I have recently returned from visiting Florida and my best friend James. We went out to an art fair one evening, and he persuaded me to pose in a fairground ‘strongman’ caricature (see the photo below). It got me thinking about strength and how we classify it.
What does being strong mean to you?
Most often, when we think of strength it is a physical phenomenon; having an above average ability to shift heavy items, or even the aesthetics of large muscles.
How do you measure up against that type of strength…..and does it even matter?
I think real strength is not about muscles, but a type of emotional strength which comes from the inside.
It’s that ability we have as human beings to cope with the inevitable ups and downs in life, to stand up again after we get knocked down, to find another reason to move forwards when all we want to do is run away.
That to me is true strength, but it is a facet of our character which takes nurture if we want to be better.
If we reflect again on muscular strength, most people recognise that to build stronger muscles takes training. We must go to the gym regularly, find our current level, push a little beyond it and wait for adaptation to occur – before repeating the process hundreds of times until we reach our goal.
Building emotional strength and resilience is just the same.
It doesn’t happen overnight, and it takes consistent effort to see improvement.
I get so frustrated when people assume that I am naturally a positive person, or that my ability to bounce back from hardship is a character trait I was born with.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Like most people, I have struggled at times with depression, self-pity and how to deal with negative thoughts.
I have had to work hard to overcome my mental limitations as much as my physical ones, and am still very much a work in progress.
Perhaps the biggest lesson is the realisation that I, and I alone, choose how I react to every situation.
I am in absolute control of my emotions, and can literally decide whether to face the world and its inevitable challenges with a strong or weak attitude.
I also know that the more I develop my emotional strength, the better I can cope with whatever my life next has in store.
That inner strength builds on itself, and my responses to adversity become more natural and intuitive.
I view it almost like being on top of a large sandcastle. Each time life throws another bucket of sand (unwanted hardship) at me, I have the option to either step purposefully back on top or get buried underneath.
I must react, as the sand is going to keep coming, and I won’t always know how much or how often it is going to arrive.
It is far easier to stay on top of my ‘castle’, than it is to climb back on top when I am already several feet down.
I can’t avoid the sand, and it is not just me it is aimed at.
We all have a life which is inevitably filled with unpredictable challenges and obstacles.
It is hugely important to realise that your life is no better or worse than anyone else’s!
Everyone, and I mean everyone, has their own struggles to overcome, and there is no such thing as an easy life.
One of the most insidious beliefs which will eat away at your inner strength, is the mistaken idea that your difficulties are in some way made up to be particularly awful. Comparing yourself to others will always end in heartache.
Instead, take a deep breath, and realise how fortunate you are.
Spend a few moments to comprehend how much you have, and the amazing opportunity which surrounds you.
The chances are that you are reading this on a mobile phone or computer, you have a home, food in your belly, possessions which make you happy, at least a few people in the world who care about you, and the hopeful expectation that you will wake up again tomorrow and face a new day.
Not everyone gets that gift. In fact, only a small percentage of the 7.6 billion people alive today would understand why so many of us appear to be unhappy when in fact we have so much!
Pause for a minute and realise what a lucky so-and-so you are.
Focus your mind on what is good in life, and the rest becomes less overwhelming.
I hear you, and truly do empathise when it comes to the obstacles which lie in your path – health, finances, relationships or work.
But this is your day, your moment, your everything.
It is up to you to embrace it and live it as best as you can.
Many of you, like me, will be living with a long-term health condition, and the uncertainty which that brings.
I am not ashamed to admit that even I have days when nothing seems to go to plan, when I must face an unexpected event which knocks me completely off course, or worse still something truly bad happens which stops me in my tracks.
If you have been reading my posts for a while, you can appreciate that the last few years have had more than a few buckets of sand thrown in my direction.
You might think that I would be quite within my rights to be a little fed up and feeling sorry for myself.
But I don’t.
What saves me is the inner strength which I have nurtured over many years. I simply refuse to succumb to ‘victim mentality’. No matter how difficult things appear to be, it is never hard to find someone living with a situation a whole lot worse!
It may sound strange, but I almost welcome whatever challenges life has in store for me.
Having accepted that hardship is an inevitable part of what it means to be alive, I find it helpful to give it a personality, so I have something tangible to pit myself against.
I feel like I am saying, “Come on then, show me what you have got. Bring your best and get ready for the fight.
I am going to win at this game of life no matter what you do.
The more you block me, the stronger I will become.
Yes, I will have moments when I waver, and you will think you have the upper hand, but it won’t last.
You will catch me off guard and I will fall. But I will rub my wounds and stand back up.
I, and I alone, get to define my story.
I am not scared of you.
I learn far more from failure, struggle and pain than I ever do when life is going my way.
In any situation, there is either a victory or a lesson to be learned. I am all ears and happy to be a good student.
If I am weak, complaining, filled with self-pity or ungrateful for this life, I give you the upper hand.
I may occasionally waver, but you will never win because I am a champion!”
Some of you, I know, will read that and laugh. You will think I am crazy or delusional, or that this is some American ‘wo-wo’ self-talk script.
I promise that it is not.
It is me, as raw, honest and unedited as I can be.
My inner strength is born of a self-awareness and understanding that how I deal with the challenges in my life is a choice.
I have 100% personal responsibility for who and what I am, and a quiet confidence that I will be ok, no matter what (mis)adventures come next.
I may not be physically strong, but my inner strength and self-belief will never let met me down.
I wish that I could bottle it and share it with anyone who is suffering or doubting their own ability to cope.
I also know that if you want to build the inner strength to face your own demons and challenges, you will need to develop your own strategies, mantras and rituals.
You can decide to be strong, or you can let that sand build up and engulf you.
What can you do if you know that you need to be mentally stronger?
- Understand that you, and only you, are in control of how you think and act. Do not relinquish that responsibility to anyone or anything else.
- Admit that you want to improve, and if necessary seek help from a recognised source – counsellors, health professionals, books, courses.
- Develop a support network of friends and advisors who build you up, inspire you and elevate your thoughts. (just as important, distance yourself from any vampires or things which do the opposite).
- Work on yourself every day. Goal setting, meditation, journaling, written reflection.
- Acknowledge where you have let yourself down in the past – not with regret but with the understanding that you learned something and that was just as important.
- Celebrate your wins, no matter how small.
- Accept yourself where you are now, and believe that the best version of you is yet to come.
Take some time today for self-reflection. Think about your own levels of inner strength and resilience. When are you at your best? When has it let you down? What can you do to nurture that strength so it serves you better when you are next facing a challenge?
My two weeks away in Florida were such a blessing. I have come back re-energised and ready to push on into 2018 with a renewed sense of purpose.
No matter what the future holds, I am quietly confident that my carefully nurtured inner strength will see me through.