It was one of those low energy nights and my husband and I were cozied up to watch a movie. Neither one of us were up for anything demanding, so I found a B rated romance that fit the bill. It was called, “Listen to Your Heart.” Danny, a young waiter and aspiring musician, falls in love with Sam, a deaf girl from a wealthy family who has an overly controlling mother (played by Cybill Shepherd).
Sam, the young girl, wants to please her mom, on whom she is very dependent, but she also wants to spread her wings and live her life. Being a musician, and having been the daughter of a woman I never learned how to please, I liked the story line, even if the music was mediocre and the acting was less than inspiring.
As in all relationships, they had their hurdles, but Sam and Danny’s real challenge came about when Sam’s mother learned of their romance. Her mother had built her entire life around her daughter being helpless and dependent on her and she was afraid to let Sam grow into the independent woman she was becoming. Upon learning of the mother’s interference, Danny declared, “I am not going to miss out on something that could be wonderful just because it might also be difficult.”
The movie goes on to tell their love story, complete with all of the many challenges that came with it. I won’t give away the ending, in case you want to watch it (which I don’t necessarily recommend) but it was a sweet, if sad, story—and just about the right speed for us that night.
Since then, I have kept hearing that phrase repeating over and over in my head; “I am not going to miss out on something that could be wonderful just because it might also be difficult.”
My husband and I both felt this way as we had some big challenges to work through during our courtship and just before our marriage. There were times that I thought the pain would be the end of me, but never did I waiver in knowing that this was where I wanted to be… that this was the the love of my life and worth fighting for with every fiber of my being.
As it turned out, the “difficult” ended up deepening our relationship beyond anything we could ever have imagined. The thing is, neither of us could have weathered those challenges had we not already faced even bigger ones before we ever met, because it takes some substantial skills to navigate through such difficult waters. Thankfully, we had both spent a lot of time and energy learning them as we walked, and sometimes crawled, along the “Road to Wonderful.”
As I watched the movie, and kept hearing that phrase run through my head, I found myself feeling sorry for the people who have not risked all for the “wonderful” in their life. At first, I was thinking of those who play it safe in love, playing games and hiding behind their masks and pretenses, disguising themselves from themselves—much less from their potential partners. Knowing what I do now, just how wonderful the “wonderful” can be—when there are no walls up between two people who love each other— I truly want it for everyone.
However, that is not why I am writing this. It dawned on me that this phrase is even more important when describing the barriers to the potential joy one can find within themselves. I have, for the last 5 years or so, been in the business of helping people become their highest and best selves. I help people work through their painful memories, overcome their fears, and find their passion, joy and wonder. I help them develop a more positive relationship with their bodies and with the food they eat. I teach them how to better understand themselves, identify and communicate their feelings in a way that may feel completely foreign to them, but allows them to connect with people in a much more meaningful way. It is hard work and a lot of people are simply afraid to do it.
As I heard these words stuck on repeat in my head, I found myself feeling sad. How many people are missing out on the “wonderful” life has to offer (a better relationship with themselves, and therefore, with the rest of the world) just because it is difficult? So I have to ask you…
Do you really want to miss out on something that could be really wonderful just because it may also be difficult?
This blog post is for those of you who are missing out on the “wonderful” in life. If there were challenges in relationship with a significant other, wouldn’t you fight to make things right? Wouldn’t you work to help them understand that you loved them and wanted them in your life? Wouldn’t you do everything you could to help them understand and trust your commitment to them? If they were weighed down with fears or indecision, wouldn’t you do everything in your power to help guide them to a place of calm and clarity? If they were going through a time of stress or self doubt, wouldn’t you be there to lift them up, to champion their cause, to inspire them to be their best? I bet you would…
If they had an overly controlling mother afraid to see you change, and doing her level best to keep you apart, wouldn’t you do everything in your power to get her out of the way so you could be together? I bet you would.
So, the question is… will you do this for yourself?
Whether we want to admit it or not, our primary relationship is with ourselves. Everyone has parts that were hurt earlier in life. Some of these parts feel scared and insecure. Some feel lost and lonely, and some just feel like giving up. As if that was not enough to deal with, everyone also has a part that just wants to keep the status quo, not rock the boat and keep on living a life that is devoid of joy and often full of pain.
You may think that you are just lazy…that you just don’t have the energy to put toward your personal development… but it is not laziness. It is fear. That part, the part that wants to keep the status quo…that is the overly controlling mother. She does not want to see you thriving and leading an independent life. She is afraid to see you healed and whole. She is invested in you remaining separated from your best and highest self.
So the question is… do you think you are worth fighting for?
In the movie, Sam and Danny had to overcome not just physical and emotional challenges, they also had to wrestle out of the stranglehold of the mother. They could not find their bliss alone or together without doing all of this. Neither can we find the bliss within ourselves without facing and overcoming our injured parts and obliterating the part of us that wants to keep the status quo. The status quo has got to go.
I can say without a doubt, “I am not gong to miss out on something that could be wonderful just because it might also be difficult.” With all of my heart, I wish the same for you.
I have always wondered what you were thinking that night, in your apartment, when I went there for support after my car had hydroplaned in the rain, jumped the median and ended up landing head on into oncoming traffic.
Miraculously, all of the traffic managed to stop, and neither I nor my car were touched. But my nerves were fried and adrenaline was rushing through me like a river during a hundred year flood.
You lived on the way home to my place, just down the street and across the way. It was a last minute thought I had, to stop and knock on your door, a decision I have regretted almost ever since I made it. I was rattled and anxious and I didn’t want to go home and be alone. I had been to your place before, with our friends from our acting class, so I thought it was OK to drop in. I needed a friend and I was under the impression that you were one of those…
I still remember your surprise, when you opened the door and I was standing there. You flashed that big, white, Hollywood smile, like you had just won an unexpected prize. I explained to you what had happened and you invited me in.
“Sit down,” you said, as you gestured to the sofa.
Grateful for the company and the friendly ear, I sat and elaborated on the details of my hair-raising automobile mishap-turned-miracle, just trying to collect myself and process them, so I could turn the page.
It was not long before you were kissing me. I was confused. I was in no state to be making out with anyone, much less someone who I was not even dating. Did you think I had come over to have sex with you?
In case you did, I told you very clearly that I did not.
You smiled and laughed and said not to worry… that you had no intention of having sex with me.
And then, you pulled my shirt off, and pushed me onto the floor, constraining me between the oversized sofa and the coffee table.
Before I knew what was happening, you had your pants down and you were straddling my chest… all 6’3, 220 pounds of you…your genitals headed right for me…
Maybe, since I did not scream, you thought that I was into it?
I wasn’t. I was already in shock when I walked through the door, and you had just magnified it times 1000.
Even if I had not been in shock, how could I have screamed when I was struggling just to breathe under your weight?
You rubbed yourself on my chest, while I looked up at you in horror, just telling myself that it would be over soon enough and I could go home.
When you were finished, you got up and sat back down on the sofa, leaving me there on the floor, covered in your mess.
I honestly don’t remember what happened next. I may have left right away, or I may have tried to save some semblance of my pride by staying for a while and acting “cool,” as if what had just taken place was perfectly normal.
And, in a way, it was, for me. You see, what you did not know was that you were not the first one to sexually assault me. Neither were you the last. But you were the first who treated me this way as an adult. I had hoped that I had left all of that behind in my childhood, but when you forced yourself on me, something in me died. My hopes for a future without sexual violence were gone. My confidence was undermined on every level. I believed that there was no escaping being abused by men. You were just one more man who could not keep his hands to himself or his genitals in his pants, and for some bizarre reason, thought that my body was where they belonged.
I must have had an invisible (to me) sign on my head that said “I am vulnerable to attack. Go ahead and take advantage of me,” because it was only a few days later that another guy in our acting class (S.J.M) full on raped me while we were working on our lines. I tried to bury my pain and keep going to school, but it was just too much acting for me… to have to be in the room with, sit next to and work with both of you and act as if nothing had happened.
In case you did not put two and two together, this is why I disappeared from class shortly after you assaulted me. Maybe you wondered where I went and why… or maybe you secretly knew that it had to do with what you had done to me. Or, maybe you never gave me another thought, because you thought it was no big deal.
Let me tell you though, it was a Big Deal. I know I am a talented actress. However, thanks to you, S.J.M., and the collective damage you did to me, I am the only one who will ever know that. Because I withdrew from acting school, my parents lost faith in me, labeled me as a flake and refused to pay for any further educational pursuits I had. I could not tell them the truth about what had happened.
You see, everything was more difficult after those assaults…. Waking up, going to school, holding a job, eating, feeling safe, believing that I could succeed at anything, sleeping, having a relationship, of any kind…it was all peppered with pain.
It has been 30 years now since this took place. Every now and then, I look you and the other guy up to see what you are up to. I think maybe I am hoping to see your mug shot, or news that some horrible tragedy has befallen one or both of you. Instead, I see that you seem to be living a pretty good life. You are married to an attractive woman and run a successful business in Central Arkansas. You are active among several charities and like to play golf and volunteer. You have a lot of dogs, and you are still offering up that flashy Hollywood smile.
The other guy is a softball coach for a small college in Southern California. He was married a few years ago, but I am not sure if he still is.
You might be wondering why, after 30 years, I would want to bring this up again? Well, lots of reasons. For starters, I want you to understand that actions like yours have a lasting impact on the lives of those who survive them. Maybe you thought it was just about getting off, but if you understood at what cost your little power trip of momentary pleasure came about, then perhaps you would have thought twice about doing it… or, at least I would like to think so. Because for you, it was a one night event. For you, it ended when you sat back on the sofa. But for me… well, it became woven into the very fabric of my life, devastating my ability to trust even the people I thought were my friends.
As I recall, you and S.J.M. were not very close, but something you both have in common (besides having both once-upon-a-time studied acting and assaulted me) is that you both have a daughter. That’s right. A daughter. Have you thought about what the future holds for her? Would you like to know that there are men out there who might do to her what you did to me? Would you be OK, with that? Would you think it was no big deal if it happened to her?
I don’t think so. I think you would want to keep her safe, like the good father you probably are. You might even want to kill a man if he treated her the way you treated me.
But you did not want to keep me safe that night. You did not offer me the friendship I was seeking. To you, it may have just been another notch on your belt, but that night changed the course of my life.
I wish I could get back the hours I spent dealing with the pain that you caused me. I wish I could get back the chance at a career that became too painful for me to pursue (not to mention the money I had to pay even though I stopped attending school). I wish I could get back all of the sleepless nights. But those things, and a long list of other things, are gone. Forever.
I have worked really hard to build my life into what it is now. As a result, it is a pretty great life. I have learned a ton about loving myself, forgiveness, compassion and living in the present moment. I have had to learn how to forgive you, and S.J.M, even though neither of you have ever apologized. I did that for myself, by the way, not for you. Otherwise, I would be giving you too much of my energy, and I have already done enough of that. I can’t make you apologize to me, so instead, I put my attention toward things over which I have some control. Perhaps one of the most valuable things to come out of the pain you caused me is that I have helped a lot of other women learn to process their pain and move past their assaults. I would not have had the tools to do this, had I not had to learn them first hand.
The thing is, I would rather not have to do that. I think it would be a much better thing if men just stopped assaulting women and started respecting them as their equals.
I am curious…are you doing this now, in your business leader, charity-ball-going, family-man life you are living? Maybe you are, and maybe you aren’t. Your wife calls you her “perfect husband” on her Facebook page. It seems a stretch to me, but evidently she is happy with you. I wonder if she knows what you did to me, and maybe to other women as well?
I have no way of knowing if you will ever read this. If you do, I am sure you will recognize yourself, and you now have a small glimpse into the chaos that became my life after you forced yourself on me. And if you don’t… well, now the rest of the world does. Maybe some other guy who has forced themselves onto a woman will find her and apologize. Or maybe another man still will read this and think twice about conducting himself in this way. And if this letter can stop even one man from forcing himself onto someone else, even one time, it will have been well worth sharing.
If you want to reach out to me and apologize, that would be OK with me. I would welcome a sincere gesture of atonement. But if you are even thinking of denying what you did to me that night, well, you can just keep that to yourself. You can keep on with your perfect little life built around a lie and God will handle you when your time comes.
My wishes for you (and S.J.M) are health, happiness and an unburdened heart…and for your daughter (and everyone’s daughter) to be treated with respect and have their bodily and sexual integrity honored by all of their fellow humans, all of the time. It’s a big dream, I know… but we can try.
Your Former Classmate at K.D. Studio (now K.D. Conservatory), Class of ‘88
When I was in my early 20s, my boyfriend at the time to me told me something that was very hard to hear:
“You don’t have any true friends.”
I was dumfounded. I had a number of people I considered to be dear friends and I could not believe that he would dare to suggest otherwise.
“Of course I do!”, I argued, pointing out the people in my life who I knew would be there for me in times of need. These were the people I called “My 4:00 a.m. people.” I knew that I could call them at any hour of the day or night and they would be happy to talk with me or come and help me if I needed help.
“Oh, I won’t argue that you have people in your life… People who enjoy your company and find you interesting… but people who find you fascinating are not your friends. Friends are the people who can call you out on your faults. They are the ones who can tell you how they feel about how you treat them, or how your choices are what keep messing up your life. You don’t have any friends. All of the people you call ‘friends’ know that you don’t want to hear any of that. You might as well have a sign on your forehead saying “Do not be honest with me about my shortcomings.”
His words stung. I knew he was right. I hated, it, but he was absolutely correct.
I had no idea how I had broadcasted that message to the people in my life, but I knew that somehow, I had.
I began to look for ways that I communicated “Do not be honest with me about my shortcomings,” to the people in my life.
It was hard work.
For a long time, years actually, I was stymied.
I eventually figured out that in order to be open to input from others, I had to be really honest with myself. The truth was, I was afraid of feeling the scary feelings that I had buried deep inside of me. I was afraid if others offered up criticism to me, constructive or otherwise, that I was not strong enough to take it. Inside, I felt like I might just crumble and all of the sadness I had been holding onto might come pouring out and never stop. So the only option that I could see was to wall off my heart in a mighty fortress.
After years of looking, I finally discovered that I had a set of tools to keep conversations under my control.
I used my intelligence and intensity not just as a means to draw people in, but also to keep people at arms length. I had discovered that people were thrown off balance if I brought a lot of energy and intensity to the table. At first they were intrigued, but after a while, they found it to be draining. I could say or do things that I knew they would not address, because they knew I would be able to justify my behavior, present my point of view convincingly, or at the very least, outlast them in the argument.
I had an offbeat sense of humor that was a mix of cynicism, sarcasm and judgment. No one wanted to be on the receiving end of it…Because it really was not funny.
I was defensive. I kept score and held a grudge like a pro. I blamed everyone else for my dissatisfaction in life and could hardly believe that others did not see situations as I saw them.
I was impatient. I expected others to be like me and gave them little respect for the choices they made.
In a few areas of life, I held myself to a very high standard and made sure everyone knew about it. Instead of being inspired by my choices, they were intimidated and often made poorer choices than they would have made before I spoke up on the subject.
The list went on and on…
…but my life is much better now.
It took a lot of effort to tear down my wall. The sadness I had locked away has all been processed now, and I no longer have any need for a fortress around my heart. I have learned to welcome other people’s input. I get excited to hear how someone thinks my life might be improved. I may or may not take action on what they say, but I really am open to hearing it.
It was no wonder that my then-boyfriend and I spent most of our time arguing, and eventually broke up. I was not open to his input at all. I know that we are all born worthy of love, but I did not make it easy for him to love me. Decades later, I still remember that conversation, but it no longer stings my heart. I spent those decades determined to learn how to have “true friends,” even if I did not feel safe enough having him as one of them.
The beautiful thing is, in learning how to have a true friend, I have learned how be a true friend, and how to become vulnerable to others and myself. …and that was worth every painful inquiry into my once-upon-a-time troubled heart.
I think about love lot. I mean, it makes the world go ‘round, right? They say it even makes a person “glow.”
I think about how my life has changed as a result of my desire to manifest love in my life. I think about the things I have tried along the way and what worked…and what didn’t. I think about my friends who want to love and be loved but who say there is just no one out there for them. I think about those who are just going through the motions in life, not even knowing that love is missing, much less that it can be theirs. I think about how beautiful love is now that I know it and how grateful I am for having it. Because it was not always mine to know and have.
I grew up in what they called a broken home. My father was gone before I was 2 years old and my mother was hot on the trail for a new husband well before I was 3. She deserved happiness and I wanted her to find it, but between her work and dating life, there was not much of her left for me.
I had three older siblings, and they looked after me as best they could, but they had their own needs, and not the best judgement when it came to caring for a little girl. Throw a less than healthy dose of sibling rivalry into the mix, and I learned at an early age, that I was pretty much on my own in life. If I wanted something, I had to make it happen, because no one else would be likely to notice I needed it, much less offer it to me.
This was especially true of needs of the emotional variety. My mom was not a warm and fuzzy woman. She was brilliant, vivacious, energetic and accomplished in many ways, but the tools of a rich emotional life were never in her wheelhouse. Even as a very young girl, that was obvious to me.
I remember a practice that I established when I was as young as three and continued until I was almost 6. When she was ready to leave on a date and I had not been held or received any of her attention all day, I would take her by the hand and say to her, “You can’t leave yet. You have to give me my loving time.” Then I would make her sit down and I would crawl up into her lap until I felt satisfied. So, it seems that securing love was high on my list of priorities as a very young child.
However, somewhere along the way, I got tired of chasing after her, and I lost interest in reaching out to my mother. I rarely even saw my father, so I got nothing from him either. By the time I was 8, I had pretty much closed the door on being vulnerable to love. Subconsciously, I suppose I figured it just wasn’t going to happen for me.
Fast forward through many years of emotional neglect, physical, sexual and emotional abuse at the hands of people who claimed to love me, and I was quite war torn and ravaged. By the time I was 30 I was so traumatized that I would not have recognized love if it was staring me in the face. But, being human, I still craved it.
I got married when I was 34 to a man who said he loved me, yet who was quite happy to live with me for 2 years without any discussion of our future together, much less marriage. He did not ask me to marry him until I gave him an ultimatum, and quite a while afterward, at that. Looking back, I can see that that ultimatum was issued by a desperate little girl wanting someone to commit to being present with her, putting her first and loving her.
Of course, making that happen is easier said than done. I did not know that when I got married, but that’s ok. It takes what it takes for us to get where we need to go in life. Hindsight is 20/20, and it was the best that I could do at the time.
Since no one had ever put me first in their life, I did not know what that would even look like. I had very little experience at being on the receiving end of love. I had been around a few healthy couples in my life, but their connection seemed an ineffable mystery to me…like some secret recipe that I would never have the privilege to hold, much less make. Meanwhile, I grew resentful that my husband did not have the emotional resources that would result in the closeness I so desired.
This was my vicious cycle:
- I wanted love and connection but could not articulate that, much less express what that would look like.
- I lived with a man who said he loved me, but was not able to be present in the ways that were important to me.
- I was angry that I did not have the love and connection I desired.
- From my anger, I behaved in ways that were less than loving.
Then, I would find myself back at the beginning of the cycle, trying again to meet that need for love and connection. After a lot of reading and soul searching, I was finally able to communicate what I wanted in the relationship, but it was not to be. We separated after 10 years of marriage and eventually divorced.
I spent over 3 years learning how to identify my emotions, articulate my needs, tune into my body and truly love and care for myself. I also traded the “need to be right” for a sincere curiosity about another person’s experience. Not having had a role model teaching me these vitally important parts of life, I had not had the opportunity to learn them as a child. My emotional development. was probably that of the precocious 8 year old that I once was. Once I learned these skills, I felt a peace that I had never been privileged to hold. I was sure that I had found one of the biggest secrets of the universe!
After over 3 years of devoting myself to this project, I woke up one day and realized that I finally felt safe to love. Because I finally had the tools to know and care for myself, I could trust myself to make better choices. I had become grounded in the love I held for God, myself and my fellow humans, and, rather than believing that the Universe was conspiring against me, I truly believed that the Universe wanted me to find happiness. I learned to think, behave and speak in ways that reenforced, rather than undermined, my devotion to my own health and happiness as well as the importance of the health and happiness of others. I chose my company thoughtfully, building friendships with those who held similar values. I lived and worked in harmony with the power of love, acknowledging it inside of me and around me, instead of believing that I was an outsider to it.
When I began dating again, it was not from the desperate stance I had felt when I was younger. I did not need anyone to complete me. I knew how to be present with myself, put myself first, and give myself my own “loving time.” I felt free to really be myself when I was with someone. It was ok with me if they thought I was weird for asking the scary questions that no one else would ask, or for talking about needs and emotions in such vulnerable detail. If they did not share my values, passions or curiosities, that did not scare me into conforming to theirs. That was just an indication that they were not my man.
I understood that there would be no quality connection if I was out of integrity with my own values, and I certainly would inspire no one by making myself smaller or not speaking my mind (lovingly, of course). Instead of hiding behind the need to be right, a defensive attitude or curling up into a ball of depression, I learned to simultaneously fortify myself and let my guard down through practicing what I call the art of Courageous Vulnerability.
In short, once I had healed my trauma, I learned how to identify my emotions, articulate my needs, listen to and care for my body, express my values, uphold my boundaries and communicate with curiosity and compassion. This allowed me the priceless gift of feeling safe in this life, which, in turn, prepared me for love.
Now, I am married to a man who not only doesn’t think I am weird for discussing these things in depth, but he actually appreciates that I do! This is not to say that there are not times when one of us says or does something that the other finds annoying… just that we address these things, right then, with patience and kind words, in the context of our treasured love. We understand that being present with each other, putting each other first, and making our “loving time” not only a priority, but a vulnerable adventure, is as much of a commitment as it is a joy.
So, this Valentine’s Day, and every day, if you are looking to grow your love, in a new relationship or old, consider the shape of a heart. There has been a lot of speculation about it’s meaning, but I have my own way of looking at it.
Like a circle, it has no beginning and no end. At the same time, it is comprised of two identical sides, which join to form two points, or arrows. One of the arrows points to the inside of the heart. The other arrow points outside of the heart. Without these arrows going in these directions, it is no longer a heart and thus, loses its meaning.
Through learning to love yourself, you can teach someone else how to love you. You will also get great practice at how to love someone else. When you have learned how to give and receive love, the two of you will share one of the most powerful secrets of the universe… and, like the stars in the night sky, twinkling through time and space with the mysteries of their creation, sharing that secret with each other will benefit you and those around you, in ways you cannot even begin to imagine. Oh, yes… and it will probably even make you glow.
“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.