be strong

Think of how often you hear people talk about being strong when it comes to the toughest parts of life.  I see it in Facebook comments, at funerals, in hospitals.  “Be strong”.  “You’re so strong”. “You’re the strongest woman I know”.

We tell children to toughen up.  When they have to go for a doctor’s visit or to the dentist, we tell them,” you’re going to have to have a needle so be strong”.

We try to get them to stop crying before it even starts. When I visit parents with children, inevitably the young ones hurt themselves and the first thing I hear is “you’re okay,  you’re okay!”  If they just fell and hurt themselves, why isn’t it okay for them to cry? That’s the emotion that wants to come out. Why not let it be?

That conditioning w receive as children carries us right into adulthood.  It makes us put on a mask and cover up pain.  When someone says “you’re so strong”, that to me means, “you are so good at covering up your pain so I don’t have to see it”.

There’s a great example of this perpetual covering up on one of the most popular series out right now, Ted Lasso.

We know right from the first episode that Ted’s wife wanted to end their marriage.  And Ted, being perpetually positive, continued to put on a happy face.  He agonized while alone, but out on the field, he pretended all was fine.

I bought into this idea of hiding how I really felt and putting on my strong suit as much as anyone else.  I remember the night of my first miscarriage.  The baby just kind of slipped out of me.  I had no warning, no physical pain, just a little bit of spotting.   It seemed so different than the miscarriages I had seen on TV so I didn’t really know what was happening or what to do.  I called telehealth and they told me to go straight to the hospital.

So I did.  I went by myself.  My husband dropped me off (and don’t think badly of my husband – I told him I didn’t need him to be there, and he was in his own grief after having lost his brother just a few weeks prior).  I told him there’s no sense in both of us sitting here wasting time.  Usually it’s a 3 hour wait in the ER.  So I brought a book and sat there by myself.  I shoved down all the emotion I was feeling and told myself to be strong.

I did something similar the next day when I went to work.  I figured I didn’t  have any physical pain, so what reason did I have to stay home?  So I went and pretended that I was fine.  I was strong.  My colleagues who didn’t know I was pregnant, didn’t know any different and the colleagues who did got the “I’m fine” response.

But it wasn’t like I registered the thought.  I didn’t actually tell myself inside my head to be strong.  I was just so conditioned and practiced at doing it, that it never even occurred to me to show what I really felt.

There are some things that happen as a result of trying to be strong that really don’t do you any service:

  • You turn down help when you really need it
  • You don’t talk about what you’re going through so people think you’re fine and may not even know you need support
  • It makes you do things out of obligation instead of what you truly need, because you’ll put on a happy face and go to social event

Back to Ted Lasso….all his pretending and being strong and covering up eventually caught up to him.  (spoiler alert if you haven’t seen the second season!) He finally gave into the panic attacks, admitted he was suffering and got help.

There was also a scene where he confessed to his panic attacks to the other coaches and it led to a sort of release for him.  The beautiful thing was that it was cathartic for the other coaches, who also confessed to their own secrets.  And then there was the admission in front of his team after it wound up in the paper.

All of those expressions of his own pain led to a huge shift for him.  And major healing.  It was his undoing and his honesty about it, even to himself, that transformed him.

If you’re listening to this thinking there’s no way you’re going to let others see how you feel, I promise you, you’ll feel resentment the next time you go put on that mask at a social event.  And you’re going to feel like no one cares or understands how you feel.

What will actually help you heal are these four things:

  • Being honest with yourself – I’m in pain. This is hard.  I don’t know if I can do this by myself.  Do I really need to do this by myself?
  •  Be honest with others. Express what you’re going through. That’s how people know that you need support. Ask yourself, if the circumstances were reversed and a friend was in your situation, what would you want her to do?  What would you tell her to say?  And how would you feel knowing she was hiding her feelings and pretending to be strong?
  • Be open to receiving – if you offer help to others, but you won’t accept it yourself, it’s a sign you’re judging yourself for needing help. Maybe accepting help means you’re weak?  That you can’t do it all?
  • Set boundaries – when you know you can’t show up as your true self, bow out. You’re not ready and you’re doing everyone a disservice if you can’t show up fully.

It can be really hard to take off the mask and let your true self and your true feelings shine through.  Which one of these suggestions are you willing to try?

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Sheri Johnson