By Jeremy Godwin.
Welcome to Let’s Talk About Mental Health, the weekly podcast about improving your mental health and wellbeing by Jeremy Godwin. Each episode focuses on one specific topic and is full of practical advice for improving and maintaining your mental health and wellbeing.
This is Episode 40 and this week I’m talking about strength – I’ll be discussing what strength is, how strength and wellbeing work together, and how to build greater strength for the sake of your mental health. Listen to the podcast episode now in the Spotify player below or continue reading for the article/transcript version. Let’s talk!
FIVE-POINT EPISODE SUMMARY
- In general, we tend to still get quite hung up on the idea of ‘being strong’ as requiring us to just ‘suck it up’ if we have a problem and to just get on with life without complaints, but the truth of the matter is that doing that only makes things worse in the long-run.
- Suppressing emotions or having a single-minded view of what ‘strength’ is can lead to complications, and even suffering, if we don’t address the reality of our circumstances.
- In life you will be challenged to adapt and change, and with that comes an opportunity to grow. The difference is in how you view things — you can see it as a disaster, or treat it as an opportunity.
- Wellbeing takes work every single day of your life, but the good news is that it’s actually enjoyable work; you’re doing things that make life more satisfying and make it easier to deal with challenges, so consider it to be less of a curse and more of a blessing since it’s an opportunity to grow a little bit every day.
- If you want to be strong mentally and emotionally, it requires you to be prepared to get a little dirty — to openly acknowledge the less-than-ideal stuff you might be feeling so that you can then work through it, accept it and let it go.
Once upon a time, many years ago (but not that many), the whole of society placed value on having a stiff upper lip and always behaving as if nothing bothered us. Then, gradually, people began to tell their stories — tales of worry, anxiety, stress, burnout, depression and more — and those brave pioneers helped us to realise a different kind of strength: speaking the truth. And even though things aren’t perfect now, and there are still people who think that the only way to be strong is to act as though nothing is ever wrong (even if it is), more and more of us are finally talking openly about the good, the bad and the ugly of mental health.
As I’ve mentioned before, I live in the countryside — having moved here over five years ago from Melbourne, where I lived for nearly 14 years after growing up in Sydney — and one of the things that has become very apparent out here is that there are still pockets of a very particular definition of ‘strength’ which I often see demonstrated by a particular type of Australian man, or ‘bloke’ as we tend to refer to them, who is rugged and outdoorsy and drinks beer and never complains because that would make him a ‘sheila’ (which is old-school Australian slang for ‘female’, in case you didn’t know) — when I worked in employment services for a while up until a year ago, I even had one of those [so-called] ‘blokes’ tell me that he’d do anything except for the type of work I did, because having to work in an office wasn’t “very masculine” (which just made me laugh, to be honest).
I think, in general, we tend to still get quite hung up on the idea of ‘being strong’ as requiring us to just ‘suck it up’ if we have a problem and to just get on with life without complaints, but the truth of the matter is that doing that only makes things worse in the long-run. Suppressing emotions or having a single-minded view of what ‘strength’ is can lead to complications, and even suffering, if we don’t address the reality of our circumstances. So today I’m going to be talking about ‘strength’ in a few different ways: mental strength, emotional strength, and ‘strengths’ in terms of things that you’re good at. Let’s start with a few things that we need to clear up about ‘being strong’…
The truth about strength
The truth is that ‘being strong’ involves acknowledging what you’re feeling and doing something about it — having mental health issues does not make you weak. In fact, quite the opposite; every day you get through makes you stronger. Perseverance and effort are signs of true strength, not weakness. Speaking up and speaking out are strengths. Being kind to yourself and to others is real strength. Even making the choice to do things to improve your mental health and wellbeing (like listening to this podcast) is a massive sign of strength.
We need to change how we think about strength and about mental health issues, not just as a society but for ourselves. If you look at all the things I listed (just before) above — effort, perseverance, kindness, speaking out — and think about the opposite of those things, what you’re actually doing is identifying all the things that are wrong with our society (and funnily enough, they’re the sort of things — like greed and selfishness — that have somehow been treated as being okay until quite recently). True strength is about how we grow, both individually and collectively, and so when we do things that lift one another up we’re demonstrating the true meaning of being strong.
Also we need to cut down on how often we use the word ‘weakness’ in our society — being ‘weak’ suggests that something is fragile or inadequate, and the reality is that most so-called ‘weaknesses’ are actually development opportunities: things that we may not be great at now, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be or won’t be in the future (with enough time, effort and perseverance). How we talk about things really does matter since it serves to reinforce either negative thoughts or positive thoughts… so think about what you’re saying, both to yourself and others.
In mental health terms there is, thankfully, a greater push towards using what’s called ‘strengths-based language’ which focuses more on the person than the condition — for example, instead of saying “a mentally ill person” it’s more positive to say “a person experiencing a mental health issue.” We don’t describe people with physical ailments by their condition (i.e. We don’t say “a cancerous person”), so why should it be okay to do so for mental health conditions?!
Let me quote from an organisation called Flourish Australia (link below):
“It can be all too easy to focus on the obstacles we face. Strengths-based language highlights how we can use our innate skills and abilities to get to where we want to be and become who we want to be. It empowers individuals to see themselves as masters of their own destiny, rather than being helplessly swept along by life. Strength implies hope and capability.”Flourish Australia, source: https://www.flourishaustralia.org.au/panorama/writing-about-mental-health-strengths-based-way
This isn’t just about semantics or being picky about what words are used; words have real power, and in the past (and even still today) they’ve been used to reinforce the dominant ideas of what is ‘normal’ in society… which has been great for white Anglo-Saxon heterosexual men for more than a few centuries but pretty shitty for everyone else, so it’s no wonder that we’re seeing more and more people find their strength and stand up to be recognised as being just as valuable even if they’re not white or male or whatever.
If you still think mental health issues are a sign of weakness, let me make one more point and it relates to Winston Churchill — the late, great British politician and statesman who was the UK’s prime minister for most of World War II. Churchill led an entire country through an unprecedented war which included the Blitz, where much of the UK was bombed relentlessly by the Nazis for just over eight months and more than 40,000 lives were lost… and he did so while living with clinical depression for most of his life. Churchill wasn’t perfect — nobody is — however I find him admirable both for his openness in his writings about his “black dog” (the term he gave his depression, as it always hung around) and his ability to achieve things that mean we know of him today for much more than just his condition.
OK, so I mentioned three types of strength before (mental, emotional and talents) so let’s talk about those, starting with mental strength…
Mental strength is about your thoughts, feelings and actions — the main things you have direct control over (even when it might seem that’s not the case, such as when you’re struggling with your mental health, you do have direct control in terms of being able to do things to address whatever is going on — whereas things outside of your direct control, like world events and other people, can’t be changed by you). Let’s look at those three components individually:
Thoughts — this is about developing your strength by training yourself to be realistically positive; in other words, challenging negative or unproductive thoughts and replacing them with positive ones that are grounded in realism (i.e. Dealing with things as they are, not as you wish they were).
Feelings — this is about being strong by acknowledging your emotions, rather than ignoring or suppressing them, and knowing how to manage them (which I discussed in Episode 28).
Actions — this is about being mentally strong by doing things that are in your best interests, including taking action to make things better (such as seeking support and treatment for mental health conditions, proactively managing your physical and mental health every day, etc.)
When we talk about strengths in terms of mental health, it all comes back to mindset (which I talked about in Episode 31) and I think this quote from Flourish reinforces the point beautifully; “Things may certainly get tough at times but there’s nothing to be gained by ruling out your chances of succeeding in life before giving it your best shot. We are powerful and with the right support, we can do amazing things.”
If you’re dealing with issues like anxiety or depression, you can choose to be reduced by it or you can choose to look at it as an opportunity (I mean, it might look like a bit of a shitty opportunity on the surface, but if you dig a bit deeper there’s gold in them there hills!). Mental health issues can challenge you to grow; mine gave me the strength to make changes I would never have made in my life and it made me finally start doing what makes me genuinely happy, because the alternative was to give in and that was unthinkable. In life you will be challenged to adapt and change, and with that comes an opportunity to grow. The difference is in how you view things — you can see it as a disaster, or treat it as an opportunity.
And that leads into…
Emotional strength is about letting yourself be vulnerable, feeling what you need to feel (without letting it own you), speaking up, and seeking support… in life we will inevitably have good times and not-so-good times, and so emotional strength is about having the courage to weather the storms. It’s not about how you react — some of you will be quiet and keep things internal, some of you will be loud and will openly share what they’re feeling, and some of you will fall somewhere in the middle… it’s not about that though (because those are just different personality preferences): emotional strength is about what you do after something happens. Let me quote from a 2015 article in Psychology Today by Guy Winch (link below):
“Emotionally strong people …
- are less discouraged by setbacks and disappointments.
- are more adaptable to change.
- are able to recognize and express their needs.
- focus on getting around a hurdle rather than on the hurdle itself.
- can learn from mistakes and criticism.
- tend to see the larger perspective in a challenging situation.
- are able to recover more quickly from emotional wounds such as failure or rejection.”
You can influence your emotional strength by working on your resilience when setbacks occur (which I covered in Episode 23) and your overall mindset (which I covered in Episode 31) — check out those past episodes at letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au/episodes for specific how-to advice, and I’ll come back to this point in a minute. Before I do, your mental and emotional strength can be influenced by how well you tap into your unique strengths – the third of my three points about strength, so let’s discuss that.
Understanding your unique strengths
Everyone is good at something — even if it might take you a while to find what it is or to work out how to apply your strengths. A key component of wellbeing in positive psychology is tapping into and using your strengths (along with other elements including having purpose and meaning, having good relationships, doing things we enjoy and things that challenge us, etc.). Focusing on things like our strengths and talents can help us to better cope with adversity. Don’t just take my word for it; let me quote from Australia’s Black Dog Institute:
“…some of the happiest people on the planet are those who have discovered their unique strengths and used their strengths for a purpose that’s greater than their own personal goals or benefit. In wellbeing theory, there are 24 strengths that underpin [positive psychology]. These fall under the following six categories:
- Wisdom (creativity, curiosity, judgment, love of learning, perspective)
- Courage (bravery, perseverance, honesty, zest or enthusiasm)
- Humanity (love, kindness, social intelligence)
- Justice (teamwork, citizenship, fairness, leadership)
- Temperance (forgiveness, humility, prudence, self-control)
- Transcendence (appreciation of beauty and excellence, gratitude, hope, humour, spirituality)
Interestingly, these six categories are valued in almost every culture.”
You might already have an idea of what your unique strengths are (and if not, it’s worthwhile spending some time to think about the list I just went through and consider what you’re passionate about as well as what you’re good at), but you may not necessarily know how to completely tap into them — and realistically being strong, both mentally and emotionally, involves drawing from your strengths whilst also addressing your development opportunities. It can also involve looking at your strengths in different ways — for example: for a long time I thought that my strengths, in terms of things like writing and leadership and public speaking, belonged in the corporate world, because that was where I found a place to apply them. But those skills and strengths can be applied in many different ways, and as I dig deeper into the work I’m doing now with this podcast and other projects I have coming up, I’m realising that there are thousands of different ways to apply your talents — the challenge is to find out what feels right for you.
So with that in mind, let’s get into the how-to part of the episode:
How to build greater strength for the sake of your wellbeing
I’ve spent a fair bit of time talking through ideas and ways of looking at things today, because everything in this topic comes back to mindset. How you view the world and how you see yourself in it will have a direct effect on your mental and emotional strength, as well as how inclined you are to draw on your unique talents to make things better for yourself and others.
And so this how-to section about strength begins with choice — the choice you make about what ‘strength’ means to you. Instead of focusing on the negative, choose to focus on the positive and work your way through things based on a belief that things can and will get better.
Be patient and vigilant — strength doesn’t just happen overnight and it takes work (which I’ll discuss in a second) but it also requires you to be prepared for potential setbacks. COVID-19 is a prime example: as I just discussed in Episode 39, the pandemic has had a big effect on mental health and unfortunately shit happens in life, so being prepared to take your time with things, one step at a time, and quickly tackling the impacts of events that are outside of your control will help you to stay the course while you’re doing the work. (Speaking of…)
This is about mindfully doing the work every day — like building your physical strength, increasing your mental and emotional strength takes work and consistent effort. Hopefully you wouldn’t expect to go from chunky to fit overnight and without any effort, and the same applies for building mental and emotional fitness. Work on it daily: focus on things like your self-talk (Episode 9), addressing baggage (Episode 7) and regrets (Episode 22), letting go (Episode 32), finding and maintaining more balance (Episode 14), learning how to process and manage your feelings (Episode 28), and developing a greater sense of purpose and meaning in everything you do (Episode 20).
It also involves being conscious of what goes into your mind, as well as both being aware of and then taking control of where your energy goes — and let’s just be clear with both physical and mental health here: the absence of illness doesn’t automatically equal health; you can be in terrible shape and not be experiencing illness, but that doesn’t make you well. Health and wellbeing involve making good choices, intentional daily effort and regular activity (such as focusing on the things I listed earlier like self-talk and resilience, etc.). Remember that nothing changes if nothing changes.
And finally: daily effort, every day for the rest of your days — you know, I think it was the great philosopher Britney Spears who noted that if you want a hot body or a Maserati then you better work… and she was definitely onto something. This stuff — all this stuff I talk about in Let’s Talk About Mental Health — is not a ‘set it and forget’ type of thing; you don’t just do it once and then tick the box that you now have mental health. Wellbeing takes work every single day of your life, but the good news is that it’s actually enjoyable work; you’re doing things that make life more satisfying and make it easier to deal with challenges, so consider it to be less of a curse and more of a blessing since it’s an opportunity to grow a little bit every day. If something happens and you either drop the ball or there’s a setback which is outside of your control, work through it so you can get to a place of acceptance (which I looked at in Episode 36) and keep on going. Do something every single day without fail to build your mental and emotional strength, and to draw on the things that you are uniquely talented at so that you can use them to make the world a better place while also improving your own world.
Summary and Close-Out
When it comes to strength and mental health, what it all boils down to is this: there is no such thing as ‘weakness’ other than the things that used to be considered strengths: greed, malice, hatred, discrimination and selfishness. If you want to be strong mentally and emotionally, it requires you to be prepared to get a little dirty — to openly acknowledge the less-than-ideal stuff you might be feeling so that you can then work through it, accept it and let it go. There are so many ways to find true strength in life: you taking the time to listen to this podcast is strength, because it means you see your mental health and wellbeing as important (which it definitely is!). The more that we focus on what really matters in life — doing no harm, being kind, and giving more than we take — the stronger we will all be… and I don’t know about you, but that is a world I am excited to live in.
That’s nearly it for this week. Each week I like to share a quote about this week’s topic and encourage you to take a few moments to reflect on it and consider what it means to you. This week’s quote is by Christopher Reeve, and it is:
“A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.”Christopher Reeve
Next week, I’ll be talking about kindness. The idea of being kind to yourself and to others is one of the foundational beliefs of this podcast and it’s one I talk about somewhere in pretty much every single episode, so next week we’ll be taking a look at what kindness is, how it relates to mental health, and how to incorporate more kindness into your day-to-day life in order to improve your wellbeing and do what you can to make the world a better place.
I hope you’ll join me for that episode, which will be released on Monday morning in Australia & New Zealand, Sunday evening in the UK, Ireland & Europe, and Sunday afternoon in the US & Canada.
You can find past episodes and additional content at the website which is letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au. You can also find Let’s Talk About Mental Health on Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest as @ltamentalhealth.
If you enjoyed this episode, please take a moment to leave a five-star review on your podcast platform of choice and tell someone you know about the show (because word of mouth really helps new people to discover the program).
Thank you very much for joining me today – look after yourself and make a conscious effort to share positivity and kindness in the world, because you get back what you put out. Take care and talk to you next time.
Let’s Talk About Mental Health.
Because the more we talk about it, the easier it gets.
Let’s Talk About Mental Health. © 2020 Jeremy Godwin.