“You got to be tough or the world will get you.”
I grew up hearing those words from my father over and over again. He’s a man of sayings.
There was the lighthearted one, “you’re alright, half left, but all right”; the thankful one, “great meal, Leanne,” and the pragmatic one, “I’m not cheap; I’m frugal.”
Whether we were alone in the car or with friends at a dinner party, my father found a way to interject one of his mantras into the conversation.
Just after my first daughter’s birth, I overheard my dad talking to our newborn by the bedroom window, rocking the crying baby to sleep in his arms. “You got to be tough…” he started. I knew what was coming next, and stood at the doorway, astounded by his persistence.
You got to be tough or the world will get you. What does that mean anyway!?
To my dad, it means that you’ve got to survive the world no matter what it throws at you.
My father lost his parents when he was fifteen years-old.
He was in the backseat of the car when it was struck by a drunk driver, so were his twin brother and younger sister, Suzanne. His mom died on the spot, and his father died soon after of heartbreak, the moment when he asked about the status of his wife, and a doctor answered honestly.
You got to be tough, he learned, and sought to cement that point into the brains of his children over and over again.
While I don’t full heartedly embrace my dad’s tough-mantra, I can’t help but hear it when I run into difficult situations.
On the surface, the saying is empty and crass, devoid of context and dismissive of healthy alternatives for moving through emotionally taxing experiences.
But I didn’t critique the saying as a child. My siblings and I simply heard it, again and again.
We never learned to analyze it; that would have been like analyzing my dad’s arm. His sayings were a part of him, an appendage to life.
When is it acceptable to stop and think about what we hear over and over again? How do we best do this, especially in terms of our own, inner dialogue?
Humans talk to themselves, and that inner speech is a powerful tool of self-control.
Negative self-talk such as, I’m never going to finish this or, no one ever helps me, can stop someone in her tracks, preventing her from reaching a dream.
Positive talk, on the other hand, can free someone of undue obstacles, offering her an open door into a promising possibility.
Psychologists and educators alike have created ways to help people observe and take charge of their self-talk.
My father has never had the privilege of working with someone to guide him in this process. I wonder what such a self-talk coach would say to him. What would you ask him?
Being tough is my father’s way of being optimistic, but not naive.
You have to know my father to know that he’s not just about toughing it out.
He seeks support and talks through his emotionally taxing situations with friends and family. He is one of the sweetest people I know. But he’s acquired this saying that he repeats again and again, and, for better or worse, allows him to get through whatever it is that is standing in his way.
He recently bought a bike, pedals the few blocks to my sister’s house, and plays with his grandkids in Virginia each day.
He just walked a half marathon, and sent pictures of himself in the paper to all his four children. He was beaming with pride.
His favorite saying might not capture all there is to know about my father’s zest for life, but it does remind me of something extremely important about parents: they, too, talk to themselves and that self-talk lives on in their children.
So, what is it that you say to yourself over and over again?