tough guy syndrome – three things you can do to support your friends

prevent capable from becoming collapse

We all have those friends – happy and calm, steady and content, competent and self-assured. Are they that way all the time? Do they truly never need support, care and an extra dose of understanding? Are they always the shoulder to cry on and never need one themselves?

There are those jobs, those professions which require a “Tough Guy” persona; first responders, helping professionals and those whose careers are based on a projection of un-wavering competency. There are those who cannot claim un-knowing nor a moment of not being in charge. This leaks into one’s private life.

I am a Tough Guy. I have always been the capable one, the one who could figure it out, get it done, who could hold my emotions in check to get through a crisis. I say this not with a pride but with an acknowledgment that that was my role as a child. I took it with me into adolescence being the “one” you could go to with your heartache, your gripes, and fears. I would figure things out for you, take your side and be at your side. I brought this into my relationships with both friends and lovers. I over helped and over accomplished.

I went into adulthood with these same skills, honed to fare thee well, bringing competence and self-reliance into a fine form of co-dependence and self-deprecation. I was emotionally expressive but not clear about personal limits and needs. I did not know them so they were of no consequence. Overall, however, I seldom if ever looked as if I needed help. 

Trust and fear; I did not learn to trust the grownups in my life to care for me. They would for a period of time and then things would change and I would be the “grown-up” in the family. Then, without warning, I would be dethroned and the parents would be the parents. I never let my guard down. I would do what was safe. I would take charge when I could and I motored on. If I expressed a need it was not addressed in the same manner, or with the same care event by event. One time I was told not to wear my heart on my sleeve, the next time I would have my feelings cradled with unconditional love and care. There was no consistency.

A day came when the seesaw was no longer bearable. I learned to stuff and to ignore the simple insults of daily life, and later the egregious pains of heartbreak, betrayal, and assault. In my mind, there was no safe person to hold me dear. I became a Tough Guy.

So now, years later, a lot of internal work has been done with professionals as well as informal help of mentors and other kind people. I know my needs. I feel my stuff and I can discern when I need support. The problem is people see me as competent, cheerful, mainly even-tempered and happy. And I am. But when I am not, people can’t hear me. My voice is soft when I request for help. I ask for some time. I say “I need some of your undivided time” or use some phrase that indicates I am not going to be all that grown up when discussing what is going on. I ask people I admire and people who “have been there”. But I don’t go all crisis and wild about it. I don’t have that ability. So, my soft presentation may belie the importance of my request.

About a decade ago my requests were so subtle that my friends, busy as they were and as involved with their own growth as they were, did not hear me. I was in danger of relapse in my addictions. They did not know this. I did not know this at the time. I did not realize the danger until I looked back. I was unable to grab the attention I needed to help me work my way through.

It is true that I found other remedies (Yoga!!!!) but I did not find voice. So when even my practice of yoga does not resolve the inner struggle I have trouble asking for support. This skill needs to be learned. And practiced. 

“We deceive ourselves when we fancy that only weakness needs support. Strength needs it far more.”

– Madame Swetchine, The Writings of Madame Swetchine

Why do I tell this story about myself? We, who look competent, may have one or two things left to learn. Relying on self may be self-defeating . One of the things we may have to learn is to clearly state we are in crisis. The catch is one needs help before one learns how to do this. Crisis may hit and we are alone with the pain and the difficulty, bound by our inability to reach out.

When we do find out how to express ourselves, no matter how meekly, how can you, their dear and loving friend, give them help?  

One: Listen. There is a single moment here when the Tough Guy says “I need to talk.” Before the clamshell closes, see if you can spare a minute. If not at that exact moment, make a plan. It can mean the world.

Two: Don’t avoid the issue. The Tough Guy has a thick skin and may deny anything is wrong. Go with it. Just say “What is going on?” Let the story come out without quantifying it.

Three: Try not to minimize it. Avoid saying things like “You are always so strong”, “You will get through it.” Just like you, they may know in their head it will all work out, but in their heart, in their emotions, right now it does not feel like it will. So rather than telling them how strong or competent they are, tell them you are there, to listen, for them to allow “it” to take as long as they need.  

The challenge for Tough Guys is to soften and accept help. It would be an honour for us if you would stand by our side as we learn this.

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