If you close your eyes and conjure up the image of a tough woman, you might picture a female making hard decisions in the boardroom or gutting it out in the last miles of a marathon.
What we often forget: those women who do the hard work of daily life, in our jobs, at home and even in our free time.
Sure, being tough is about overcoming life’s major challenges, but it’s just as much about learning how to be resilient in the face of day-to-day difficulty, knowing when to ask for help and support, and mastering the art of shrugging off a bad day or an unkind word.
You have tough tools
Psychologist Helen Coons, president and clinical director of Women’s Health Associates in Denver says she often asks women to name their top five strengths.
At first, she says, many women have a hard time coming up with anything. After she pushes them, most realize they are tougher than they think—and that remembering their fortitude can help them get through challenges, from financial difficulty to a job crisis.
“Just because something bad happens, those strengths don’t go away,” Coons says. “When we go into difficult situations, we need to be more trusting that we are going to make good decisions, that we have experience—whether you’re 23, 43 or 63—and that we have made good decisions in the past.”
Coons says women often approach relationships and jobs with low self-esteem and tend to assume they’re the person making mistakes or working to catch up with everyone else.
“One way to be tough is to not interpret everything or over-personalize everything,” she says.
“There are system challenges. There are others who have very poor interpersonal skills. There are shifts in the economy, business decisions that are not ours, life circumstances that change that have nothing to do with us.”
Perseverance builds strength
When women feel weak, Coons says, they can find strength by being deliberate in the face of adversity. Rather than ruminating on the problem, take small, specific steps toward solutions.
Real toughness isn’t about doing it all yourself, she says. It’s knowing when to get advice and help from someone who has been there and survived. That’s the focus of Strong Women, Strong Girls, a mentoring-focused nonprofit group with chapters in Pittsburgh and Boston.
Through the group, college-age women volunteer as mentors for middle school-age girls. The college-age women can also get mentoring help from women already established in their adult lives and careers.
Sabrina Saunders, executive director of the Pittsburgh chapter, says the group’s leaders refrain from giving their participants a specific direction for teaching strength. Instead, they’re encouraged to model and observe the work of women who care about their communities.
“For us to be strong is to be living our own truth, to understand who you are, and to recognize that your talent is not to be just saved for yourself, but to be shared with others,” Saunders says.