Pushing Yourself & Resilience or Self Abuse: Where’s the Line Between Being Tough and Being Abusive?

Ahh, more lessons from the toxically masculine 80’s. And everybody had a good time… When I was a child in the 80’s, there was a hyper focus on what the roles of men and women were and what it means to be tough. These were crazy, polarizing times. What I was taught about how to be a man is pretty much summed up by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character from “The Predator”. In this post, I’ll be going over the difference between being tough, and resilience, and how I’ve cultivated a new definition for myself around what it means to be, “tough”. So lets take a look at where my definition was forged.

What it Meant to be a Man in my Childhood

In summation, this meant that they (men) were always in charge and used force to keep control. They were unforgiving, especially towards those who were considered to be weaker (accept women and sometimes children), and displayed proudly their anger in destructive ways. I.e. by breaking things in the heat of an argument to show dominance of the situation.

I’m sure that all men weren’t like this, but the popular culture I was raised in valued and glorified this type of gender role assignment. I was often called sensitive as a child because I displayed a range of emotion that was greater than anger and confidence. Being scared as a man, regardless of your age, was unacceptable. And I was scared often. Due to the amount of abuse I was experiencing at the hands of my caregivers.

Manly Expectations

I’d like to talk about what some of the expectations were for me, growing up as a man, and the impact they made on me in my life. There was a lot of reparenting I had to engage in, due to the toxic lessons I was subjected to. And I know I’m not alone.

So if you’ve been measuring yourself to an impossibly masculine standard of self-reliance to the point of not being able to ask for help, or your emotional arsenal consists mainly of indignant rage, then keep reading. We maybe able to help one another by practicing another skill that most men from my generation were taught was too feminine for men to experience. That of listening and attuning to our feelings. And hopefully in so doing, find some ways to heal ourselves in the process.

Are We Being Tough or Abusive? Where do you Draw the Line?

Resilience is a word that’s tossed around a lot these days. I struggled with what this word meant for a long time. As a man, I was taught that we were supposed to be tough. This meant able to handle anything. Resilience was an unspoken part of that package. But what I’m finding out now is, the difference between emotionally resilience and how I was taught to be “tough” by covering over difficult emotions with anger or alcohol.

While I was taught how to be tough, there wasn’t really much of a lesson plan. There was however, a lot of bravado. Posturing and drinking were ways we covered over our emotions. There were other ways we covered over our emotions too. Pleasure seeking by abusing pornography and dissociating from our emotions by projecting them onto the women in our lives and denying we had them at all. We were neither tough nor showed resilience. We did however, run from our emotions to the point of denial. And numbed them out when we were too tired to run.

What we were doing was a form of self-abuse. By disconnecting from ourselves so thoroughly, we completely ignored our own needs for emotional attunement. To ourselves and with others. Being tough and resilience has come to mean something else completely, from how I was raised to imagine it.

Resilience Not Toughness, Why Words Matter

So if what I was taught about being tough was all a show, then where did that leave me when it came to face my difficult emotions? When they all came rushing in at once? It wasn’t ideal or fun, that’s for sure. When the fear and insecurities came flooding in, it left me feeling overwhelmed and filled with fear and anxiety. I had no tools, relationships or resources that I had been cultivating to help because I was relying on avoidance as my only coping skill. Also practicing extreme independence. And in case you don’t know, you can’t avoid your emotions forever.

This is when I started searching for better ways to manage my neglected emotional world. Meditation was one that came in particularly handy. There’s a phrase I learned while listening to Tara Brach’s Dharma talks, about meditation. It goes, “sit, stay, heal.” This is sound and straight forward advice. As I’m writing this, Kings of Leon are singing in the background, “ride out the wave”, which has a similar sentiment. Both suggest that you need to feel through it, in order to heal through it. This is also what is possibly meant by facing your fears.

And that’s the trick, that there is no trick. You just need to feel the fear, the insecurity and the sadness, and you’ll be all the stronger for it. But that’s a difficult task for a lot of us who are struggling to deal with our difficult emotions. A friend of mine once told me that the more you feel your emotions, the easier it gets. And he’s right. It isn’t easy at first, but necessary if you want to live a life free from avoidant and possibly addictive behaviors.

Quick Fixes are Not Long Term Solutions

Too often we get caught up in wanting to feel better in the moment. For me, I would drink lots of caffeine to alter my emotional state. Or alcohol if it was after work. Looking at pornography was another way of pleasure seeking in the moment. But pornography, along with going to strip clubs and objectifying women, and other ways of covering over difficult emotions, were the mark of a “real man”, as taught to me by my caregivers.

Of course, I didn’t realize I was covering over my difficult emotions. I didn’t even really know what I was feeling. I was just doing what was taught to me, and what felt good in the moment. So when I started feeling the emotions I was covering over without directly, without a quick fix of pleasure, they were most definitely overwhelming. But my friend was right. The more I feel my emotions, without covering them over, the less intense they become. It’s amazing what a little practice and patience can accomplish.

So what feels like abuse, subjecting yourself to staying in the difficult emotions, is actually the way to build resilience. And this isn’t to say that relying on aids such as medication isn’t wise. Especially if we’re dealing with very intense emotions. It’s when we self-medicate by abusing medications, or other drugs or activities, to avoid our emotions that we run into trouble. And when in doubt, ask a professional. Such as a therapist or counsellor. Mine has been an amazing resource for me.

When Pride is Confused for Being Tough

Muscling through difficult situations, as though we need to face them all on our own, is nothing short of foolish pride. This was a characteristic that was found in abundance in my family. We were all too proud to ask for help. This usually meant we were in over our heads. But for us, it was seen as a sign of weakness to ask for help. So we muscled through by avoiding the difficult emotions in the moment and actively sought to numb or speed pass them in lue of finding support. This is abusive behavior.

I think what we were avoiding the most was the ridicule we would receive if we asked for support. We would be seen as weak. And weakness was active sought out and used against us, by making fun of each other in the cruelest ways we could muster. I feel that this was a way to release some of our pain and resentment we were holding in from past wounds. But one thing is for certain, for me it was not safe to be seen as weak by those closest to me.

This is how pride became our main line of defense against each other. It was the one way we were able to keep ourselves as safe as possible, in an environment that was steeped in dangerous circumstances. There was no safe place to turn, including inwardly. So we dissociated from ourselves and one another in order to survive the thousands of tiny wounds we were constantly inflicting.

I think what perpetuated this way of being was, fear of being cut down in the ways we watched those closest to us cut others down. It’s a cycle that we repeatedly engage in. In order to keep the temporary illusion of safety, in an otherwise treacherous environment. And it takes willpower, strength and resilience to break this cycle.

Disengaging From Patterns of Abuse

This ain’t easy. In order to break free from the patterns of abuse, of giving and receiving it, we have to be the first to show our “weaknesses” or vulnerabilities. This is a scary proposition and one that needs resilience to be successful. As I’ve said above, my family was trained to maliciously attack any sign of “weakness”, as defined by our family’s unspoken rules. So putting yourself in a place where you know you will be abused, takes courage and, you guessed it, resilience. Especially because, once you’ve been torn apart, your intention will be to not attack the other. Hopefully breaking the cycle.

And the worst part is, there is no guarantee that the relationship will be salvaged once you put yourself on the line. If you’re ready to be done with the cycles of abuse, but the other isn’t, then you’ll be left wounded and alone. This is where it’s important to have supports already in place and to have built up resilience to these types of abusive situations. So if things don’t end up working out, or progress is slow, then you’ll be able to find comfort in knowing somebody else is there for you. Or that you are there for yourself.

Setting Boundaries

This was something I practiced a few years ago, when I attempted to reconnect with somebody from my past. We met at a local Whole Foods to get lunch and catch up. When we sat down to talk, I noticed that we were slipping into old patterns of verbally abusive behavior.

The person I was reconnecting with, was used to more hostile interactions. The ways we used to interact was by making small, cutting remarks, mixed in with the normal flow of conversation. Essentially being mean for no reason. When I recognized that this was happening, I knew I needed to give the relationship more time and space between us. So I ended our meeting early and took some time before reaching out to them again.

It wasn’t easy, but it was well worth the effort in order to properly care for myself in the relationship, while establishing a new standard of how I want to be, and will accept being treated. But it’s not enough to take space without explanation. If we can, we could tell the other person what we’re doing and why. Otherwise disengaging can be taken as an act of passive aggressive punishment. Withholding love without a proper explanation can feel, to the other person, like a cold slight. Leaving them to wonder why you aren’t talking anymore.

Finding Support

And while you’re working on your relationships by setting healthy boundaries and practicing resilience, it’s good to have people who know what you’re going through. People who can offer some advice, some insight or maybe just an ear to listen. It’s also helpful for these people to be practicing healthy boundaries themselves. This can be difficult if you are just beginning the journey of learning how to cultivate healthy relationships.

Therapy

A therapist is a great place to start when looking to expand your support network. They can offer unbiased insight into how you can go about establishing these new rules you’re setting in your relationships. They can also help you find other healthy resources. Ones that will aid you along the way. They can be a healing ally and guide, as you sort out the unattended areas of your life.

Friends

Friends are also invaluable during this process. I have one friend that I know I can count on for just about anything. To field a phone call about a hairy situation, get some logical advice about practical matters, or text about something that’s happening in the moment. I’ve talked to a few friends for their perspective of this post topic alone.

It’s also nice to feel the support of someone who knows you and what you’ve been through. To feel seen and recognized too. This is especially powerful if you’ve been emotionally neglected. If this is the case, the act of attempting to connect with others can bring up emotions of anxiety and fear. By having friends and other supports in place, the feelings aren’t as strong as they would be if you were facing them alone.

Finally, Being Tough Means Finding Support

And finally, if you’ve been closing yourself and your emotions off from others, you become weaker in the process. It’s not healthy to be isolated from those around you for too long. We need one another to be the best versions of ourselves. Staying connected and growing stronger in those connections, that’s what being tough really means.

So if you’ve been told that being tough means grinning and bearing it, or rub some dirt in your wound, you’ve been mislead. Caring for ourselves by knowing our emotional limits and checking in with how we’re feeling is our true strength. This and the support of others is where we’ll be able to stop the cycles of abuse and become the healthiest versions of ourselves. Peace : ) and thanks for reading.

Image Credits: “Tired” by Geoff LMV is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Updated: 11/25/22

Author: nolabelsliving

Social worker by day, blogger by night. I have a lot of lived experience which is why I started my blog. I was not given any direction when I started out on my journey, but have been blessed with some amazing support and guidance along the way. Just want to give back a little of what I've received : )

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