The Myth Of The “Strong” Person

strong person mythHow many times have you heard someone refer to a person’s personality or character, saying, “He’s a strong man”, or , “She’s a strong woman”? In managing our relationship with ourselves and interpersonal relationships, it is important to understand emotions, associated behaviors, and overall character traits that hurt us more than they help us. These traits we carry or see in others impact how we view and treat ourselves, how we present ourselves to others, and how we view and regard others.

One problematic stereotype is what people generally regard as a “strong” person. It’s problematic because there is often an inaccuracy of how people label “strength” — which impacts the qualities we admire or idealize in others, as well the traits that we want to develop and emphasize in ourselves. When people refer to a “strong” person, the traits that are being pointed to as “strong” are often closer to grandiosity, contempt, rigidity, stubbornness, aggressiveness, and desire to control others. All of these traits hold similarities to bullying.

People tend to confuse these emotions and associated behaviors with strength — possibly because these types of traits tend to be confused with the stereotype of “power” (another debatable term) .

This is a troubling stereotype, because these types of emotions and behaviors are generally negative qualities that disrupt interpersonal relationships. Even if mistaken for “power” (which can result in admiration or idealization of these traits), power structures are usually detrimental to relationships. Basically, these traits are weaknesses rather than strengths. It’s not bad to experience these emotions, since we all have the capacity to experience the emotions we are born with — most people have occasional moments of grandiosity, rigidity, etc. —  but it’s problematic if these emotions and associated behaviors are present to the point where they characterize one’s overall personality.

People who are perceived as “strong” tend to carry the demeanor of people who “don’t take stuff from others.” This can create avoidance and fear from others, rather than openness and connection.

The Danger of Mislabeled Emotions and Behaviors

This issue highlights the danger of mislabeling emotions and behaviors. It’s one thing to not know if you’re feeling the difference between “fury” and “rage”, since these emotions are so similar. But, if we see someone who is contemptuous, stubborn, and controlling as “strong”, simply because they seem confident, then we end up admiring and idealizing character weaknesses rather than strengths. Internalizing these qualities actually hurts us and our interpersonal relationships, since these qualities can be divisive and at times, just mean.

Of course, this isn’t always case. There are positive forms of strength that people do see and look up to, and often people with the negative traits above do bear some real character strengths, as well. No one is “all good” or “all bad”. The idea here is to notice the qualities of strength while being able to look past the more limiting character traits, rather than perceiving (and mislabeling) maladaptive character traits to be signs of strength.

What Makes a “Strong” Person?

It would be naive to try to sum up a “strong” person in one paragraph, since this topic could really take a book to cover. But character strengths tend to lean toward emotionally integrated behaviors that are healthy for ourselves and also interpersonally effective. Basically, strengths show that we’re being true to ourselves and our values, while also allowing the space for others to be true to their own selves and values. And when two people (or more) come together, that there is room for some influence and compromise.

So, a big part of character strength is seeing that there is more than one’s own perspective. If you’re dealing with a person where things have to be “my way, or no way”, this would be a character weakness — an inability to accept influence and to allow other perspectives to be valid. Being open to influence from others and their perspectives is a sign of strength.

Decision-making skills and self-confidence are also character strengths. But, one still needs to remain cautious of making decisions on behalf of others. It’s a strength to be decisive for ourselves, but it’s important that decisions aren’t not put onto others simply because we believe in our choices.

Similarly, with confidence, there can be a blurry line between confidence and grandiosity. Grandiosity is closer to the feeling that we know better than others and that we somehow are higher up, or more worthy than others. Some people call this “cocky” or “arrogant”. This is not confidence. This is a character weakness that stems from insecurity in self-esteem. Confidence is knowing and trusting in one’s abilities, and not necessarily having to display it or force it for others to see. Confidence is internal and doesn’t require external validation.

With that in mind, here’s a short list of what can be character strengths:

  • Ability to accept influence from others (perspectives, suggestions, etc.)
  • Confidence
  • Ability to delegate 
  • Trusting
  • Decisive
  • Sees others as equal
  • Can channel maladaptive states of emotion (such as aggression and hostility) into productivity, rather than acting out.
  • True to self and values, while still open to influence
  • Ability to compromise
  • Ability to talk with, and not talk over or demand from people
  • Ability to recognize own weaknesses

There are certainly more character strengths that exist in people. But notice the theme above — allowing others in, while not idealizing one’s self. This shows how important it is that we learn to more accurately label emotions in ourselves and others, since it impacts how we view and connect with ourselves and others. We can then look in the mirror or at other people from a healthy perspective and say, “That’s a strong person,” or, “I’m a strong person.”

Strong woman photo available from Shutterstock

3 thoughts on “The Myth Of The “Strong” Person

  1. The traits you list at the beginning of your article are not even close to what I think of when I think of a strong person. I don’t think those are what most other people are thinking of, either, but who knows? And there is a difference between strength and a “character strength.” A character strength would be any positive character attribute; strength itself is a specific attribute.

    1. Hi Amy,

      I appreciate your comment. It’s a subjective topic, and though I chose to write about a stereotype and issues that come with the stereotype, I recognize that many people don’t fall into this line of thinking and have a more healthy view of strengths and character strengths. Your view is valid. I’m sorry this article seemed to disappoint you.

      Thank you for taking the time to read, and for commenting.

      Nathan

  2. I think “a strong person” is the most mis-attributed cliche in the human history.
    A strong person is strong morally, and thus has strong principles and compassion for others– which makes them vulnerable in terms of suffering the fate of their neighbor, and caring about the overall state of society; meanwhile a weak person will tend to be self-centered, and only care about themselves. For this reason, bullies tend to prosper in our society, while sensitive and caring people tend to suffer.

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