A search for the definition of the word “tenacity” first brings up “stubbornness.” It works for a starter—except we think of stubborn as a mostly negative trait and I want to write about the positive aspect of tenacity. Sometimes, though, there is also strength in stubbornness.
While on a walk a few years ago with a philosophically-minded friend, he asked, “if you could pinpoint just one thing that stands out as a reason you were able to not only survive, but thrive, in spite of the daunting obstacles you faced as a child, what would it be?” After some discussion, with his helpful comments, I said “tenacity.”
By tenacity, I mean a very determined way of standing your ground, standing up for yourself, for what you believe is right, even when the risk of doing so might be very serious. When I think of overcoming obstacles, not only in my childhood but really in my whole life so far, tenacity is a constant. In childhood, after a time, I decided not to cry anymore, no matter how badly my father was beating me, or whatever else he might be doing to me to make me hurt. I decided that giving him the satisfaction of my tears would be rewarding him for something really wrong. I also decided that his attempts at forcing me to cry was a perverted invasion of my privacy and my dignity. There were many times when I knew if I just cried, he’d stop. Nope. Not gonna cry, no matter what. Later in life, tenacity came up in other ways. A foster father uses his kids to make money by making us cut lots and lots of wood. I seek an investigation. We aren’t made to cut wood anymore, but eventually he throws me at a wall, and I run away. A high school teacher takes me out into the hallway, so angry he is spittling out of his mouth onto my face, I push him away, he kicks me, I restrain him, he sends me to the office. I am suspended. You get the point.
After childhood ended, when it was no longer “acceptable” for adults to get so mad at me they caused me bruises or for me to respond in kind, my tenacity continued, but without physical altercation. I have been fired and risked being fired from many jobs. The first time, I was actually still a kid. I was a caddy at a golf course. My friend Steve and I were with a group of golfers, carrying their bags. One golfer became irate when he couldn’t get his ball out of a sand trap. In his fury, he threw the club at my friend Steve, his caddy that day. He ducked and the club missed him. Steve and I grew up in the same neighborhood. He had a bit of tenacity himself. Steve turned around, grabbed the club, threw it back at the golfer, who also jumped out of the way. Steve and I started laughing. Steve was fired for throwing the club. I was fired for laughing.
Fast forward a few years. I am in college, a valet parker at a nice restaurant in Saint Paul called the Blue Horse (no longer there, burned down). It’s late on a weekend night. One of the last customers comes out to get his car. A regular. Rich, important to the restaurant, and belligerent. He can barely walk he’s so drunk. He hands me his stub and tells me to get his car. I refuse, instead offering to fetch him a cab. He yells “no cab!” “Get my car!” I say “no” trying to plead with him to be reasonable. He goes back in the restaurant. The manager comes out. Demands the guy’s keys. I hid them while he was inside. I refuse. The guy gets a cab. I am out of a job.
Fast forward a decade. Not much has changed. Managers of at least three separate law firms threatened to fire me because I refused to do something I thought was dishonest, and they thought was acceptable practice of law. In every case, it was a grueling decision for me. In each case I decided honesty, or at least my sense of it, was more important than the job. I have also had occasion to weigh these considerations as a therapist on several occasions, always deciding the “tenacious” route, even when it risked being fired, or disciplined. I guess by now “tenacity” is just a core part of who I am.
It wasn’t always this way. I had to make decisions again and again, hard decisions, which often caused me incredible anxiety for days or weeks, trying to choose whether my definition of what was right was so important that I risked my professional careers (law and therapy). How did I do it? Why was I able to do it? In each case, I was able to imagine myself in the future, what it would be like either way, doing the right thing and being fired, or doing what I thought was wrong and having to live with it. I have so far always come to the conclusion that it is easier to undo the harm of losing a job (and I have lost more than a few) than undoing something I knew was wrong when I did it.
It’s not so much a matter of conscience. It’s more a matter of not wanting to let anyone else dictate to me how I should be treated, how I should feel about myself, how I should choose right and wrong. If I allow someone else to treat me with disrespect (my father, my teacher, my foster dad, my boss), what’s left of me, my self-control, my self-respect? What am I without these? How do I look at myself in the mirror?
There’s a scene in a book that sums up very well tenacity under grueling circumstances. Its called, One Day in the Life of Ivan Dinesovich (by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn). I read it in high school at the recommendation of an apparently insightful teacher who thought I would like it (he was obviously right because here I am 30 years later still thinking about it). Ivan is a prisoner in a Soviet labor camp in Siberia. He’s eating a meal in the canteen. Every once in a while, the guards, just to be cruel I think, open the doors and let the bitterly cold wind course through the room. Many of the other prisoners keep their overcoats on. Not Ivan. He sees this as an indignity. Ivan takes his coat off to eat, just like he would anywhere else. When the cold comes through, he may hunker down, shiver, but he doesn’t put his coat on. To do so would be a victory for the cruel guards. Ivan’s sense of self, of dignity, keep him whole, alive, a complete person. He persists. Ivan is tenacious.
I have occasion to use the concept of tenacity now and then in my therapy practice. It often comes up with those who suffer a kind of depression that seems to be based on a sense of being defeated, a resigned approach to their life, or dejection, by which I mean a kind of “screw it, I have tried, I have failed, so what is the point, I never get a break, etc.” There are often good reasons for people to feel this way, and it becomes a habit for them, or a defense. It amounts to a kind of “you can’t fire me, I quit” mentality. While it might make sense, it is also self-destructive, and keeps people stuck in situations they find it very difficult to tolerate without resort to hiding in depression, numbness, drinking, medications, and all the other manner of escape. The Beatles captured this with the line “How can I even try, I can never win.” (From the song, You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away).
If you look back at your life so far, and you can identity some major figure or figures that seemed for a time very powerful (could be your parents, a long-term relationship partner, a boss) who never seemed satisfied with whatever you tried, to the point that you came to expect nothing but criticism, you might have experienced the kind of dejection or resignation I am talking about.
The solution to this kind of “dejection depression:” tenacity. Ask what you stand for? What do you believe in, down to your core? Who are you? What matters to you? What have other people or situations taught you to give up about yourself? Whatever it is, stop. Stop giving in to pressures that cause you to feel bad about yourself, to lose your dignity, to do what you know in your bones is wrong. Eventually, you will see that what you believe in, what has meaning to you, getting back the things you have given up, will make you feel better, stronger, more likely to prevail even when the risk of failure is fairly high. If you are dealing with someone who seems never capable of being satisfied with you, no matter what you do, it might be a good idea to consider giving up. Not giving up on yourself, but giving up on trying to satisfy that person. Satisfy yourself!
I temper this advocacy for tenacity with a few caveats. Avoid self-righteousness, don’t be too rigid, and pick your battles. We have to listen when we disagree with someone, because we are not always right, no matter how much we think we are. When we listen, even to someone we disagree with, we might learn something, including the limits of our own wisdom. Making mistakes is part of being human. Sometimes tenacity is misplaced, as I can tell you from my own mistakes. If you feel the need to stand your ground, but you can take the time to think about it, spend that time to weigh your options, and then decide if tenacity is the best alternative. On several occasions in my professional life, I have had to think about how to act in a difficult situation long before I took the step of standing my ground, because I needed to be sure the point was important enough to risk a harsh response.
Sometimes standing your ground will accomplish nothing and might only cause more harm to you. This is especially true if your physical safety or the safety of someone else is at stake. In less extreme situations, prudence is also advisable. When I have known I work for someone who cares little for my dignity, who has asked me to do things I believe are wrong, instead of standing up to them to the point of getting fired, if I can do so without risking my personal integrity, I instead look for another job to avoid unemployment. The kind of tenacity I am talking about is not about making a point, or trying to change someone else’s behavior. It is about respecting my own dignity. I find a way to get what I need without having to be controlled by someone I know is not going to change. My blogs on the importance of flexibility are key to avoiding rigidity, but never at the expense of your self-respect. Tenacity should not be the only way to respond to a difficult situation, but it should be one very important tool at your command, especially when your sense of basic right and wrong are at stake.
Copyright 2013, Michael Kinzer. Blog entries and other materials available on Jupiter Center’s website are only intended to stimulate thoughts and conversations and to supplement therapy work with Jupiter Center clients already in therapy. If you or someone you know suffers from a mental illness, you are strongly encouraged to seek help from a mental health professional. For further information about this blog, or Jupiter Center, contact Michael Kinzer at 612-701-0064 or michael(at)jupitercenter.com.