On Being a Strong Person

On Being a Strong Person

“You are a strong person,” has been the refrain. I have heard it my entire life, and a few years ago, it got a little old. It has been both spoken by family, and understood in the silence of well meaning friends. Yet, I never had a clue what it was supposed to mean.

“You are a strong person,” I heard, at the times of my greatest losses, which only made me wonder what a weak person was… and how could they know?

Was this their way of not having to acknowledge the pain that was ripping its way through my life, leaving pieces of me scattered like shrapnel after an unexpected explosion? Was my pain so ugly that all they could do was refuse to acknowledge it, like people do when forced to look upon someone covered with scars left behind from a 3rd degree burn? 

Or, maybe rather that ugly, my pain was was reflective… of their own pain… pain that they had never wanted to acknowledge and thus it had turned into this trite and superficial response? 

“You are a strong person,” They would say to me, when again and again I was dealt blows that left me ravaged by pain seemingly unparalleled. An angry storm swelled inside of me when I heard their words, as I knew I would surely die. “How strong will they think I was when they find me dead in the morning?” I wondered more than once.

But somehow, sure as I was that my heart would simply break and death would overtake me in the night, it  never came. There were days when it literally hurt to breathe, hurt to move, hurt to THINK…. yes, most of all it hurt to think… because thinking let loose the cascade of questions, fears and “what ifs?” 

Some years ago, I told my friend that I was scarred for life. They looked at me peculiarly and asked me what I meant. “I am scarred,” I had said, “just as though someone had taken a razor blade and dragged it across my skin.” They looked at me blankly. 

“You probably can not see them,” I had said,  “but I can. When I look in the mirror, it is all I see. I am scars, scars and more scars, from head to toe. But that is ok. My scars are a part of me. I really don’t mind them. I don’t even think they are ugly anymore. They are more like little Post-it notes of things that have happened to me along the way.” My friend just smiled at me, not knowing what to say.

And then it came…. “You are such a strong person,” my friend had said to me.

…And when I heard those words I felt like I was talking to the wall.

As time has gone on, I have heard this phrase again, most recently with the passing of my father, and then when I was going through my divorce. My first inclination was to feel as though I was invisible  to the people who spoke it to me. I wanted to scream “Really? I am a ‘strong person???’ Can you not see me huddled here, alone, breaking in half from my grief?” But I was not even strong enough to express myself on the matter. 

Instead, I just sat with it…those words echoing round and around my head. “You are a strong-strong-strong -strong  person- person-person-person.”

As time passed, I was able to hear it less as proof of my invisibility and more as evidence of their lack of ability to see my pain or offer comfort. I reminded myself that they had offered more than some, which was no response at all. I even began to see it as a kind of compliment.

I began to ponder what I would say the next time I was put in the position of hearing this phrase yet again. I considered rolling my eyes and saying “Did you really just say that? Are you really that clueless? Is that the best that you’ve got to offer me?”  I thought about punching them in the gut or slapping them in the face… followed by a loud “How was that for a strong person?” I even considered telling them that they were wrong…. but none of these options rang true. The honest to goodness truth was that I already knew I was a strong person.

I thought about the word “strong” and wondered what people meant they said it. Some people clearly said it to relieve themselves of the duty of caring. Others truly meant it as a supportive comment, as if they thought I needed a reminder of the obvious. Others said it because they equated my anger with strength. They saw me as a fighter— I was like that weed in the summertime, pushing through that crack in the sidewalk, weed killer, concrete and drought be damned.

What I wanted to hear was not that I was a strong person… I wanted someone to see my pain, to acknowledge the tortures I had endured, to witness the miracle of my past resilience. Something along the order of Bill Clinton’s “I feel your pain.”, would have been nice. However, people laughed at him when he had said that. I resigned myself from the hope of hearing empathetic responses and set out to do what I could to feel better about it instead.

I realized that the reason people thought I was so strong, was because that is what I was showing them. Everywhere I went, I saw battles that needed winning. Because of my upbringing, and my subsequent adult experiences, I saw the world as a dangerous place. My motto in life had been “Trust (almost) no one. Know and notice everything possible so as to retain control of the situation. Protect myself and everyone in my general vicinity, at all times.” 

It did not matter where I went, be it the grocery store, my children’s school, a dangerous neighborhood or even church… I immediately assessed the threat level, competencies and probable intentions of those around me and made a plan of action, should the need arise. It was exhausting. I had a pervading sense of my emotional undergirding and physical health just falling away altogether if I continued as I had been. I mean, even professional boxers get massages before and after they fight, right?

The difference between me and a professional boxer (besides 50 pounds or so) was that boxers have a dedicated support team making sure that they were rested up between fights. They had a manager picking their fights for them, a dietitian planning their meals and a personal massage therapist at the ready. With no family support at all in my life, and my best friends all living far away, I was pretty much my own (and my children’s) everything, including judge, jury, prosecutor and police force. I had been, instead of picking my battles thoughtfully, looking for them everywhere, just in case I missed one.

Because I could see that no one was standing up to be my soft place to land in life, I realized that it was up to me to create it on my own. I began to look for reasons to be soft. I had to talk myself into it, more often than not. Instead of looking at the world as a dangerous place full of people who needed my protection (and quite a few from whom I needed to protect myself) I began looking for places I could spread joy. Instead of fighting my way to the front of the line, I made a point to let people in front of me. Instead of getting angry when someone was late for an appointment, I tried to imagine what difficulties may have made them late. When someone spoke harshly to me, instead of taking it personally, and looking for ways I might slay them with my sharp tongue, I asked if they were upset and if there was anything I could do to make it better. When I came across someone who seemed in need of help or protection, rather than assuming that their adversary was committed to being the inescapable agent of their downfall, and someone in need of termination, I would ponder ways to turn their relationship into a more agreeable one.

Eventually, things began to change. Going to the grocery store became a fun trip, in which I laughed and chatted with strangers and store clerks alike. Someone running late turned into an opportunity for me to do something else. Harsh words hurled my way rolled right off my back while I turned around and handed the speaker compassion. I stopped seeing enemies everywhere and began making friends. When I was really going through a difficult time and needed support, I asked for the empathy I needed and spoke only with people who understood that it was softness I was after, not strength. 

It is the softness, after all, that will wear away the difficulties in life. Like water on a rock, as it caresses the stone, just so, over time… the softness of my heart makes it possible for me to inspire those who would have it turn to stone.

So the next time someone mistakes your anger for strength, or someone tells you that you are strong and that is not what you want to hear… try being brave enough to go soft. Listen and speak with your heart full of care. Tell them what you would like to hear. Tell them that they are correct. You are a strong person indeed. Your strength, just like mine,  is pulled from a deep well… the deep, deep well of our compassionate hearts, which are strong enough to be ever soft.

The Gift Inside of a Crisis

The Gift Inside of a Crisis

Crisis. Just hearing the word can cause our heart rate to increase. With our routines and efforts to maintain them, humans are, as a whole, crisis averse. Generally speaking, humans are all about the status quo. However, sometimes, crisis just “finds you” in what you believe to be a life that is running like a well oiled machine. It sneaks in sideways, or comes barreling in like a hurricane, and foists itself upon you. 

The fact is, how we react to a crisis will determine our future. Most of us were not taught good skills for crisis management as children and if we rely on the programming we received as a child, we may respond to a crisis in ways that are only sure to harm us. Learning how to make the most of a crisis, instead of letting the crisis destroy us, is one of the most important tools in leading a resilient life. 

So, what is a Crisis? A crisis is an obstacle to your welfare, a traumatic event or threat to your emotional or physical well being. It is a time of intense difficulty, trouble or danger, when a difficult or important decision must be made. 

Crises come in many different shapes and sizes. Sometimes we believe that small things are a crisis, like the bakery forgetting to deliver the wedding cake in time for your reception, or having a flat tire on your way to an important meeting. Those events certainly do seem like a big deal, when they are happening, but when they are over, they are pretty much over, with little to no lasting effects.

I am referring to the big things, like the cancer diagnosis of yourself or a loved one,  the sudden and unexpected death of a loved one, a partner who is unfaithful, or a forest fire whose flames destroyed not only your home but your entire town. Crises can come in any number of ways that result in the disruption to the continuance of our cherished norm. Really…who could get excited about these things? I don’t know anyone who actually likes the idea of welcoming a crisis.

More often, instead of looking for opportunity in the presenting crisis, people get angry, act out against themselves or others, or become withdrawn and depressed.  Many people try to bury their feelings about a personal crisis, hoping that the situation will resolve itself with time. 

Unfortunately, the feelings that accompanied that event will never just “go away.” Experts tell us that in the case of childhood trauma, the person must address the situation head on, or risk the likelihood that their future will be riddled with difficulties and challenges that negatively effect their personal relationships, their ability to hold down a job, and their ability to cope with future crises, which are simply inescapable in life.

This can also be true, albeit perhaps on a smaller scale, for crises that occur in adulthood. For example, when a loved one dies unexpectedly, or our partner is unfaithful, we have a choice of how we view this experience. If we respond negatively, our lives will spiral downward. If we respond by looking for growth, we will become better people. We can choose to blame ourselves, our loved one, or someone else, or we can choose to open our hearts with care and curiosity. How would our departed loved one want us to proceed with our life? What can infidelity teach us about ourselves and/or our relationship? How can you use this experience to build a future that honors your loved one’s memory while also honoring yourself, or find a better understanding of what kind of relationship you want in life? 

A wise man once told me that when a loved one dies, their death makes possible for something to happen that could not have otherwise happened. For example, when my mother died, receiving my inheritance enabled me leave an unhealthy marriage, something that I had been wanting to do for a long time. That, in turn, allowed me to heal from a lot of my own traumas and get onto the path which led me to do the work I do today. I believe that this opportunity for a new experience is offered not just in physical death, but also in the death of our dreams and the shattering of our illusions as well. Every crisis, every crossroad, offers us the opportunity of a turning point from which we can elevate our lives, if we so desire.

So… how do we make the most of a crisis when presented with one in our lives? 

The first step is to accept the new reality. This does not mean burying your feelings about it or moving on as though nothing has happened. It just means that after you have allowed some time for the new reality to hit home, don’t fight it. Something  has changed. Something has happened. Something is different. It will never happen the way you wanted it to happen, no matter how sad or angry you get. 

Once you have accepted that you can’t have things the way you wanted them, you must determine what you now want instead. Here is where it can get tricky. If we are holding onto anger, this decision will not be a good one. In order to make a solid choice about our new future, we must listen to our hearts, not our ego. That is not as easy as it sounds, in our society, which teaches us that there are some things that simply “should” not happen and that some things are clearly unforgivable. 

However, if we look at our challenges from the perspective of discovering the gifts brought to us by the crisis, any life experience can be well digested, and even the “unforgivable” can be forgiven. You may need to seek help in learning how you can make a more loving choice for your life given your current circumstances. It may take more time than you might like, but you can do it. You can find the power in the disappointments in life and use them to fuel the building of a more appropriate future for yourself. 

Never ask why this is happening “to” you. Instead, look for the gift inside of the challenge or crisis and see that your life is happening “for” you. It is true, that along with crises comes endings, but with every ending comes a new beginning. You can take the ingredients of a crisis, or a traumatic life event, and renew yourself, your life, or your relationship into something more beautiful than you could have previously imagined. While perhaps not exactly what we had expected in life, a beautiful life is a beautiful life… and that is the best gift of all.