For most of my life, I got all revved up and ready to go at the mere mention of the word. Being raised by a Vietnam veteran who was in the Special Forces meant that I learned very young that weakness of any kind was something to be rooted out and conquered. Being strong in the face of obstacles was something to strive for and proving how tough I could be was a surefire way of winning my father’s respect and approval. But in order to do this, I felt the need to constantly seek out extremely challenging circumstances and then weather them with stoicism.
I did this in all areas of my life. In school, I would pile on the most difficult classes alongside a slew of extra-curricular commitments creating a workload for myself that was just barely manageable. As I got older, I became an adrenaline junkie and would pursue activities that proved my fearlessness. Once I graduated college, I chose a profession that was incredibly intense and known for having a very high and early burnout rate.
Through all of this, I made great efforts to appear unfazed and unruffled by the intensity of these experiences, but the truth was that I always felt like I was just barely keeping my head above water and I was frequently completely overwhelmed. I made sure to “hold it together” and not let the cracks in my physical, mental, and emotional composition show, but eventually, the years of pushing myself so far past my limits took their toll. I hit a point where I just couldn’t go anymore. I was tired. And not the kind of tired that could be fixed by a few good nights of sleep. I was tired at the atomic level.
I had built a life based on challenging myself, but it wasn’t a healthy approach to challenge. Rather than setting reasonable, attainable goals for myself, I attempted to conquer things with no real attunement to what felt right to me. It was as though I was constantly throwing myself from a plane, and while that might have been something that my father, the paratrooper, was perfectly comfortable with, I was not a soldier. My life was not a war, and there was no need to put myself in such extremely difficult and unsettling situations.
My point is not that challenge is a bad thing. Challenging ourselves from a healthy mindset is wonderful and necessary for growth, but it is important examine the messages we tell ourselves around the challenges we choose to take on, and it was clearly time for me to take an inventory of my beliefs about challenge and the way they reflected my overall approach to life. It was time to reconnect to myself and really listen closely to that voice inside that had been trying all along to tell me when things were too much.
As I became more connected with my true needs and desires, I realized how much I had bullied myself over the years. I had been telling myself that I must do this or else! I have to take this on or else! begging the question: Or else what? Would not seeking out every challenge I could find mean that I was weak? Was it really necessary to prove that I could handle absolutely anything, and, if so, at what cost? What parts of myself did I have to ignore and deny in order to maintain the appearance of being indestructible?
The truth is that I’m not indestructible. I am human, and that means that, along with all of my strength, I also have weaknesses, I can be fragile at times, and there are limits to what I can and should take on. I realized that, in order to keep from being the architect of my own destruction, I had to stop acting like I was superhuman.
Of course, learning to accept myself as a person with limits was not easy. It involved a lot of frustration and there are still times that I catch myself doing things that I am not truly comfortable with just to prove something myself, but the really interesting thing that has come out of the process of letting go of the need to seem so tough is that in some ways, I have reemerged stronger.
As I began to open up to my own vulnerability, I discovered a new, deeper kind of strength that was quite different from the façade that I lived behind before. I felt the power of living a life that was more truly aligned with who I am. I learned that I can push the boundaries of my comfort zone and that I can do so with a gentleness and compassion for myself. I heave learned that some challenges can be left for another day, or never, and that walking away from something when it is not right for you, no matter how tempting it is to try to just push your way through it, might just be the strongest thing that you can do.
"Some of us think holding on makes us strong; but sometimes it is letting go." -Hermen Hesse