This point was brought home to me recently by a patient I see who grew up in Vermont, where her father built a successful company. Sarah described how he personally hands each employee their bonus checks each year; how he personally delivers each of them a Thanksgiving turkey; how if he learns that an employee who has become ill can't afford to do some needed repairs on his house, he sends workers over to take care of it.
And then Sarah compares her memories of her dad with her job in New York City, in a giant corporation, where the charismatic, high level boss she works for, whom she has slaved for for almost 3 years, turns on her and throws her under the bus, blaming her to the HR department for an error that wasn't her fault. It is so hard for her to grasp that this boss, a woman she has idealized, looked up to, and given her all for, could have another side to her - a ruthless, selfish side that could so easily betray someone who had been so loyal.
Sarah is very smart, but she is not used to the cutthroat corporate culture of New York City. The boss she thought of as such a strong, powerful woman, spent most of her day on the phone, dealing with her delinquent children, or with her divorce, haggling over expensive purchases, getting massages and visiting the hair salon, disguising her expenditures so she could charge them to the company, and so on. When she did turn her attention to work, it was usually to berate all the hard work being done by her underlings.
It isn't so hard to become enthralled by these personalities - the film The Devil Wears Prada did a good job of depicting that dynamic. These are people, men or women, with intelligence, talent, and charisma. But most importantly, they have an unshakably high opinion of themselves - and whatever lies they have to tell themselves to maintain that hyper self-idealization, they tell them readily.
The rest of us tend to have more realistic views of ourselves. In fact, many people downplay or minimize their strengths. A patient I am getting to know tells me how desperately fragile she is. When I say something about how fragile she feels, she corrects me and says, "I don't FEEL fragile - I AM fragile." And yet, she has survived a terribly traumatic childhood to become a really excellent social worker, beloved by all her terribly troubled clients; a kind and devoted friend to many of those she knows who have become ill or suffered losses; and a loving wife who has managed some very difficult marital problems with real grace.
Another patient is going through a horrendous divorce, with his wife telling vicious lies about him to their children and all his friends, doing everything she can to ruin him in every way. And for a few weeks, he is stunned, shattered, and tearful, telling me how weak he feels. And yet, every move he makes to deal with his situation, every communication with his friends, colleagues and his children, is made with honor, dignity and honesty. And he remains completely present and expert at his extraordinarily difficult work, in spite of losing sleep and feeling too upset most of the time to eat.
Both these people, in my view, are strong people. There are times when they feel overwhelmed, exhausted, frightened, lonely - and weak. Their weaknesses - and we all have weaknesses - exist alongside their strengths. Our strengths are not cancelled out by our weaknesses. We just have to work harder to find our strengths, when our weaknesses are in the foreground.
Real strength is not measured by how much control a person has gained through domination, manipulation, and diminishing of others; or how manically one can deny vulnerability. Real strength is more about the ability to protect and care for those with less power; and to encourage and support others - whether family, children, colleagues or subordinates at work - to grow and develop to the fullness of their potential.