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Sunday, 29 May 2016

Perfectionism, Vulnerability, and Reconsidering What It Means to Be Strong

I spend a lot of time thinking about what it means to be strong.

I suspect I appear strong to others, because it probably looks as if I have things going quite well for me and that I have a ‘good head on my shoulders’ or something like this. I have a great circle of caring & fun friends. I am doing my PhD on full scholarship at a top-ranked institution. I’ve always played sports at a high level. I create art and sometimes even perform it in public venues. I’ve been actively involved in a variety of student council type activities. I’ve been successful at getting teaching opportunities and jobs with leadership responsibilities, and I generally do well in these environments. I’m determined, hardworking, and organised, and I tend to get shit done (and usually in advance of deadlines!) and this is what many people see when they look at me. I can appear ‘strong’ to others, and sometimes I even trick myself.

But all of my close friends know another side of me as well. They know that I all too frequently struggle with really intense feelings of worthlessness and meaningless, and that I often find myself losing total hope and wanting to give up. My close friends know that I walk this weird, delicate balance where I desperately want people to love and accept me and near-constantly doubt that they do. It can be debilitating to always wonder if they do. My close friends know I want to be someone who doesn’t need anyone, all the while knowing that I’m someone who totally needs a loving, supporting community around me because human beings are built for relational connections, and I’ve grown to need this over the years. They know that I crack under pressure and can easily enter a full-on panic attack where I seemingly forget how to breathe; where I gasp for air, blubbering like a baby, until my body becomes so tired from shaking and hyperventilating that I finally shut down, and I just lay there for a while before stoically getting up and forcing myself to get shit done. Because I get shit done…that’s what strong people do, right?  

I try to limit these ‘weak’ moments like my anxiety or depression to the comfort of my own home but they’ve happened in spaces where I couldn’t bottle them in anymore; I regularly had panic attacks at the department building where I did my master’s degree. One time I collapsed on a walk home from school from hyperventilating after a particularly anxiety-ridden day.  I felt totally dejected the other morning at the library while printing an assignment because I began doubting whether I had anything worthwhile to say, or whether I should be in this PhD program. I frequently experience intensely negative thoughts that I am not good enough to be doing whatever it is I am trying to do. And I begin to feel weak. And then I feel weak for beginning to feel weak, because why not. ‘Weak people are lame! Get it together!!’ It can be a vicious cycle.

I spend a lot of time thinking about what it means to be strong.

One of the lookouts from the wall of the old city in Dubrovnik, Croatia

I’m extremely competitive, not just with other people but also with myself. Sometimes competitiveness and drive is good, and I have had some excellent improvements in my life from my desire to excel and improve, but I can also become a cruel, unkind person when totally driven by my desire to want to be the best at something no matter the cost. I try to reign this in and to re-orient my priorities, but there are so many societal pressures that instruct us, either explicitly or implicitly, to try to be the absolute best. This means different things for different people, but I suspect we all have some form of this being shoved into our faces and down our throats. It can be difficult to fight against these messages and pressures, and it can seem appealing and attractive to respond with fervor to them; to rise up and ‘be stronger’ or ‘better’ or whatever adjective applies to your own context. (Smarter...prettier...thinner…wealthier …etc.)

I spend a lot of time thinking about what it means to be strong.

Practicing the art of balance along an abandoned rock beach in Dubrovnik

I’m tempted to think of strength simply as perseverance—as the act of using the mental equivalent of pure brute force to press on and push through whatever difficulty might arise. I’m tempted to think of strength as ‘getting shit done’ even when you feel like lying in bed.

But, when I’m honest with myself, I submit that this sort of strength isn’t really strength at all but a means of maintaining the illusion of control so to appear strong to people around me. It’s a clever façade; and, at least for me, it’s driven mostly by pride and by fear. It becomes something that is attainable and even measureable (‘are you getting shit done, or aren’t you? You are? Okay, then you’re good.’) and I love any semblance of numerical validity to assure me that I’m doing alright. (‘But look at all these boxes I checked off my to do list this afternoon; I must be fine!’) This is task-oriented drivenness; I’m not convinced it is strength. At least it’s not the degree/depth/expression of strength I want to strive for.

There are moments in life where this ‘brute force’ is helpful. It’s been great for me that can meet my deadlines even though I feel like shit and like the world has no meaning and like I’d rather be dead. (This happens more frequently than I’d like to admit to.) It’s been incredibly convenient that I can continue to check off the boxes of my never-ending to do lists. But I don’t think this is necessarily ‘strength.’ I think strength may be something different.

I spend a lot of time thinking about what it means to be strong.

The skull speaks of durability and mortality; the carnation of fragility and impermanence.
Taken at a museum in Amsterdam.

I’ve begun to conceptualise strength as something that isn’t just perseverance (though, to be sure, that has its merits) but as mindful recognition of the present-reality—no matter the reality—and making intentional, even if small, steps toward positive change. Sometimes that begins with my recognising that I feel weak and shitty and hopeless and like life is meaningless. Sometimes that very recognition of weakness is the first step/sign of strength.

I spend a lot of time thinking about what it means to be strong.

I think strength is learning to come to terms with who you are rather than simply trying to become a version of yourself that fits society's standards of success. I love this moment in The Fantastic Mr. Fox when Ash celebrates his "little-ness" and even turns it around to being a means to success.

I spend a lot of time thinking about what it means to be strong.

Here are some of the strongest phrases that come to mind as I write this.  This list is neither exhaustive or perfect.

“I don’t know.”
“I’ve not heard/thought of that before.”
“Maybe you’re right.”
“I’m doubting the things I used to believe.”
“I feel sad/lonely/dejected.”
“I’m sorry for the way I acted.”
“I don’t understand xyz, but I love you.”

The strength of these phrases comes from both their willingness to be vulnerable and open, and their admittance of uncertainty. They defy the version of strength that is sometimes forced down our throats by society. You probably know the kind of strength I’m referring to; you might strive for it.

I spend a lot of time thinking about what it means to be strong.

A public memorial space in Berlin, Germany

I love this line from one of my friend’s songs. Madi Smith writes, “I got myself together. Yeah, I know who I am. At least, I’ve found most of the pieces, and I piece them as best I can.” You can listen to it here. I love Madi's music, and I love this line in particular because it recognises the broken, mosaic-like identity that humans have; it speaks to finding our identity in the midst of that. Mosaics are beautiful when we allow them to be seen; so much more so than putting up a front of ‘I have this totally together and everything is figured out and I am fine, la la la.’

It is incredibly strong to admit that one feels weak.
It is incredibly strong to admit hesitation or uncertainty.
It is incredibly strong to be okay with the place you are in, and to work from there, wherever 'there' is.

Brene Brown, perhaps one of the most well-known researchers on shame and meaningful living, has been researching on this topic for well over a decade, and she can speak to this topic with far more detail than I can. You might want to check out her book/s or one of her youtube clips--maybe this one or this one are good starting points. I find her work to be very inspirational.

I spend a lot of time thinking about what it means to be strong.

Perspective is absolutely everything; here, I'm tinier than a blade of grass. 

I could keep writing on and on about my thoughts on strength. Firstly, because I am impeccably long-winded and secondly, because I am a perfectionist and I’m afraid of posting this before I’ve revised and analysed and edited the heck out of it to find any holes in my argument or fix any ‘weak points.’ (I hate, hate HATE appearing weak or flawed.) But I’m going to post this as it is now. (Partly because I need to get to the library and work on my PhD, but more so because I am truly trying to embrace acceptance of where I am at.) These are some of the thoughts I have right now; this is the place I’m in and the spot I’m trying to breathe in and exist in. It isn't perfected, but I am trying to be at home with it.

I suspect the logic presented here is not perfect. You can probably find and latch on to a hole or a flaw without much difficulty. But, if I may, maybe the better way to exist in our beautiful broken world is to latch on to whatever you find that is good and inspiring, and to go on from there. If you have any thoughts you want to make heard, feel free to comment below, or feel free to message me. I’d be happy to hear them.


  1. You only speak taking into account your thought and feelings but not other people's feelings and thoughts. I find kind of abstract this strength you mention and this is actually relative (as many other concepts, even if you can find them in the dictionary). You do not relate your concept of strength with the state of mind. Milan Kundera establish that there are three types of people. It seems that you are in the first one and your actions are affected by what other people think (it doesn't matter if you know them or not) then you possibly permanent state of mind drives you to all this actions you mention and gives you this thing that you called strength. You barely touch fear and do not related much this strength with fear which maybe better focusing on other persons rather than you. That's are part of my thoughts. I like one thing you mention, unfortunately it's not the topic of this piece of writing ��

  2. This post is so beautiful Nadya!!! I related to *so* much of what you said! Pretty much all of what you said. Thank you so much for posting. That's definitely a topic I think about, too, and have actually really struggled with in the context of Christianity. I got so tired of the XTN narrative "men are strong, women are weak" ("women are the weaker vessels" etc), and I have been through so much in my life that I really do believe I'm a "strong" person. But then it started to feel like I was letting myself down whenever I had "weak" moments. It was very confusing and hard. It's still a process I'm working through, and such an important one! We can just assume we know what the word "strength" means and try to fit it into a concrete box/category, when in actuality it is such a slippery and rather abstract concept. In time, I've also come to think of strength in terms of acceptance, awareness, and presence :)

    1. Thanks Rebekah. I'm glad you found things within here that struck a chord with you, so to speak. It can be really difficult to be caught between feeling like we *shouldn't* 'be weak.' It's a confusing thing indeed.
      I also agree with you that it is a very slippery and abstract concept. I like your definition of it as acceptance, awareness, and presence. It really does seem as if the recognition of who/where we are in this present moment is a significant first-step toward mental health and what Brene Brown calls "whole-hearted living." It's what I am trying to strive for; but pursuiing the other versions of 'strength' (success, productivity, output, busy-ness, etc.) can be so tempting to fall back into...!

  3. Alexandra Pohran-Dawkins29 May 2016 at 14:40

    [1 of 2] Dear sweet Nadya, I'm moved by your openness, not to speak of the highly articulate delivery of your thoughts. Some of what you say about the perception of strength, about the illusion of control and about perseverance might have been written by me in my 20s, had I been as articulate and as comfortable being verbally expressive at that age as you clearly are. The thoughts and anxieties are very similar, the perfectionism, the perseverance, the DRIVE, the unwillingness to appear to be weak, the desire to be Somebody, etc. I've thought about this a lot over the years.

    Sure, much of it may come simply from the desire to do whatever it is we do - write, play music, paint, cook - well. But having to be the best is something else. There are people who are very comfortable being the "good enough" whatever, parent, academic, musician....wife, maybe - and then there are people like us. I think that's OK, particularly in youth, but I also have found that the need for perfection alters through different stages of life. Recognizing the alteration and embracing it is something that I've only recently become good at and I wish I'd been told earlier in life that "good enough" was a perfectly fine place to be. It is, and I hope you hear me.

    In my case I was told from a very young age that I was super smart, that I was very talented, that I was "gifted", blah, blah, even was enrolled in an Enrichment Program for some of my elementary school years. (I suspect you may have had a similar experience). Yeah, it created a lot of confidence and I'm grateful that it was recognized and that I was given the opportunity to shine, to be creative and to not be bored. The downside, which I've only realized in the past few years, is that I was expected to do VERY well in life. No pressure there, eh? So, I did well in life, lived up to the expectations and have had a great career, non-stop, lots of ideas that are listened to, lots great and important concerts I've played in, lots of leadership opportunities, a major and life-threatening illness - and I'm exhausted. (being elevated above the others was not exactly great for sibling relationships, either, it should be mentioned)

  4. Alexandra Pohran-Dawkins29 May 2016 at 14:40

    [2 of 2]
    Quite a few years ago I read a couple of articles in passing, waiting at the dentist's office or something. One was written to a woman who'd decided that she didn't want her gravestone to read "she accomplished a lot". It hit home, sort of, that is, it resonated somewhat but I sure didn't act on it. The other was one of those typical articles about stress, "how stressed are you?" and of course a little test to take. Well, I scored really high on that one - but still, felt, well, but they don't mean ME, that's not me, really.

    This fall I'm entering my 30th year of academic life, last spring was my 40th year as a professional musician, that is, 40 years without a waitress job. I'm going on a 2/3 load for the year AND am retiring after this year. I feel great about my decision and am completely ready to leave academia. There are things that I'll miss and things that I won't miss. There are a hell of a lot of rules in academia and they are well disguised when you first enter that life.

    I like that you are writing all this stuff instead of doing your dissertation; it bodes well for your emotional life, I think. You are so expressive and so willing to bare all. This is exactly one of the things that I'll miss about the university: the interaction with young people who think well and who are questioning things. Please don't let my generation determine your success. We are still defining success by how busy we are. "Oh, that means I must be important." I'm looking forward to a reply from anyone in their 60s to the question "how are you?" that is something like "I'm reading this great book and yesterday I spent the whole day in the hammock with it." Maybe that could be me! HA!

    Here are a couple of articles to read:

    Maybe it will give you a different perspective on academia, I don't know.

    I loved reading your article. Keep them coming.
    Lots of love, Aunt (or not) Sandra

    1. Thanks Aunt Sandra! I found your reflection really interesting and thought-provoking; and, yes, we seem to share a lot of personality quirks haha :). Especially thought-provoking for me was your following comment: "Please don't let my generation determine your success. We are still defining success by how busy we are."

      It's so tempting to do that---to fill our time and try to be busy, to be well-read, to be successful, to get promoted, etc. But, in more introspective moments, I'm simply not convinced that that is the way to living a happy, meaningful life. We seem to be in agreement on this :).

      I have heard of one of the books you mentioned in your link; I'll try to look into them both in the coming weeks. Thanks for sharing!