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Tough versus strong

I feel like I need to warn you that this post is a bit of a bummer. Just so that it’s your own fault if you keep reading and it bums you out.

My older brother was here for Christmas. We always end up taking about our childhood. It’s something we need to rehash because we’re the only two people that share that experience. And as parents ourselves, I think we are motivated to figure out which parts of it we’d want our children to experience some version of (which parts led to things we like about ourselves), and which we DON’T want them to experience.

Starting at about age three, my childhood contained many of the ingredients that are believed to be shitty for children. My parents getting divorced.* Moving at least once every year, sometimes more than once.**  A clinically depressed mother.*** Being separated from my mother. An instance of sexual abuse. It’s like a checklist for why I grew up to be a junkie. Except I didn’t. Neither did my bother. INQUIRING MINDS WANT TO KNOW WHY NOT.

I had a few good years with my mother, which goes a long way. My mother got un-depressed. Our separation was a few months, not years. The sexual abuse was one time, and not anyone know to me. I had my brother as a source of stability. There were always books and art supplies and more or less enough to eat. But I WAS on the junkie dropout path for a while there…How did I escape? Was it just some random set of circumstances? I’m not sure.

Part of the story I told myself, and that I thought of as a family narrative, was: There was a lot of good in there along with the challenges, and These Experiences Made us Strong.

This family narrative came up at Christmas, and my brother said, I don’t know about strong. Tough, maybe. But strong?

I asked him what the difference is for him, but we got interrupted. Now I’m dying to know. I’ll ask him at some point, but I’m curious. What’s the difference for you between strength and toughness?




*Hugely complicated, of course, and certainly divorce is better than some alternatives, but the consensus is that divorce leads to “adverse outcomes.”

**Also complicated, but current thinking is that frequent relocation is particularly bad for introverts. Like me.

***Sorry, I know I keep talking about the fact that depression is bad for children. But it is, and that’s why it’s so critical to support mamas with depression. Not because we care about THEM, of course, but…save the babies.

14 Comments Post a comment
  1. Hmmm… strength versus toughness. I think my initial reaction is to attach value judgments, like strength is somehow associated with security and toughness with bravado, insincerity. But… i don’t know if that’s what i really think.

    I’ve suspected a lot of similarities in our childhoods before, and now i am certain of them. That makes me wonder whether my definitions are affected too much by own experiences.

    This post makes me think of the whole “if it doesn’t bend, it breaks” idea. I think that’s what i think of as strength. And maybe that’s why i think “secure.” Because if you apply that to people, the idea that flexibility and adaptability doesn’t mean compromising your core, that to me is the ultimate in security. But toughness – there’s a place for that. I tend to think of toughness as standing up to something, as being very rigid. And, i don’t know, i think that’s survival. And i take back my earlier statement, because it doesn’t have to be insincere. It can be, i suppose, but even if that’s the case – it’s its own kind of strength, too.

    There. I’ve decided they’re not different things, they’re degrees on a spectrum. And they each have their place. I wonder what the role of adversity is for each – are you more likely to develop one or the other in adverse circumstances? Does it just depend on your personality? Is one more successful than another as a coping strategy? I HAVE TO GET CAUGHT UP ON ALL YOUR POSTS!

    January 10, 2014
  2. I also come from a challenging childhood and am so fascinated by the concept of resilience as a personality trait. My first reaction was to think of strength as a trait and toughness as a behaviour or reaction to a situation, one that isn’t rooted in something positive (while strength comes from a solid inner foundation). So strength is an active quality while toughness is more of a reaction with fewer roots. Not sure id that makes any sense. Would love to hear more of you and your brother’s thoughts on this.

    January 10, 2014
  3. I’m reading David & Goliath by Gladwell, which I suspect is one of those authors you might find overly simplifying things in the social science sort of way, but there is something to the effect of learning to deal with failure and disappointment at a young age having positive effects on life for successful people. Our family has no such narrative and a few of the same shitty circumstances. Tough v. strong. Strong would mean that you emerged better for it, which might not be the experience. Tough, on the other hand, means that you emerged from it with the idea that it was something you could survive. I don’t know about you, but in all of those childhood moments, I’m certain that feeling that you might die, emotionally, was consistent.

    You can blame my babble on this idea being fresh with the luxury of reading my first book in 1.5 years. Would I have faced infertility long enough to outlast the fertility bitch if I hadn’t lived through shitty things before? Not likely. Like blisters, really. At some point they turn to thin calluses and hard things are just a bit easier. You develop resilience (fancy word for tough, no?). Okay, so lots of commas, not much sense.

    Tough versus strong. A very long-winded way of saying that these are not same thing at all in my mind. I would agree with your brother on this.

    January 10, 2014
  4. SRB #

    I’ve always felt like tough meant you could take a beating, but strong meant you could beat back. Then again, being tough makes me think of puffed up chests but being strong makes me think of a birch tree… you know? But she’s a tough bitch too… I don’t know. Great question.

    January 10, 2014
  5. Now I want to know too! Get on the phone and report back stat!…also I feel like a doctor when I say/type “stat”

    January 10, 2014
  6. First of all, I’m so sorry you had to go through all this. And so glad you came out ok.
    Now, tough vs strong… to me, tough has to do with resilient. There’s a lot of crap coming your way but you make it through. I’m not sure about strong though… maybe one can show strength without a crappy personal situation, e.g. by standing up for others or going to Africa to build wells for clean water or… I don’t know. Also keep in mind this isn’t my native language, so that may warp my perspective. Let us know what your brother thinks!

    January 10, 2014
  7. I haven’t any sort of personal experience from which to draw upon that would be useful here (at one point in my adulthood I stopped and reflected on the fact that of my parents, all my aunts, uncles, great-aunts, and great-uncles who are married, my grandparents, all of my dad’s cousins (who we saw regularly at holidays growing up), and now all of my cousins — a good 15-20 couples — there has been only two divorces. That’s got to be pretty unusual).

    But in the abstract, I would say that strength allows for a modicum of flexibility that toughness doesn’t have. Brittle things can be tough, but they are not particularly strong, because once you have overcome their toughness, they break easily.

    January 10, 2014
  8. For me, both strength and toughness imply going through difficult situations and making it on the other side of pain. The difference is that strong ones get over the hurt, while the tough ones are more affected by and have to live with it.

    January 10, 2014
  9. I have two incredible daughters that come from two distinctly different, but equally challenging, upbringings. One I would classify as tough and the as other strong. The tough one spent the first 9.5 years of her life in an Eastern European orphanage system. She’s physically and mentally “tough” – she has endured much difficulty and it has shaped how she reacts to the world. Her toughness is self-protection, but she will more easily crumble if the situation gets *too* challenging. The strong one watched her mother die then watched her grandmother, who had custody of her, die, then went into the same orphanage system. She weathers unexpected changes with something like grace. It takes a lot to make her crack, to break her down.To me, her strength is almost something like a power she possesses. The tough one just puts up a better force-field. That’s how I see it, anyway, but like you I am dying to know your brother’s take on it!

    January 10, 2014
  10. I am still thinking for an answer to the question. But in the meantime, I want to say that I am thinking of you. You must be an incredibly strong person to have experienced all those things and have achieved what you have.

    **Not sure on the details of all the psych research on this issue, but as introvert who had to move a lot (six schools in eight years), I don’t think it is good for children. I would certainly never do that to mine.

    January 11, 2014
  11. twangy #

    Your resilience, wherever it comes from, is a tremendous testament to you and your brothers. I am very sorry in any case that your young years were so hard. You are even more amazing than I thought.
    Hmm. For me strong suggests a capacity also to be gentle, whereas tough is less flexible and more to do with the show of invulnerability. Your brother might have meant something else, of course.

    January 11, 2014
  12. I have been thinking about this for a while. I’m going to try to give you my scrambled thoughts on it.

    To be tough means to me surviving all of the horrible situations from childhood and made it through to the other side as a loving, problem solving, health adult. Being strong is pushing against the grain purposefully and knowingly not to be set back by issue or circumstance and to stay on path with original trajectory. In my mind some situations beat out strength and rely solely upon being tough. This may not make sense to anyone else I realize.

    January 16, 2014
  13. I have thought about this question often since reading your post for the first time. I was waiting until something profound would come to me, but no.
    Perhaps tough and strong are synonyms when it comes to garbage bags and resiliency (but not people you meet at a cocktail party. As in, I want to talk to that strong chick over there, but not to that tough guy). In some ways, I feel like one can fake being tough, but one cannot fake being strong. So when it comes to why you avoided the junkie pathway, I’m convinced it’s because you are strong. I wonder why your brother does not identify with being strong, as he so clearly is. I hope you find out, and that you continue to see yourself for the strong, strong woman that you truly are.

    January 19, 2014
  14. ‘Tough’ brings to mind shouty bogans in singlets and thongs with southern cross tattoos. (Or maybe rednecks in wifebeaters and flip-flops? What a ridiculously parochial example.) External bravado that doesn’t necessarily correlate to anything like strength.
    ‘Strength’ is on the inside, I think. Resolve, determination, resilience… All those things.
    I think either outcome is a possible result from difficult experiences, though. Some people go through shit and put up a tough barrier to the world so that it can’t hurt them any more. Others feel it all but trudge on through. I would really like to know why the coin lands the way it does…

    January 23, 2014

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