Rev. Kate J Meyer, LPC
It's been a long time since my last blog. It wasn't an intentional break so much as the result of sticking with Mental Health Mondays with Kate and preparing Faith Doesn't Erase Grief for publication. Those two things plus my day job and trying to maintain relationships and, well, it just wasn't a front-burner item for me. Beyond that, though, I didn't have anything I wanted to write about.
Until the last month.
March was 'Women's History Month' and during that month I heard repeatedly the theme of being strong, owning strength, or another variety of the same. I hear similar phrases from grievers. And each time I cringe.
I'll start with the reason for my cringe. The phrase 'be strong' has taken on connotations of meaning that, I believe, are detrimental to mental health. Underlying meanings of this seemingly encouraging phrase include persevere, overcome, just keep going, and don't stop to think about what's happening. People routinely tell me they are working on being stronger while wiping away their tears. Hoping I'm wrong, I clarify asking, 'Stronger?' And I cringe as they respond as I feared the would, 'Yeah. I'm working on getting my tears under control. I need to be stronger for...'
Tell me, when did strength take on this epic definition that leaves no room for tears or exhaustion or wondering? When did those things negate strength instead of coexisting with it, or, better still, defining it?
I don't know exactly when it happened, but that was a bad day.
I want to redefine strength to reflect things that take inordinate amounts of it but aren't recognized as such. Think about it. What if instead of apologizing for tears, people felt free to own them and let them fall? What if instead of pushing through a bad day, people felt free to say, 'Today sucks! (sorry, Mom!) I know all days aren't going to be like this, but I really hate (sorry, again, Mom!) today!', and then go on about their day?
Take it to the next level. Strength ends up facilitating even more competition, which, let's be real, we really just do not need. What if strength was equivalent to a person naming where they shine and where they don't. What if people knew their limitations and spoke them, so that others could jump in to fill in with their own strengths, allowing another to offset their limitations, and on and on and on.
Think about this the next time you tell someone how strong they are. What is your motivation and what are you applauding? More often than not, when someone is told "I don't know how you're being so strong through this", what would be more beneficial to them would be something like, "Have you had any time to react to this? I want to give you space to cry, scream, or just zone out. Refuel." Too often when we tell someone how strong they are we are applauding their ability to persevere through a difficult experience with "a brave face", but why is that worth applauding? What might it mean if instead people were given genuine permission to speak honestly, to ask for help, to receive concrete offers of help rather than meaningless appraisals of supposed triumph?
I tell my clients at every opportunity that it takes more strength to cry, it takes more strength to be honest with themselves and others about a situation, then to hold it all and and put on the brave face. As we talk it through, I can feel them relax. What if more people had that?
What if you were the one to give it to them?