Un-wimp me.
November 28, 2010 8:19 AM   Subscribe

How can I become an emotionally strong person?

So a small misunderstanding at work made another agency see me in an unfair way. I was just doing my job, it was their mistake, they blamed me, etc.

When it happened, I felt insulted, scared as in "my mom is going to kill me" and very childishly insecure. Of course, to top it all, I actually cried. This very nice older lady looked at me sternly (if not a little bit impatiently) and said:

"Tarumba - be strong."

I immediately sobered up, of course, embarrassed. And her advice seemed so earnest (and quite useful, really) that I've been moldering it over for a couple of days. I've realized that strength is indeed my main lack, and fear is actually the cause of many dissapointments and shortcomings in my life.

And this is all very well but, how on earth do I become strong? What does it even mean? How do I not lose my head when something happens? How do I not take things personally, or see them with perspective if they are personal? How can I toughen up my skin?

I have since realized I feel stupidly offended by petty things, like people cutting me off when driving, or a salesperson being rude to me. I can actually remember these incidents vividly months later and still feel like they are serious personal injuries, when my rational part knows those people have no idea who I am and have long forgotten me. I have the feeling that taking stupid things so seriously has contributed to my being an insecure wimp.

Any tips?
posted by Tarumba to Human Relations (17 answers total) 54 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Well, this isn't a quick fix, but you could try mindfulness meditation. When I'm consistent with it, I notice that I have more mental space between events and the feelings they might trigger. I also can experience feelings for what they are - conditioned, temporary phenomena - and that helps me deal with them more lightly.

Again, this doesn't happen immediately. However, there can be short-term benefits (relaxation, mostly) that help with the same sorts of issues.

MeMail me if you want more info. I'm proud of you for taking your coworker's words to heart and seeing something you want to (can, will) improve in yourself.
posted by 2or3whiskeysodas at 8:28 AM on November 28, 2010 [5 favorites]

To take a cue from CBT, being upset by these incidents doesn't make the situation better, so why do it?
posted by k8t at 8:33 AM on November 28, 2010

Best answer: "That doesn't help -- why do it?" implies that the emotional turmoil the OP experiences is some sort of calculated, logical response to a set of circumstances. Often it's not, and it sounds like she realizes that -- she's trying to figure out how to change it!

There are a lot of ways to go about that, but I think that two principles have really helped both my wife and I. I think one of the real keys was focusing on the idea that your value and your personhood is not determined by your actions other others' opinions of you. This feels cheesy sometimes, and if you're naturally inclined towards self-effacing perspectives on things this is a difficult one to get a handle on. But it really is true: other people have all sorts of moods, perspectives, hangups, and stresses. The slights and insults that you're experiencing could be constructive criticism, lashing out by people who are having bad days, thoughtless words from people who don't realize the impact their statements have, etc. They could be fundamentally mean people just crossing your path by accident, or they could be kind people who've just heard terrible news. The key (at least for me) was slowly but surely reminding myself that my actions, my "deserving" of good or bad treatment, wasn't what was driving those things. I had to decouple my perception of self from the ambient "weather" of other peoples' behavior.

None of this stuff is automatic; simply knowing it intellectually won't necessarily solve anything, but it can help you consciously recognize when you're making incorrect assumptions about the people around you and how they see you -- if you're deliberate about focusing as you experience these things. 2or3's suggestion of mindfulness meditation has some real merit, I know it helped my wife a lot in many of these same situations.
posted by verb at 8:50 AM on November 28, 2010 [6 favorites]

Best answer: I found a lot of strength from the meditations on releasing emotional reactions described in these recordings from a Buddhist retreat.
posted by Estragon at 9:45 AM on November 28, 2010 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Was this the first time something like this happened to you at work? It sounds like it.

It also sounds like all you needed was someone to tell you to be strong in order to get you to snap out of it.

The answer to your question is not to go on a journey to a place where you suddenly no longer have the feelings that caused your reaction. It's to learn enough about your hotspots that you find tricks to stop yourself from getting overwhelmed by your feelings. It actually sounds like you have a good handle on it, you recognized what the feelings were and what they were like.

I really believe that weakness is just allowing yourself to stay in a place where you are not in control of your own behavior.

Tell yourself to be strong when you feel overwhelmed. If you feel like crying, breathe, think of something else, remove yourself from the situation to regain your composure, and have a mantra! It sounds to me like "be strong!" really worked for you. Tell yourself that! It works wonders.

And... let yourself off of the hook for your feelings. Hold yourself responsible for your behavior. Acknowledge and be kind to yourself when it comes to feelings. Learn to separate the two. Voila! Emotional strength!
posted by pazazygeek at 10:17 AM on November 28, 2010 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Lots of excellent advice here, particularly the suggestions to develop rational responses to overwhelming and irrational emotions, little scripts you can call up when needed—like verb's italicized reminder. Using my brain to regain control is what works most consistently for me. It doesn't make the emotion go *poof* instantaneously but it reduces the intensity and keeps me functioning.

Also, you might be interested in the Penn Resiliency Project. They focus on teaching emotional resilience to kids but a lot of what they talk about is applicable to adults too. The Course Syllabi page will direct you to lots of useful resources, on the web and off. Possibly way more than you want but if you like that geekish digging into stuff, you'll love it.
posted by dogrose at 12:18 PM on November 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

Read Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman
posted by moira at 12:43 PM on November 28, 2010

Best answer: "That doesn't help -- why do it?" implies that the emotional turmoil the OP experiences is some sort of calculated, logical response to a set of circumstances. Often it's not, and it sounds like she realizes that -- she's trying to figure out how to change it!

But the point of CBT is that our responses don't come from nowhere. There is no such thing as a purely emotional response, emotions come from how we are thinking about the world and ourselves, and what our internal narrative is doing. You can't feel bad about something if you don't have some assumption inside you (that pops up automatically) that creates the bad feelings.

It is never "yelling" -> "crying". It is always "yelling" -> automatic thought -> interpretation of the situation through the filter of that thought -> "crying" or "not".

And it doesn't work if you get to the emotional response and then try and suppress that emotion.

For example, the asker has an assumption that the other agency must see her work in a fair way. When they don't, she becomes insulted and the emotions start pouring out. If she works on reprogramming herself to remove that assumption, there cannot (in this situation) be insult, meaning there isn't crying, and she is strong. Success!

As with the driving thread near this one: if my assumption while driving is that everyone is trying to get me, I interpret everything that happens through that. After a shockingly short time of thinking they are out to get me, that thought becomes automatic and I don't even know I am thinking it. They key is doing a post-mortem and figuring out or remembering what the assumption is.
posted by gjc at 1:02 PM on November 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Visualize a little old lady sternly telling you, "Tarumba--be strong."

If it worked in the incident described, it might work in the future. I'm thinking of this as a band-aid, not a long-term cure (which might be something more like therapy), but if you confront a situation in which you're losing it, why not give this a shot?
posted by J. Wilson at 1:42 PM on November 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

If these types of events are catching you out of left field, you may have an easier time "strengthening" yourself if you tease a couple of things out. Try to lay the emotions aside and see what about your family or upbringing causes you to lose it when someone has a lowered opinion of you. Sometimes just seeing what reactions are more inherited than intrinsic to me helps me start to change them. ...And I always tell myself that in every bad assessment, even if I feel it's 99% unfounded, there is 1% truth. Something is there that sparked a reaction in the other person, and I can learn from it. I can't necessarily change the other person's opinion, but I can move ahead and mature.

One last thing -- I read somewhere that there can be no spiritual maturity without emotional maturity. Since maturing spiritually is really important to me, I've been paying attention to my emotional reactions a lot more, and asking hard questions about myself when needed. It really does help.
posted by mdiskin at 2:27 PM on November 28, 2010

Best answer: ""That doesn't help -- why do it?" implies that the emotional turmoil the OP experiences is some sort of calculated, logical response to a set of circumstances. Often it's not, and it sounds like she realizes that -- she's trying to figure out how to change it!"

True... but sometimes you have to use logic - or find a logical solution, especially when faced with an illogical situation. You have to CHOOSE the change you want within yourself.

Here's an example: I'm not really afraid of heights, but I found my first helicopter ride to be downright horrifying. If the engines of a plane stop functioning, my brain knows there's a chance the plane could glide to a landing, but if the helicopter's engine stops working it'll be certain death as we'd drop like a stone. But I had the best seat in the helicopter (opposite the pilot), and I was wasting an amazing trip over part of the grand canyon in fear. I literally had to tell myself "Fuck this! The pilot's not afraid and he does this every day." I simply chose to not be scared anymore, and it mostly worked (I had another mini-bout with fear maybe ten minutes later and quickly talked myself out of it).

- Choose to be brave.
- Force yourself to act on that choice.

After a while, you'll teach yourself to be brave.
posted by 2oh1 at 2:35 PM on November 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: "Tarumba - be strong."

I immediately sobered up, of course

Along the lines of what J Wilson said, you might have the mechanics down more than you realize. You just need to get there quicker--it's not beyond you. So CBT or deep breathing or counting to ten, or anything that will slow down the emotional tsunami would probably help.

I find (when I'm alone!) really fast blinking--it creates a strobe effect totally incompatible with falling apart. Try it, it's freaky.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 2:58 PM on November 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've witnessed a lot of people take this kind of revelation too far and become very hard hearted. The great thing about mindfulness and meditation is that it helps you objectively view your emotions. I use it to *consciously* separate out emotions that are helpful from ones that are not. Sometimes an emotion is productive and sometimes it is not. Crying can bond people together or help alleviate grief. Not all cultures see crying as weakness. Your softness is also a strength and I'm sure there are people in your life who love you for it. I hope you can see that and make the choice to turn your "softness" into an ally instead of having it control you.

I found these teachings very helpful recently: http://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d.html/ref=redir_mdp_mobile/183-6851471-2661858?a=0316013137

I also got a lot out of this, including the free mp3 downloads: http://www.wisdompubs.org/pages/display.lasso?-KeyValue=32822&-Token.Action=&image=1
posted by Skwirl at 3:27 PM on November 28, 2010

Also, some people are more sensitive and cry more easily than others. Why do you have to see it as "weakness"? The people who tell you to "be strong" are sometimes doing so because they're uncomfortable with their own feelings. They're not "right" and you're not "wrong"— it's just different. Alternatively, she may have meant: I hope you feel better, I don't want to see you being unhappy, I care—rather than your interpretation, which seems to be that she thought you were weak.

Mindfulness meditation is useful anyway, as are techniques to understand your emotions. But don't overlook the idea that there may be no problem at all.
posted by Maias at 4:27 PM on November 28, 2010

Response by poster: I don't really think it's a weakness. It's just something I don't want for myself. I want to be even tempered, mature and well-adjusted. I would like to deal with problems well and not let insecurity and emotions hinder what I could achieve were I a more stable person.

Thank you so much for the tips, I will definitely consider meditation!
posted by Tarumba at 6:24 AM on November 29, 2010

Best answer: You can't just snap your fingers and get to where you want to go.

What you can do is, the next time a situation like this pops up, remind yourself that your reaction is up to you, and you can choose to not go to pieces.

Also, even if you do go to pieces, that's okay.

Try not to think of any one reaction as 'wrong'.
posted by softlord at 7:59 AM on November 29, 2010

Before letting something get you down, count to ten in your head. If it still sucks, sure, let it get you down, but train yourself to think about it for a bit first.
posted by talldean at 5:47 AM on December 1, 2010

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