Being Strong for Too Long

Confronted by the devastating impacts of events such as the Australian bushfires, the COVID-19 outbreak, or the Beirut explosions; the past year has been an emotional rollercoaster for people all over the world. Many individuals have felt  mounting pressure to find solutions to the resulting challenges, such as adopting optimal self-care practices, meeting the needs of others, and finding new ways to manage their distress. What is yet to be discussed is the psychological impact of incessantly striving to cope over extended periods of time. For example, what happens when we continuously struggle to solve problems that are unsolvable, and is it sustainable or even possible to be strong all the time? All too often, our attempts to push away thoughts, feelings and experiences are ineffective, leaving us feeling more stressed, exhausted, and overwhelmed than we started. Being strong for too long might involve feeling an excessive sense of shame or guilt, constantly putting aside our needs for others, and perceiving our emotions as unacceptable or unwarranted. In this article, we discuss each of these processes and how they might relate to the concept of being strong for too long. 

Shame and Guilt: Shame and guilt are both self-critical emotions that involve perceptions of one’s failure to meet up to certain standards or transgressions, both of which have been significantly associated with symptoms of depression and anxiety. Over the past year, media has been saturated with information about the things we should be doing to take care of ourselves and maintain our wellbeing. While much of this information is helpful, some individuals may be at risk of experiencing excessive guilt or shame for not meeting certain standards, whether it be sticking to healthy routines, diets, sleep hygiene practices, or  self-care activities. It is now more important than ever to acknowledge that we are not robots; it is neither sustainable nor healthy to hold ourselves to strict standards, particularly during such a challenging and a chaotic period in our lives. Instead, now is a time to be gentle and compassionate with yourself, acknowledging that it is not only okay—but completely normal—for us to fall behind with our usual healthy practices during a stressful period.  

Self-Sacrificing: Self-sacrificing behaviours involve constantly prioritising the needs of others over oneself. Individuals who engage in these behaviours often find themselves feeling guilty or selfish when paying attention to their needs, which prevents their needs from being adequately met. During challenging periods, many individuals perceive the need to be a strong, supportive figure for those around them. In some situations, this can extend to the point of self-sacrificing, during which individuals supporting others become increasingly deprived of their own needs. It is important to note that regardless of your role in your social network, family, or workplace; your needs are just as important as anyone else and looking after yourself will help give you the energy, strength and capacity required to help others.  

Beliefs about EmotionsFor some individuals, being strong for too long can mean pushing aside emotions due to worrying about the ability to cope with intense distress, feeling ashamed to have emotions, to be perceived as ‘weak’ or defective.Sometimes we can think that it is far more important to be reasonable and practical, as opposed to sensitive to emotions. It is important to note that no emotions are unacceptable, and all of them serve an important purpose. Emotions help motivate us to take necessary actions, to empathise and communicate with others, and to signal important information to us in certain situations. If you’ve noticed that your emotions have felt like a rollercoaster over the past year, know that you’re not alone, and that there is nothing abnormal about having strong feelings, particularly during a chaotic period.  

Stay tuned later in the week for our next article on lightening the loadwhen we will discuss ways to relax the rules and expectations we  place upon ourselves that keep us feeling stressed.