We all have people in our lives that have struggled or continue to struggle with awful life experiences. From losing a loved one, mental illness, physical illness, addiction, financial unpredictability, and many other traumatic experiences. And we see these people as strong, even when strong isn’t a choice.
We watch these individuals from the sidelines and marvel at their ability to carry on, to rise up every day and face the day, to continue to raise their children, go to their jobs and stay above water, especially when it seems to us (the outsider) that must be barely treading for air.
We see these individuals as “inspirations”, as an indicator that even when faced with the most atrocious life situations, people can pull themselves together and continue walking through the mud.
We see these people as STRONG.
We want to support them, we want to tell them that we empathize with their pain, we want to share with them any gem that might help them continue to be STRONG. We want them to know that we could never see ourselves being so STRONG. So we tell them, how much we wish the best for them, and we tell them they are so STRONG, the STRONGEST person they have ever come across. We mean well, we truly do.
But what if they don’t want to be strong? What if they weren’t given the choice to be strong? What if the only choice they had was to carry on? What if they decided to not carry on… what would the option be then?
During a particularly painful time in my life, many of my closest people supported me and showed me love by telling me I could do it, they saw the badass in me, they told me I was so strong.
I couldn’t understand why this comment, having heard it over and over began to irritate me. I realized then, that I didn’t want to be strong. Being told I was strong didn’t feel like a compliment to me anymore. I was just surviving, I had no choice. Either I was strong or I gave up, there was no in-between.
People who go through unthinkable trauma throughout their life are strong because they have to be, that’s just the truth of it. I can’t imagine anyone wishing for strength like this. Strength to get out of bed and carry on while an internal battle rages inside you. Strength to just make it through the day so that you might have a few quiet moments before bed where your thoughts might let you have some peace before repeating this cycle again and again. Strength to hold back tears and smile like you are ok, I don’t think I want that strong, I certainly don’t feel proud of myself for being that, because it’s not a choice.
Of course, I recognize that this strength is what gets us through the day and into the next stage and the next phase and we need this strength, we just wouldn’t have wanted to develop it in this way.
I want to invite you to rethink the phrase “you are so strong” when supporting someone who is struggling.
Show them you care and are there for them by just listening and validating their feelings.
Ask them what you can do to help, let them know that you are there.
It’s ok to tell someone that they are in a really awful, shitty situation. They already know this, they live this and validating that you understand is so powerful in connecting with that person and their pain.
To all of you reading this who have survived and confined to survive life’s unpredictable, painful moments, I see you and my heart is with you.