Strong but weak: how a cartoon helped me with embracing my weaknesses. I recently gave a talk at a women’s leadership event and after my introduction, the host remarked on the fact that I am currently doing two roles. My response was an honest one “I am trying, but some days it feels like I am doing neither well”. The host, a senior woman nearing retirement, took this response as a symptom of my perceived imposter syndrome and in the spirit of sisterhood told me not to be so self-effacing. But in this instance, this was not about me not feeling enough, it was simply the honest answer on a cold Thursday morning at the end of a challenging week!
My talk that morning focused on key stories during my career where I have been underestimated due to either my gender or my race and most likely the intersection of the two. But the theme of my talk was actually about how it feels to always be the ‘strong one’ and that we all need to be able to be vulnerable some times.
I am a firm believer that there aren’t any situations in life (work or home) where a cartoon or animation doesn’t provide a useful analogy that can be used to understand our experiences. (If you’re sceptical of this FACT, then please just try using the emotions from Inside Out instead of De Bono’s 6 thinking hats next time!)
On this occasion, my talk drew on the experience of Luisa, a character from the film Encanto. Luisa is the strong one. She literally and figuratively carries the weight of her family and village on her shoulders. And during the film we see repeated displays of her incredible strength until the point when she simply can be strong no more.
Encanto is a musical, so every character has their signature song. Luisa’s song is called ‘Surface Pressure’ and in it she tries to articulate the effect of the pressure she’s under, having to always be the strong one and the fact that people rely on her means there are no room for mistakes. During the song Luisa describes the feeling of pressure like a tick or an ever tightening grip until she feels ready to pop, to blow, to crack under all that pressure. In the final lines of the song she asks herself “who am I if I don’t have what it takes? No cracks, no breaks, no mistakes!”
I can vividly recall the first time I heard that song whilst watching Encanto with my children, it was as though universe was speaking directly to me. It just made sense!
And, the morning of my talk when I responded honestly to the questions of how I balance doing two different roles as well as a host of other non-exec and life responsibilities, I realised there is a very fine line between being challenged (a healthy stretch) and being overwhelmed (unhealthy stretch). And it’s important that we recognise the difference between the two.
When Luisa loses her strength, she also loses her sense of purpose. She says “I am pretty sure I am worthless, if I can’t be of service”. For those of us used to being the strong one, that strength too often becomes part of our core identity. It becomes the role we play within our teams and other relationships. We are the ‘go to’ person, the ‘fire fighter’ and the temporary ‘caretaker’. Don’t get me wrong, assuming this role can feel great. I know personally, that I have been thrown into situations and experiences that have been amazing learning opportunities and the sense of accomplishment can be brilliantly rewarding.
That is until the point when all that pressure builds up and we realise that the identity we have assumed also has the potential to limits us and our relationships. In her 2010 TedX Houston talk, Brene Brown speaks of the power of vulnerability.
In order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen, really seen. This means embracing vulnerability. This means not only acknowledging but accepting our weaknesses. For the ‘strong ones’ this isn’t easy, we are so invested in our roles that we put all our energy into playing it perfectly. “No cracks, no breaks, no mistakes!” But the real insight here is that it takes courage to be imperfect, to live authentically as who you actually are and to shake off the yoke of the identity we’ve developed over time.
Brene’s lesson is that we live in a vulnerable world, therefore it simply isn’t possible to escape, or as she puts it numb, vulnerability. So, thinking back to my introduction to my talk, yes I was willing for a moment to be vulnerable when I admitted I don’t always do everything perfectly, but why did I respond the way I did when the host attempted to reassure me that it was OK?
The truth is that whilst I was willing to acknowledge my imperfections, deep down I still saw them as a weakness, a blight on my strong self-image. Intellectually I know that’s ridiculous. Of course I’m not perfect; I am human, not a superhero! But, I had not yet accepted weakness as a part of me – neither a positive or a negative – simply a part of me. Therefore, being imperfect shouldn’t affect my sense of self-worth. So next time, my aim is to not just admit that I don’t always do everything well but to also add “and that’s OK” (and to believe it!). My perfectly imperfect best is enough.
And, in answer to Luisa’s question ‘who am I if I don’t have what it takes?’ I am simply me and I am strongest when I am comfortable being weak.
 Darrow, Jessica (2021) Surface Pressure, ‘Encanto’, Disney