Every day, we are bombarded with advice about being positive and successful. Our social media feeds are full of inspirational images, often with cringe-worthy quotes laid over the top, gaudily ordering us to feel great. Fighting heartbreak? If you walk away and he doesn't walk after you, keep walking! Too tired to go to the gym? Be your own motivation! Bad day? Life isn't about waiting for the storm to pass, it's about learning to dance in the rain!
It's one thing encouraging someone to try and cheer up, but are we taking it too far by enforcing this elated belief that we have to be able to instantly bounce back from anything?
Last week, an acquaintance of mine published a rawly honest and inspiring blog post; How to be Strong and When to be Weak. It is a tale of a lengthy battle with pain culminating in some important lessons about both life and business.
The upfront honesty of her blog post left me feeling a combination of unsettled and amazed. Initially, I wasn't sure how to feel about someone I respect so much being so fragile. Seeing someone so strong express vulnerability was new to me and I felt something not too dissimilar to guilt as her words sank in. But why did I feel like that? Because everything I have been exposed to so far - in business, education, society - has conditioned me to believe that strong figures should remain firmly upon their pedestals of greatness. Unfaltering, uncompromising and never showing any signs of weakness.
The feeling of needing to show the world we can cope with anything is one that most of us are probably familiar with. The concept of even admitting to a struggle is something most of us actively avoid; we'd rather fight on with a forced smile fixed upon our faces.
And I find myself wondering how we, as a society, have ended up here. Completely invincible: is this how we have become forced to portray ourselves as individuals, business leaders, human beings? When did we reach the point where not feeling 100% was seen as a weakness?
As a 26 year old businesswoman, it's something I battle every day. When I started my company there were a lot of doubters around me, so right from the get-go I felt like I had a lot to prove. In almost everything I've done, I have felt pressure to do it to the maximum of my ability, if not beyond. My successes are loud and widely-publicised and are followed by waves of affirmation and admiration. But in my failures, shortfalls and darker moments, I am closed off. I hide behind the billboard labelled 'successful young entrepreneur' and I deal with them quietly and in solitude, because to expose them to the rest of the world is not an option.
Anyone who knows me well will be able to tell you I don't do anything by halves. I pursue things with an arguable level of obsession and I carry the inability to admit any hint of frailty across every area of my life. Once, near the end of a session, my personal trainer asked me how I was doing, because I "have a good poker face when I'm tired". It would appear I also believe I am also so super-human that being tired after sixty minutes of intense exercise is a failing on my part.
My circle of trust, the small group of individuals I can confess my true emotional status to, is getting smaller and smaller. With every difficult day, every bad meeting, every awkward situation; there's someone else I opt to keep it from. Soon, I will have reigned it in so far that I am standing in a walled garden on my own.
And the sad thing is, everybody does it. We greet people with an automatic, almost rhetorical "how are you?" and we all say "I'm fine". We say we're fine even when we're not.
There's even an almost heroic side to 'pretending to be okay'. The social media platform Tumblr is full of positive, inspirational quotes - but for every one of those, there is also a much darker, sinister statement or image about pretending not to love someone or struggling through nights alone. I haven't studied the demographics, but I imagine that the latter are circulated and shared by a much younger audience. We must ask ourselves if we are encouraging this. Do we want teenage girls thinking if they feel broken hearted, the best way to deal with it is to lock themselves in their bedrooms and listen to sad music?
The concept of revealing a chink in our armour feels, to many of us, like a failure. But that chink, that weakening of your protective outer shell, has probably come from protecting you throughout many battles. Whilst you set out at 100%, over time you have fielded blows, pushed through conflict and subjected yourself to the general wear and tear of everyday use. If we roll with this metaphor - do you think a mighty knight would have felt shame in asking a blacksmith to repair his kit? Would he have felt guilty or ashamed, like the damage sustained was somehow his fault? No. And neither should you. Life is most definitely not a fairytale, but there are still some lessons we can learn from our mythical counterparts.
Admitting when you are struggling can help you, rather than hinder you. Even trusting a select few, close friends or colleagues with a problem can make your life easier, and their support can enable you to focus on the things you really need to. Strength is indeed a desired attribute, especially in the business world, but with such strength should also come the ability to recognise when to be weak. Asking someone to help mend your armour is not a weakness.
Our emotions are bigger than our best intentions and I think it's time we all stopped kidding ourselves that pretending to be fine is an acceptable, or in any way constructive, solution. There is no permanence in a lifestyle where you are consistently deceiving yourself and others.
So next time someone asks you how you are, before you let "I'm fine" tumble out of your mouth, take a deep breath and ask yourself: how are you really?