It sounds very peculiar to say that there is such a thing as ‘weak strength’ since it sounds like a contradiction in terms but in actual fact this turns out to be a very handy way of thinking about things. Normally we confuse the two. We mix up weak strength with genuine strength and as a result we get totally confused, but once the difference between the two is made clear, then everything becomes much more straightforward.
We can explain weak strength by saying that it is the strength behind controlling – if I am very good at controlling stuff then this is weak strength pure and simple. Control is always ‘weak strength’. If I am a strong controller I might be able to get my way, but I am not strong. Why this is so becomes more obvious if we take an extreme example and think about a person who is a bit of a ‘control freak’ and has to have control over the people around them. If I feel that I have to have control over you then clearly the reason for this is that I am afraid of what might happen if I don’t control you. I don’t control because I’m ‘strong’, I control because I’m afraid of what might happen if I don’t control. We can say therefore, that the motivation behind weak strength is always fear. If I act like a total tyrant and everyone in my family has to bend over backwards so as not to annoy me (or make me flip my lid) then this is obviously not because I am a genuinely strong person! Quite the contrary is true, I am driven by fear and so I am actually ‘weak’. We are culturally conditioned to think that ‘being in control’ is synonymous with being strong, whereas in reality it is simply a disguised way of being fearful…
DON’T GO THERE…
The weakness we are talking about typically shows itself in the form of inflexibility – if things don’t happen the way I want them to be then I respond either by getting very angry or by getting very upset in one way or another. It doesn’t matter what type of emotional reaction I display, the net result is the same because people tend to let me have my own way. Everyone else bends to fit me, but as we have said this is not because I am strong but because I have ‘weak strength’! We can see how deceptive this can be if we consider a man who reacts when he is challenged by getting angry and roaring loudly and banging his fist on the table. “Don’t go there!” is his message. This looks very much like a display of strength – if I’m doing this then I seem to be a powerful and scary person and everyone else will probably back down from me but the truth of the situation is that I am not strong at all. Obviously I am not strong because the motivation behind my rage is fear; I am afraid of dealing with whatever subject it is that has come up – deep down I feel unable to face it and I react with anger so that I don’t have to. My intimidating behaviour is a smokescreen to cover-up my inner weakness; it is a red herring to distract everyone’s attention away from seeing that I am afraid. What we are calling ‘weak strength’ is a smokescreen to cover up the fact that I am afraid. Controlling is a smokescreen to cover up the fact that I am afraid.
All neurosis comes down to the exercise of weak strength – the type of sheer indefatigable obstinacy or stubbornness that we associate with neurotic patterns of thinking and behaviour is ‘weak strength’ through and through. For example, if I happen to suffer from anorexia then I will give the impression of having iron will power, extreme powers of endurance, and great resistance to other people’s attempts to ‘talk me out of it’, so to speak. I seem to be very strong – in my own (obviously counterproductive) way. Superficially speaking this is true because I will put myself through ordeals that few other people would be able for, and I will stay true to my own convictions no matter what. I will be resolute – I will be supremely determined to continue with my policy of restricting my calorie intake, no matter what the cost. But the point is that all this ‘outward’ strength and apparent autonomy masks a tremendous rigidity or inflexibility – I’m not really doing what I’m doing because I freely choose to but because I don’t have the freedom to do otherwise. Essentially, it could be said that I’m covering up my ‘fear of life’ with my behaviour.
If I happen to suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder then I would show the same incredible perseverance but once again (as is very obvious) this apparent strength comes out of ‘the inability to do otherwise’. I do not act out of freedom (which would be genuine strength) but out of a lack of freedom, which is ‘weak strength’. The same is true for all cases of addiction – for example, if I am addicted to pharmaceutical opiates I will often show incredible cunning and skill and resourcefulness at doing whatever I need to do in order to obtain the drug. But, impressive though this may be on one level, the truth is that in addiction we do whatever we do because we don’t feel that we have any choice in the matter. The deciding factor is our ‘inner weakness’ or ‘need’ – which we just have to obey. The ability to obey the mechanical rules that are governing our lives (and substituting themselves for our true volition) us in a successful and resourceful way is not strength!
The opposite of ‘inner weakness’ is of course ‘inner strength’ and it is this that we are contrasting weak strength with. If weak strength is ‘the strength to react’, then inner (or genuine) strength is the strength not to react – it is the strength to ‘let things happen without being panicked into trying to stop them happening’! We can illustrate this with the example of social anxiety. If I am socially anxious then the main thing that is worrying me is what other people think about me, and how well I am able to ‘keep up my front’. I feel that I need to have the strength to be able to project the image I want to project, and I almost always fail to see that this is not strength at all, but the desire to hide or conceal myself. If I can control my image (my ‘presentation’ of myself) so that I ‘fit in’ then this is – therefore – another example of ‘weak strength’. Being myself, on the other hand (no matter what this entails) would be genuine strength.
We can take a typical sort of scenario just to make the point. Suppose I am sitting in the canteen at work and someone is staring at me. My first thought is usually, “What should I do?” Basically, I want to know what the correct thing to do is under these circumstances and if I am seeing a psychologist or some other sort of mental health worker I will ask them for some sort of strategy. When I ask for a strategy or method what I am really doing is looking for an effective way to control the situation – I am looking for some sort of security so I can say, “Right – this is the correct thing to do. If I do this then everything will be okay…” Now the problem with this is that when I go looking for a method (when I ask “What do I do?”) then this means that I am straightaway assuming that I do not have any inner strength. This is the assumption. I am taking it for granted that I simply am not able to be in that uncomfortable space of having someone staring at me. That is not an option – I have to find some way out. I need a technique, a trick, a gimmick.
When I assume that I don’t have any inner strength then all that is left for me is to rely on my weak strength, which is really a measure of my ‘desperation to avoid’. Weak strength is pure desperation, and this is what I am inevitably thrown back on when I believe I am not able to remain in the difficult situation that I am in. I have to find ways of escaping; I have to develop skills at escaping. I have to get good at ‘dodging the difficulty’. This creates a vicious circle because the more I develop and validate my ‘weak strength’, the more I am conditioning myself to believe that I don’t have any choice. Basically, I train myself to react this way under adversity – I train myself to believe that I don’t have the ability to stay in the difficult situation. I am as a result putting my money on the wrong horse – a horse that will not come in for me in the end.
Actually the question “What should I do?” (when applied to a situation like the one we have just described) is itself a red herring. Asking this question automatically assumes that I have to do something, and of course I don’t. I only have to do something if I believe that I am totally unable to experience mental discomfort (or mental pain) but the fact of the matter is that everyone has as much inner strength as the situation demands. The tougher things get, the more inner strength we find that we have, if only we have the willingness to give it a try. The more we ‘extend ourselves’ (as M Scott Peck puts it) the more we will find that we are able to extend ourselves. Not extending ourselves (or being afraid to extend ourselves) and being stubborn at not doing so equals ‘weak strength’, therefore. This business of ‘extending ourselves’ (or staying in the difficult situation without opting out) comes down to ‘taking a risk’ because at the end of the day there are no guarantees that everything will work out okay, that the sky won’t fall in on us. There is no certainty with regard to outcome, no promise of sure-fire results (which is of course what we want with a ‘tactic’ or a ‘method’). There is no definite goal that we can aim at, that we can keep our eye on. All we can do is ‘go through it anyway and then just see what happens’. All we can do is ‘take a chance’. When we find it within ourselves to do this, then this is inner strength.
This is really just like taking physical exercise to become fitter. The more we exercise the stronger our muscles become and the more stamina we have, which is why it is good to push ourselves physically every now and again! We don’t want to become totally flabby because it doesn’t feel good to be totally flabby (in fact it feels terrible). Obviously, it is counterproductive to try to ‘do too much too soon’ and so we build ourselves up gradually, with patience. We have to respect our limitations before we can overcome them! Building up our inner strength is exactly the same – we start off with small challenges and gradually work our way up the ‘scale of difficult situations’. This takes time and patience but the one thing we know for sure is that every time we use the muscle of our inner strength our capacity to be in a difficult situation increases. There is no one that this is not true for – there are no people without inner strength, only people who do not have faith in their inner strength! When we deliberately set out to put ourselves in difficult situation without have any ‘method’ to what we are doing, simply being in the uncomfortable space without yearning for a particular outcome, then this is ‘psychological work’. Psychological work is ‘being there unaided, on your own, with no handy comfort zone or security blanket to cling on to.’ This is also the very same thing as ‘being alive’ (or ‘being in reality’), when it comes right down to it!
THE WORLD IS MY GYMNASIUM
Usually, when painful or uncomfortable situations come our way, we bemoan our bad luck and complain with gusto about the uncaring universe that treats us so badly. But once we start looking at each of these difficult situations as an opportunity to do psychological work and increase our mental ‘fitness’ then this changes our entire outlook. If it were not for the difficulties then I would never learn that there is such a thing as inner strength. I would stay flabby! I would stay ‘un-extended’! I would remain ‘untransformed’! I would never find out that I actually do have this resource of inner strength to draw and so I would continue to live life in a superficial or shallow (and therefore deeply unsatisfying) way. And what is more – I wouldn’t even get to escape any suffering this way because the suffering that comes from avoiding life (the suffering that comes from obstinately refusing to extend ourselves) is the worse type of suffering of all! There is nothing worse than this.
What this means is that I can now see the world as my own private ‘state of the art’ gymnasium which contains absolutely everything I need in order to reach peak fitness! No one can deny this – no one can deny that the world contains unlimited difficulties and challenges! A regular gymnasium costs money to subscribe to and even when I am a paid-up member I may not be able to make time to visit it. I probably won’t go even half as much as I intended. I might only go once and waste my subscription money! But when the arena of everyday life is my gymnasium there is no charge and I am in it 24 hours per day! What a fantastic opportunity for training! The opportunities for benefit are immense – in fact the opportunities for self-transformation are more profound and more far-reaching than we are capable of realizing.
This is very ironic really because as we have said when annoying, frustrating or difficult situations come along I am invariably aggrieved and complain vigorously about them. Here I am being presented with top-quality opportunities to ‘work out’ and increase my inner strength, and what do I do but complain about it? There is no pleasing me! An impartial observer would have to conclude that I am fond of my own weakness and want to hang onto it at any cost. I of course do not tend to see things this way because I think my refusal to change or learn is ‘strength’. Perversely, I see my ability to stubbornly resist growing, to resist extending myself, to resist developing inner strength as being a worthwhile form of strength in itself!
In conclusion, when I wilfully and aggressively assert or hold on to what I want, and stubbornly fight against or refuse what I don’t want, this can appear to be evidence of strength on my part, but really it is weak (or ‘false’) strength. It is the outward appearance of strength that covers up my inner weakness. If I ‘cover up my inner weakness’ then what this means is that I am too afraid to face the truth of this weakness. If on the other hand I am able to allow myself to be afraid or hurt or vulnerable, then this apparent ‘weakness’ is actually a sign of inner strength.
Psychologically speaking therefore, if I am not afraid to be weak (i.e. vulnerable) then I am strong.