How 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. (Think of toxic masculinity as one stereotype of strength that tends to be more harmful than helpful).
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 generally detrimental to relationships. Basically, these traits are really more reflective of weaknesses rather than strengths in relational and interpersonal terms. 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 can be problematic if these emotions and associated behaviors are present to the point where they characterize one’s overall personality, as they limit the ability for others to have room for their own selves and needs in these dynamics.
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 and bullying.
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”.
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. And ther obviously is some element of subjectivity involved in this conversation. However, 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 (when they don’t hurt ourselves), but it’s important that decisions aren’t put onto others just 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, and deeper unprocessed shame. 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.)
Ability to delegate
Decisive (in a healthy manner)
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.”
Learn more about therapy and how I can help you develop a sense of internal strength.