"It's not like I agree with everything he says or anything," one friend defended. "But... I like how he presents himself. He has a very strong personality."
My friend was speaking about a will-stay-unnamed public figure. I listened, trying to piece together how this figure's behavior represented a strong personality. He was loud and boisterous. Notorious for talking over and interrupting people. Willing to throw his weight around and call people names. He was stubborn and obstinate and willing to bulldoze anyone in his path.
... and that was a strong personality?
I've heard this phrase used a time or two before. I've heard people describe -- if not outright excuse -- other people's aggressive or manipulative behavior, stating, "They have a strong personality." I've heard people excuse their own behavior, citing the same. I look at these people, the behaviors they are defending, and the type of behavior that the aforementioned public figure presented -- and can't help but wonder:
Are you sure you're not confusing a strong personality with a toxic one?
Excuse me while I shake the dust off my Psychology 201 syllabus, but I'm pretty sure things like short tempers, manipulation, yelling and screaming, and name-calling are all signs of toxicity, not strength.
And -- for all intents and purposes -- the internet echoes my pseudo-psychological sentiment. Every article, quiz, or GIF-packed listicle you can find online to figure out if someone is toxic all seem to have some variation of these questions on their list:
- Are they quick to start yelling or screaming?
- Do they manipulate, coerce, or throw their weight around?
- Are they overly stubborn and convinced that they are right, no matter what?
- Are they quick to belittle, mock, name-call, or overall shame you?
- Are they willing to do whatever it takes to win the argument?
While toxic personalities encompass way more than those bullet points, please tell me: in what universe are any of those indicative of strength of character? A yes to any one of those questions points to someone who is almost entirely ruled by their ego and/or emotions.
That doesn't sound very strong to me.
Somewhere along the line, we decided that a strong personality was synonymous with outright bullying -- as if the only way to show true strength would be to bare fangs like a wild animal. So we bear witness to people's positively terrible behavior and then brush it off as some weird, perverted type of strength. Whether it's our boss or a family member or a friend -- a public figure or even ourselves -- we unconsciously decide acting this way is showing a "strong personality."
The reality is that there is nothing strong about it. There are too many people with fragile egos and fragile self-esteems who are far too quick to fortify themselves with whatever is available to them. And, usually, that comes in the form caveman-like tactics of anger, coercion, and aggression, in whatever ways are most readily accessible.
If you ask me, the real strong personalities have what it takes to tell the caveman-brain side of themselves to stay in the cave.
If you ask me, it takes a strong personality to take that step back when tempers flare. It takes a strong personality to recognize when bulldozing through a situation will only hurt those around you. It takes a strong personality to take a deep breath before saying something cruel.
It takes a strong personality to recognize that being right all of the time is not important. It takes a strong personality to notice when taking the lead would serve your ego and nothing else. It takes a strong personality to consider all of the options instead of assuming yours is the correct one.
It takes strength to show compassion, even in the heat of the moment. It takes strength to see things from the other person's side and be willing to empathize. It takes strength to stay diplomatic and level-headed. It takes strength to set that ego aside for five whole seconds and admit when you're wrong -- and admit it in real time.
A strong personality does not have to constantly be on the defense (or offense). They don't have to go for the jugular on the off-chance they'll lose, or be wrong, or not get what they want. They don't have to behave in ways that raise every red flag on that "Is This Person Toxic?" quiz.
A strong personality is going to have conviction -- but blind conviction only creates friction and tension and strife. A strong personality is going to be willing to defend what they believe in -- but going deaf to any outside voices shows that their strength comes from a faulty place.
So maybe it's time to call a spade a spade (regardless as to what public figures we like or political candidates we endorse). It's time to stop labeling such behavior a sign of strength and start labeling it what it is: toxic. And unacceptable.