“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places” (Ernest Hemingway)
Ernest Hemingway spoke of a universal psychological truth, when in A Farewell to Arms, he suggested that you grow stronger in your broken places, much like a wound that heals itself by growing a protective scab.
Those who suffer through difficult experiences and invalidating environments have to find within themselves a strength that others don’t necessarily have to. They grow stronger in their weak places.
Strengths through Suffering:
If my family was abusive, my psychological survival would demand of me that I stretch myself beyond the normal requirements for human development.
I might have to develop special abilities to numb my feelings, get into my head, or depend on myself, in order to survive such an upbringing. As a result, these facets of my human capacities will become more developed in me than they will in others, and might give me special advantages, in spite of their drawbacks.
If I become skilled at numbing, suppressing, or silencing my feelings, I might be particularly skilled at working in professions that are too emotionally intense for others. I might handle the job of a paramedic, that would make others queasy, with an even keel, or I might keep calm in a crisis situation when others lose their ability to think or to act.
The Need to Rise Above our Vulnerabilities
The world is filled with people, who due to their trials and tribulations in life, have developed unique facets of themselves that have propelled them into successful endeavors: Comedians who learned that laughter was the best medicine to cheer up their depressed mothers, business men who vowed to never lack money in order to overcome the suffering endured by their parents, and world travelers who came to embrace freedom and independence to deal with the anxieties of getting too close to others.
Alfred Adler, one of the early psychoanalysts, developed the idea that human beings have an inherent need to rise above their weaknesses and excel at something.
Oftentimes our particular hardships become the driving force that propels us to succeed, or that supplies us with a mission for our life and a reason to get out of bed in the morning.
The Desire to Be Super-Human
A colleague of mine recently finished his dissertation on what he calls the “Superwoman Schema”. This is a mindset originally found in a subset of African-American women. These women develop a belief that they must be strong at all times, never show their vulnerable emotions, never allow themselves to depend on others to have their needs met, and always set their own needs aside to take care of others.
This Superwoman schema, helps such women develop the thick skin that allows them to keep afloat in tough environments, and not let their personal feelings get in the way of what they need to do.
Although disavowing one’s own needs and setting one’s feelings aside comes at a price, it is undoubtedly also what has propelled some women like these to achieve great success.
If you have watched the Real Housewives of Atlanta, you will know what I mean. These ladies do not easily let their vulnerabilities show. Having a thick skin has helped many of them rise above tough upbringings, feelings of abandonment and histories of abuse.
Attending to the Underlying Wound:
Of course, the strengths that are born out of weaknesses, also tend to have their downsides. The more one tends to pursue life goals out of an underlying wound, the more these goals tend to take on a compulsive quality: I MUST be strong at all times, I can NEVER allow myself to depend on others, I NEED to ALWAYS be smarter than the next person, I can NEVER make enough money. These dictates soon become tyrannical and perpetuate a judgment of oneself as never quite good enough.
Being human for such people is a dangerous reminder of the past they are trying to leave behind. They therefore spend their lives aspiring to rid themselves of their human frailties. Of course such endeavors are ultimately futile since one can never become what one is not.
Instead of dealing with their pain, and grieving the nurturing they didn’t receive, such people instead disavow their feelings, hoping that they can out-run them. With each accomplishment, however, they only alienate themselves further from who they truly are, and remove themselves one step more from the self-acceptance they ultimately long for.
As long as we cannot accept all of our human experience, including the full gamut of human emotions, from assertive anger, to the pain of disappointment, from the sadness of loss, to our need for closeness, we will always fall short of realizing our most precious project: to become who we are, not more than who we are.
About Me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., clinical psychologist in Houston, Texas. I help people attend to their emotional wounds so they don’t have to spend their entire life running away from their pasts.