I've always considered myself strong and independent though recently life forced me to rethink my personal definitions of both strength and independence. My focus turned to how sometimes we see self-destructive behavior as strength. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that often other people's view of me as a strong woman came during times when I was at my most self-destructive. Lately, I've spent some time trying to reconcile inner strength with my tendency toward self-destructive behavior when I'm faced with things I'd rather avoid acknowledging let alone resolving.
We have a tendency to look at women who appear to make all their own decisions as strong regardless of how bad those decisions are. Numbing one's pain and drowning out the past with sex, drugs, alcohol, or other vices are not traits of a strong woman. Erecting a barrier around one's emotions to keep from feeling vulnerable is not strength. Avoiding making real connections with others is not strength. Hiding from one's truth is not strength.
Even drowning one's self in work, a relationship, or some other productive activity in order to avoid dealing with one's life isn't strength. We often think they are because we excuse those "productive" activities as building a life. So we put our full focus into what we want to create and ignore anything that doesn't fit the image we want to see.
Strong women don't need to be saved from themselves. They are capable of facing life, dissecting their issues, and making their own decisions. Strong women don't run from life's challenges. Strong women don't hide when life hurts. Strong women save themselves.
Oddly, we also tend to think strong women keep their emotions inside. In truth, strong women cry, rage, laugh, and smile. Strong women love and hate. Strong women take care of themselves and take care of others. Strong women don't demand perfection from themselves but always give life the best they can.
Strong women ask for help when they need it. They don't feel weakened when they need other people because they recognize human beings need one another. There is nothing wrong in needing friends. There is nothing wrong with wanting incredible people to surround them. There is nothing wrong in admitting she can't do everything for everybody all the time. There is nothing wrong with acknowledging she can't be all to all. In fact, know her limitations is one of the hallmarks of a strong and independent woman.
When a strong woman becomes self-destructive, she sacrifices her true strength. A strong woman is in control of her sexuality, her pleasure, and her life. She doesn't deny herself the happiness she deserves. She revels in the joy life offers her without denying the challenges she overcomes. Allowing self-destructive behavior to take over one's life only leads to more pain and heartache. It may provide a facade of bravado to those nearby, but it can never be true strength.
A strong woman will find her way out of self-destructive behavior with a greater understanding of who she is at her core. She will forever recognize her tendency to embrace self-destructive behavior when under certain types of pressure, but she will teach herself how to cope and avoid allowing self-destructive behavior to rule her life.
I know because I'm a strong woman who has had bouts with self-destructive behavior. I lost my inner strength with each self-destructive behavior I took. I've traded numbing myself with extreme focus on life goals for risky behavior like numbing myself with sex and alcohol and back to extreme focus on creating the "perfect" life and being the "perfect" whatever was expected.
Though I've been lucky to have people who have pulled me back from the ledge before my self-destructive behavior became too bad, in the end I always had to rescue myself from it. Never did I truly turn around self-destructive behavior until I embraced my inner strength and independence. We can't grow our inner strength based on outside sources. That growth has to come from within. We can seek advice, support, help, and understanding, but finding inner strength and independence always has to come from how we embrace life.
Fiction writers have used this devices for ages to present us women who are strong but flawed- "too strong for her own good" and readers have loved the idea. I'm as guilty of it as anyone, but it is part of the reason I stopped reading romances many years ago. These characters hide their vulnerability in order to achieve success. In my novel, All She Ever Wanted, Victoria fits this description to the tee. She's not self-destructive in the sense of doing risky things, but she makes poor decisions to keep from being labelled weak. Self-destructive behavior masquerading as strength makes make for good fiction because it provides the potential to make the character three dimensional and to have the character grow as she finds true strength within - that is, if we don't have the hero who swoops in to save her from herself...
Over time I've learned I'm at my strongest and most independent when I accept the reality of my life, face the pain it brings, embrace the joy it offers, and present my true self to the world, perfections and imperfections alike.