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Being ‘Strong’ – Gift or Curse?

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Seth Gillihgan, PhD - Blogs
By Seth J. Gillihan, PhDClinical psychologistDecember 14, 2018

Think of someone you admire, and I’ll bet “strength” is one of their characteristics. Mental, physical, or emotional strength has obvious advantages, and is associated with leadership, resilience, productivity, and many other positive traits. We also know we can depend on strong people when we need their support.

With such powerful benefits, it’s easy to overlook that strength also has a less-recognized shadow side.

Years ago I treated a middle-aged man in psychotherapy who felt the weight of the world on his shoulders. He’d been carrying others since his late teens, and continued to be the rock of his family as everyone looked to him for financial and emotional support. And he was exhausted. No one seemed to see him as a real human being with needs and weaknesses, or wondered how we was doing. Everyone assumed he was fine, but he felt like he was drowning.

While it may not be intuitive to think of the “curse of being strong,” consider these potential downsides.

  • You don’t acknowledge your needs. Having needs is often thought of as a weakness, whether the needs are emotional, physical, mental, or simply needing other people. However, our strength actually comes from recognizing our needs, and taking care to meet them. Think of the strong athletes you know—their strength comes not just from their hard workouts but from their recovery, including sleep and nutrition.
  • You’re too hard on yourself. When you don’t see your own needs, you’re likely to be too hard on yourself. You might not be willing to ease up when you’re exhausted, or to let yourself cry when you need to. Or maybe you mentally berate yourself for not being perfectly strong. Eventually you might run yourself into the ground, suffering emotional, physical, and mental burnout. No one can be strong all the time.
  • Others don’t recognize your needs. If you’re in the habit of soldiering on no matter the hardship, others will come to expect it of you. And while their confidence in you may feel good, it can blind them to times when you’re not feeling so strong. They might not notice that you’re less energetic than usual, or that you just need a break. No matter how strong you are, the people who care about you need to know that you need their support as much as they need yours.
  • You attract needy people. Strength is attractive, and if yours is evident, people will be drawn to you. That can be a very good thing, especially if it draws in people who are similarly strong. But sometimes people will take advantage of your strength, allowing it to be a substitute for their own. As a result, you’ll have to be doubly strong, for you and for them.

If you consider yourself a strong person, keep in mind that you’re as human as anyone else, and remember to take care of yourself. And if you have an especially strong person in your life, make a point to let them know you appreciate them, and look for opportunities to support them in any way you can.

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About the Author
Seth J. Gillihan, PhD

Seth J. Gillihan, PhD, is a licensed psychologist and clinical assistant professor of psychology in the Psychiatry Department at the University of Pennsylvania. He is co-author with Janet Singer of Overcoming OCD: A Journey to Recovery and author of Retrain Your Brain: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in 7 Weeks and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Made Simple. Dr. Gillihan maintains a private practice in Haverford, PA, where he specializes in treating OCD, depression, anxiety, and insomnia.

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