When You Call Me Strong, Who Do You Think Is Weak?

a white woman wearing winter clothes is balancing on a log surrounded by trees in snow

People tell me I’m strong all the time and it always bothered me in that small squirmy way where you aren’t quite sure why you dislike the thing, just that you do. Here, I’ve finally thought my way through the problem and discovered that there are a few reasons I am uncomfortable with being called strong.

Content warning: I will mention suicide and self-harm and very negative feelings.

The first one is that it’s a thing women know a lot about. Think, for example, about all the book and film characters who get called strong. There aren’t half a lot of women in there. The reason for this is that the default for women is to be weak, so we have to point it out when one thrilling woman goes against the default. We don’t need to call male characters strong because that is the way they are assumed to be. Instead we have to point out those exciting occasions when a man is shown as being sensitive – a common euphemism for weak, at least in this context (for more on this, see ‘why the patriarchy harms men too’). This doesn’t only apply to fiction, of course, it’s just very obvious there. It is huge in real life as well. Huge.

But people usually bring the word ‘strong’ up when I’m talking about my illnesses, physical or mental. Anybody who is disabled, or has a chronic illness, or is neurodivergent, or has a mental illness, or who cares for anybody in any of these situations, will certainly have been told that they are strong – probably on a regular basis.

To be honest, I find it very invalidating. Why do people feel the need to define me? I’m perfectly able to do that for myself, and strong is not a word I would choose to describe myself. So not only are they trying to tell me what I am despite the fact that they aren’t me, but they aren’t even doing it accurately.

It goes further and deeper than that, though. I don’t feel strong at all, and when people tell me that I am I feel as though they’re really saying it because they want me to be strong, are pressurising me to be strong, think I ought to be strong. Yet some of the people who use this word to describe me are people who are aware of my struggles and know how hard life is for me. So why do they do it?

Do they just want to make themselves feel better? After all, if I am a strong person then presumably I don’t need any help. If I am strong, things can’t be that bad.

Have they just not listened to or understood what I’m saying? Perhaps they don’t comprehend that when I say that I’m barely keeping my head above water I mean that I feel as though I am about to sink and drown.

Or do they actually not want to listen to or understand what I’m saying? Perhaps because if they understand that I spend half my days crying, cutting myself, eating my feelings, visualising my own suicide and trying to think of words to express how bad things are, they might feel as though they have to try to help.

Perhaps they think it will make me feel better? When I try to explain how terrible I’m feeling, perhaps they think that forcing this ‘strength’ upon me will somehow make me forget how crap my life is. Or pleased because they admire this quality they have decided I have. Or magically instil strength into me. Or make me think I feel better than I really do.

When somebody calls me strong, it stops the conversation, because where do you go from there? It tells me that that person doesn’t want to hear any more. It tells me that I need to be talking less about my struggles and dealing with them by myself (never mind how hard it was to start talking in the first place).

And then, finally, there’s the fact that the adjective ‘strong’ is one that comes with an opposite that is never far away from it: ‘weak’. When you call one person strong, you are stating that there are other people who are weak. After all, if there were no weak people, you would never need to call anyone strong. The concept would be irrelevant.

The problem with that is that there are many, many people who firmly believe that not only is the world full of weak people, but that these weak people are inherently inferior to the strong ones. This is easily proven by a quick internet search, which brings up articles with titles like “How to Stop Being so Weak”, “20 Reasons you are Mentally Weak”, “Thirteen Differences Between Mentally Strong and Mentally Weak People” and “7 Signs You Are a Mentally Weak Person”.

In the interest of research, I gritted my teeth and actually read all of these articles and more. (I did ignore the ones that tell you how to be a strong man because I am not here for the toxic masculinity) It turns out that there are an awful lot of traits that can show you up as a weak person. Here are twenty-five of them.

Fear of confrontation

Always being late

Needing approval and liking rather than merely wanting them

Not being a morning person

Giving in when tired

Being upset by other people’s problems and opinions

Complaining a lot

Being broken by bad times

Not sticking to plans you’ve made

Reliance on social media

Thinking the world owes you

Trying to control the uncontrollable

Taking things personally

Comfort with being average

Self pity

Being impatient

Being melodramatic or exaggerating your own importance

Fear of change

Easily giving up after failure

Dwelling on the past

Secretly hoping others will fail

Always needing company

Discontent

Being quick to anger

Not listening to others’ opinions

Honestly, I can’t even with this bullshit. These are not traits of weak people. These are traits of people who have experienced trauma, who have mental illnesses, who have hard lives, or who are simply human fucking beings. Anybody who can show me a person who doesn’t have a single one of these traits will be eligible to take home all of my books, even the really early edition of The Magic City by E. Nesbit and my Chalet School hardbacks.

Yes, there are certainly people who are more able to deal with the horrors of life than others are, but this is not because they are strong. It is because they have been imbued with a quality called resilience, to which there are two main elements: social support (that is, a network of people who believe, listen to, validate and support one), and a sense of having control over one’s life (viz. a decent level of self-esteem and a belief that one can make one’s own life better).

These are not things it is easy to instil in oneself. Our levels of resilience are first and strongly established during childhood, when most of us have little control over our own lives. We don’t know how to find people – especially adults – who will believe us, let alone validate and support us, nor do we have any idea how to increase our own self-esteem or make our own lives better. Those who grow up resilient do so because they are lucky, not because they are strong. There is far more we can do as adults, but even then, these are things that still often rely on external factors. Lack of social support, trauma (past and present), poverty and illness, for example, all make enormous dents in our resilience.

And so my real question is this: You may call me strong now, but when will you stop? At what point do I cross the line into weakness? If I can be strong, then I can certainly be weak, so do tell. What do I have to do for you to stop thinking I’m strong? Is it when you find out that I’m self-harming again? Or could it be the fact that I am depressed, angry, terrified and resentful of my illness and my whole life? How about feeling that I would rather be dead than live this way for another sixty years? When I join Dignitas? When I attempt suicide? When I die by suicide? Come on, you’ve called me strong. Now tell me what it is that would make me weak.

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