“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.

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