of it in ourselves and others.

We Seem To Confuse Weakness For Strength (and vice versa) - tree being held up by ropes and stumps

What is Strength? | 3:31

Strength is the ability to lift, carry, pull, throw, and hold heavy things. But not just physical stuff. We also need the strength to hold, carry, and let go of situations, people, challenges, emotions, stressors, thoughts, and other everyday things.

Unavoidable Heavy Lifting – Life in Funeral Care | 5:42

I worked in the funeral industry for six years as an undertaker. I discuss some of the strengths the job required from and developed in me.

My experiences continue to teach me much about what strength means and how we see it demonstrated in the world. And also, some of the ways we confuse weakness for strength, especially in our expectations for how we ought to hold (conceal, deny, hide) the burdens we carry.

Physical Strength | 7:57

One lesson from that job was that the strength of the whole is greater than the sum of the strength of individuals. It’s about more than power. It requires learned technique, awareness, understanding, and thoughtful preparation.

When you understand what a situation requires, the resources you have to use, and you plan appropriately, strength comes through collaboration. You put everyone at risk when you believe you can do it alone (or that you don’t need others).

Emotional Strength | 9:34

The job also taught me about emotional strength. In a moment of chaos, confusion, and grief, we need to anchor into other people as a source of strength. Sometimes we need someone to take control of the situation and guide or direct us with simple stepping stones that give us small footing when we’re all at sea. Other times we might need an undemanding calming presence around us. And sometimes, our way of coping with loss is to take control of the world around us (organising people, events etc).

I learned it takes strength to be flexible, to be what’s required in that moment, and not to take it personally.

Letting Go of What We Carry | 12:40

If we don’t have healthy ways to let go, we might shut off and bottle feelings up. This can lead to indiscriminate, inappropriate, and uncontrolled expressions of unprocessed emotions.

In the same way, as we might shake out our muscles after heavy lifting, it’s essential to do the same with our emotional muscles. To warm down, stretch, and release it all in ways that work for us.

Find Healthy Ways To Unload | 13:17

Shaking out the emotional muscles looks different for everyone. It might be going for a walk, getting fresh air, creating, writing, recording experiences, talking to a trusted friend or family member about it, singing, playing with kids or animals, and so on. Whatever brings us back to our creative core.

Collective Strength From Sharing The Load | 14:32

We are more likely to feel weak when we are isolated and alone. This is especially true when we face challenges and struggles. Conversely, we get stronger when we feel safe and confident to ask for help and receive support.

What Strength is NOT

“It is a well-known fact that those people who must want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it”

Douglas Adams

Domination, Power, and Control | 17:01

True strength is the capacity to change, morph, grow, and develop. Conversely, weakness remains rigid, unyielding, and brittle when we need to be flexible and able to bow with the wind.

Abusing a position of power is not a sign of strength; it’s a sign of weakness—an inability to hold responsibility with respect and reverence.

Characteristics of weak leaders: ridiculing others, abusing trust, allowing envy to control them, a victim mindset, inability to articulate a positive vision (that doesn’t involve eliminating others), viewing everything as a game, lacking self-awareness, and being unable to see the role they play in their repeated misfortune (it’s never their fault).

Gentle Force | 24:10

Some things must be gently forced through perseverance, grit, and stamina. When something really matters, these attributes help us endure fatigue and the desire to give up when something is important to us but hard.

Maybe you can think of times when you required the strength to keep going even though you wanted to give up. Be proud of yourself and take that story with you as fuel for the future.

Brittle Force | 26:25

Brittle force is fragile and insecure beneath the surface. It’s a front, which, if hit too hard, will shatter and reveal very little within. It cracks if it gets hit too hard, revealing a rather wobbly back. The opposite of firm back, soft front gentleness.

Personal Weakness Through Symbolic Strength | 27:24

Sometimes we substitute our own strength for the power of symbolic identity. For example, we lean on a background, job role, or symbolic societal position to make us feel strong. This can lead to horrific abuses of power.

Flexibility and Stress Responses | 29:54

“Strength is not born of strength; strength can be born only from weakness. So, be glad of your weakness now – they are the beginnings of your strength”

– Dr Claire Weekes

Something or someone who thinks they are strong enough will not become stronger.

It is from weakness and flexibility that strength grows. Like a tree growing reaction wood in response to the wind, we are built in relation to the world around us. Gradually becoming stronger through weakness. It’s an often unseen process that can’t be forced or rushed. It happens over time as we encounter the world. But we can also influence it through our awareness and choices.

The Greek word Aphiēmi is translated in many ways, and I find it a beneficial tool for thinking about strength. Especially our capacity for strengthening our responses to people, experiences, and situations we might face.

Reaction Wood and Contingent Strength

Our source of reaction wood might be found in the place we don’t default to. Not in how we automatically hold the world, ourselves, and others. Strength is born from weakness.

Strength From Weakness Might Mean:

  • learning to ‘yield’ when your default response is to dominate and control.
  • learning to ‘stand firm’ when your default reaction is to let go of your desire to keep the peace.
  • learning to ‘pardon’ when you find it easy to hold a grudge.
  • learning to hold accountability when you usually just let things slide.
  • learning to ‘tolerate’ when you don’t want to hear or attempt to understand another person’s perspective.
  • learning to ‘permit’ when you tend to complain, clamp down and eradicate.
  • learning to ‘divorce’ when you keep coming back to the site of pain, hoping something will magically change
  • learning to ‘abandon’ when you are desperate to stay, no matter the cost to your health.
  • learning to ‘forgive’ when you want to punish.
  • learning to let go when you are desperate to hold on and learning to hold on when you want to throw it away.

How To Strengthen an Argument | 35:02

Trees grow faster in a human-made biosphere than they do in the wild. But before reaching maturity, they collapse under their own weight in those conditions. Without wind, they are unable to form reaction wood (stressed/tension wood) that keeps them strong.

The biodome is like an echo chamber. It gives rapid growth to ideas untested and untouched by anything outside that bubble. But our ideas, thoughts, opinions etc., only become strong when exposed to some stress from the outside.

Avoidance, Resilience, and Support | 37:01

When we focus solely on the individual as the source of strength, we risk turning personal power into a collective weakness. Collective strength, which has been key to human survival throughout history, grows out of supportive environments and structures.

Support comes from above or below. We might think of this as the difference between being safe TO fail or safe FROM failure.

Safe from failure is biosphere-style protection, where we aim to keep harm out.

Safe to fail is like a net to catch us when we fall.

Strength and Humour | 44:30

Strength is born from the ability to laugh at ourselves.

Carl Reiner said, “Inviting people to laugh with you while you are laughing at yourself is a good thing to do. You may be a fool but you’re the fool in charge.”

I’m always wary of people who take themselves too seriously. Once you push their button, which you will (whether you intend to or not), they can be dangerous in their effort to save face.

Active Stillness | 50:17

Active stillness is the space between the trigger and our response. It’s an intentional choice to slow down. A reminder to take a moment to breathe and observe within and without. What do we feel? What do we need? How do we want to hold this thing before us?

The Pause

When compulsion to prove my point overcomes me
And my need to respond is fuelled by urgency,
My mind races to be right
My senses rise to the fight
And then I reluctantly remember…
The Pause.
The humbling, painful Pause
The uncomfortable, brakes-on Pause
The beautiful, let-things-sit Pause
That turns my focus from agitation
To curious investigation
Unravelling my defences to uncover a
deeper wisdom.
The Pause that is active yet still,
Noticing but not heavy lifting
Permission granter for things to unfold
Space creator for quiet questions to evolve.

Ange Disbury, 2022

Ange shared this poem with us after our Kota session. Read more of her work on her website.

The Haven

This episode was inspired by a conversation we have been having in The Haven. I would love to invite you to join us to explore themes like this and consider ways to bring more gentleness, strength, and creative play on your journey into becoming who you are forever becoming.

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