One of the ways we shape our lives is with self-talk. Because the subconscious mind is very suggestible, what we say to ourselves on a regular basis ends up becoming part of the world as we perceive it. By affirming that we are capable of dealing with life’s challenges, we gain more determination to slog on through the hard times.
But like anything else, affirmations can be taken to excess and can have unforeseen consequences. Several years ago, when I wanted to reassure myself that I could cope with difficult situations, I started saying to myself, “I am tough.” I liked how the word sounded—strong, determined, a fearless warrior kicking the world’s butt. I acted like things didn’t bother me, and I got compliments on my toughness. What I didn’t take into account was that by being “tough,” I was building a hard, weighty shell like an emotional suit of armor, which rarely came off but stayed with me wherever I went. Clank, clank.
The word “tough” has many connotations that can be less than ideal when describing oneself. Tough meat, tough as old shoe leather, tough as nails, a tough old bird. Even the way the word comes off the tongue sounds almost like spitting. The idea of toughness, in Western culture, sets up an adversarial relationship—one strong person fighting heroically against the big bad world. It creates a mindset that’s primed to see conflict and drama regardless of whether there is any reason for it.
Even in the natural world, toughness isn’t necessarily best for survival. Large trees such as oaks have tough, hard trunks and branches that don’t move much in the wind. Other trees with slim, flexible branches such as willows get whipped all around by a storm, while an oak might just drop a few acorns. But in extreme weather, a willow has a better chance of survival. A powerful windstorm a few years ago blew down oaks and other strong trees all over my neighborhood, leaving willows intact.
So I’ve decided that from now on, I am going to be resilient like a willow, instead of tough. Resilient is a soft word, sibilant, gentle, whispering like a breeze through tall grass at dawn. A resilient person is one who finds constructive ways to deal with a challenging situation, looking upon it as an opportunity for growth and discovery, rather than as a foe to be conquered. Back when I was determined to be tough, I wouldn’t have written a blog post like this because I’d have felt uncomfortable showing that I had vulnerability. In the depths of my mind, I’d have worried that an enemy might be lurking out there in cyberspace, waiting to pounce as soon as I let something about myself slip. Put another way, being tough made me fearful. So I’m through with it.
Sometimes I still catch myself saying, just by rote, that I am tough. When that happens, I take a moment to shift my train of thought and instead tell myself that I am resilient. After a while—maybe a few weeks, maybe a month or two—this affirmation will become a habit and will feel natural. To reinforce the idea of growth and resilience, I bought a green sweater in the after-Christmas sales. It’s soft and bright like new spring grass. I cleaned out my closet and gave some old sweaters, which had been washed so much that the cotton felt stiff, to a thrift store. No more hard armor for me.