Therapy clients often come to me with an imbalance. They experience the social pressure to be ‘strong’, but a the same time to be ‘sensitive’.
WHAT DOES STRONG MEAN?
Our social language is a mix of the burden of history, and the fashions of the present. Our political borders and identities were forged from war, so it is not surprising that some of the language of strength owes itself to concepts of war. We are expected to fight for our families, as though every day were a rerun of the film Braveheart. Our social language also has elements of hunting in role expectations. We are sometimes viewed as hunters for resources, and urged to ‘bring home the bacon’.
We can find ourselves caught in modern stereotypes emerging from such history. We can feel pressurised to demonstrate physical strength, assertiveness, strategic vision, protective behaviour, and resource-finding skills.
WHAT DOES SENSITIVE MEAN?
On the other hand, our social language has seen an explosion in words and phrases based on empathy and sensitivity. As society has become more peaceful, raw soldierly qualities are less and less required. In parts of the world where resources are easier to come by, and where collaboration can have more success than enmity, concepts of the hunter and the aggressor have become less helpful.
So we can also find ourselves expected to be other-focused, able to interpret and allow for others’ minds, and able to make room for other people’s priorities. We can feel pressurised to minimise the use of physical strength, to damp down our assertiveness, to compromise our strategic aims, to put down our weapons and shields, and to open up our resources to be used by others.
We can end up with two apparently contradictory role expectations: to be strong; but to be sensitive. To be strong, some individuals sacrifice sensitivity. For instance, a common phrase is ‘I can’t afford to think about that right now,’ often used by those explaining that, in their quest for strength of action, they cannot afford to be infinitely conscientious towards the subtleties of conflicting perspectives. This is partly a question of cognitive economy (the tendency of a brain to find a simple, direct way of thinking that does not tax mental resources too much). If a soldier stops to think about everything all the time, the argument goes, they are using up mental resources required for operational purposes.
There are tensions between
- strong cognitive and cultural self-consistency (‘the need to hold it together’), and the sensitive appreciation of multiple perspectives (the need to understand)
- strong localised selfishness (‘looking after one’s own’), and sensitive generalised selflessness (exercising universal compassion)
- strong strategic concision (‘we need to do this’), and sensitive strategic empathy (‘we need to be careful how we do this’)
These role conflicts reflect themselves in public political battles. For instance, in some hands, nationalism can become a form of idealism which arguably favours strong cognitive and cultural self-consistency, localised selfishness, and strategic concision. In contrast, other forms of idealism (such as some forms of globalism) may favour the appreciation of multiple perspectives, generalised selflessness, and strategic empathy.
BECOMING MORE SUBTLE
I sometimes see this role conflict expressed as mental distress. Therapy clients can find themselves swinging between strength and sensitivity. This instability takes two main forms:
- STRENGTH-DOMINANT – Here a client will spend most of their time making shows of strength and consistency, only to find that sometimes, when they are exhausted, they collapse into what they see as an over-sensitive heap. They cannot easily accept this other ‘weak’ self, and so reject it, which makes their self-esteem worse. They then temporarily collapse into a spiral of self-hate, until they recover into a new strength phase, and try to forget their ‘sensitive’ phase.
- SENSITIVITY-DOMINANT – Here a client will spend most of their time making shows of sensitivity and subtlety, only to find that sometimes, when they are exhausted, they lose their sense of coherent self-care, feeling taken advantage of. They briefly fight back, but cannot easily accept the social cost of standing up for themselves – it’s not consistent with their sensitive self-image. So they collapse and hide, nursing their wounds until they feel ready to face the world again.
Each main type arguably needs to become more subtle in their behaviour. Strength-dominant people need to learn an easier language of vulnerability without hating themselves for it; and sensitivity-dominant people need to learn an easier language of self-defence without hating themselves for exercising assertive self-care.
Some mental distress can be caused by a tension between the felt need to be strong, and the felt need to be sensitive. On the one hand, we experience social pressure to show physical strength, assertiveness, strategic vision, protective behaviour, and resource-finding skills. On the other hand, we experience social pressure to be other-focused, empathic, altruistic, and sharing.
These social pressures can lead to conflict, both internally and socially. On the one hand we may require ourselves to be ‘sorted’ – to be able to hold ourselves together, look after our own, and follow our goals. On the other hand, we may require ourselves to demonstrate understanding, compassion, care and empathy to those around us.
Sometimes we have preferences which are inherited, learned or chosen. If we are ‘strength-dominant’, then we are most comfortable when we appear to be sorted and protected, and become distressed when that image breaks, and our softer side is exposed. If we are ‘sensitivity-dominant’, then we are happiest when we appear to be understanding, compassionate and careful, and become unhappy when forced by circumstance to defend ourselves or become assertive.
We can develop ourselves by learning both languages, strength and sensitivity, and being able to transition more smoothly from one to the other. In particular, ‘strong’ people can learn a language of vulnerability, and ‘sensitive’ people can learn a language of self-defence.