What Strength Isn’t: Keeping Going When We Need To Stop

As I launch this new site about how to become strong, the first thing I want to do is to clear up some common misconceptions about what strength really is. Or, more importantly, what strength really isn’t.

I’m going to start off by letting you into a secret… Sometimes I completely bottom out!

There are times when I get caught up with so many exciting ideas (or even not that exciting, plain old boring tasks and errands), try to cram so much into my diary, and fail to leave enough “me” time for rest and recuperation that I end up in an exhausted heap and don’t even have the strength to change into my pyjamas and climb into bed! These are the times that I crash into some sort of metaphysical wall and realize that I am not super-human after all (why does this still surprise me every time?!).

At these moments, I go into survival mode. I get out my phone, look at my diary and my to-do-list and start crossing off everything that is not a matter of life or death. The things that I can wriggle out of, without causing significant damage to myself or to those I love, get moved to my “next week” list. The things that can’t be dropped without causing harm get put on a much shorter list that feels manageable. And then I allow myself to vegetate.

There was a time when I used to see this bottoming out as a weakness. I used to expect more of myself. I should be able to keep going and achieve all the things I set out to do. It is not acceptable to cancel commitments, especially if it means disappointing somebody else. I shouldn’t need so much time sitting down doing absolutely nothing. It is lazy, wasteful, and weak.

I have since realized that bottoming out is not a weakness, and that pushing ourselves to try harder and do more is certainly not a strength.

While it’s true that I may need to improve a little on how I plan my time and try not to over-commit, the fact is that learning how to recognize when I’m about to burn out and taking the necessary steps to protect my own mental and physical health at these moments is actually a great strength. It often takes considerable courage. This is especially true for those who are surrounded by family and friends who do not understand their need to recuperate and pile on the pressure, shame and guilt when they go into power-saving mode.

So, just to sum up, keeping on going regardless of the cost to our health, our families and our sanity is not strength. Strength is recognizing when we reach our human limits and putting a quick and effective plan of priorities in place so that we won’t cause any damage to ourselves or anyone else when we need to check out for a while.

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