I had just asked a client how she was doing after learning she’d recently filed for divorce. “I’m fine,” she said tightly. “It’s hard but I’m doing… fine.”
“Really?” I said. “Next to losing a loved one or a child you’ve just gone through one of the most traumatic things a person can experience. You’re going to tell me you’re fine?”
Her breath quickened on the phone. I had touched something deep she was desperate to avoid. I’d shone a light right into that dark place.
Slowly she said, “I know. I don’t know why I think I have to be strong all the time.”
And this is what we capable, self-possessed women who get it done DO. We hold it together, stay strong and power through because we believe there’s no alternative. We think if we crack, everything else will too.
“It’s hard,” I said to my client, “to let go of being strong all the time when we believe there’s no other option. So tell me, what does being strong look like to you?”
Without hesitation she rattled off her “being strong” list:
- Rarely crying and if it happens it is done alone in the car or in the bathroom.
- Handling shit without getting “emotional.”
- Knowing the right way to be and the right path to take.
- Answering “good” to the question, “How are you?” no matter how you really feel.
- Staying positive and being grateful at all times.
- Never burdening others with your problems.
I then asked her, “What does it mean if you aren’t strong all the time?”
Again, another telling list:
- If she’s not strong people will know she’s not perfect.
- If she doesn’t hold it together she will be judged as being “crazy.”
- Strong women suck it up and move on.
- Tears means she’s lost control, which means she’s erratic and untrustworthy.
- If she starts crying she may never stop.
- If she can’t hold it all together, she’s a mess and can’t provide.
It’s amazing the emotional binds we get ourselves into with our definitions of strength, isn’t it? In fact, it’s impossible to not feel like a failure when our definitions of strength are ones where we can’t cry, can’t fall apart and can’t share what’s really going on.
The truth is we are humans programmed for emotional connection. We are meant to feel, cry and share with those closest to us and yet our definition of strength keeps us walled off from the connection we need for survival.
To live any kind of authentic, happy, solid life we must redefine strength.
What if strength was being honest rather than keeping a stiff upper lip?
What if strength was validating our feelings rather than steeling ourselves against our emotions?
What if strength was letting people in rather than hitting them with, “No really, it’s fine”?
Strength is being human and allowing the emotional waves to come, to wash over us and, tenderly, to get back up again. Strength is not being an icy superwoman who never falters.
Strength is doing what’s hard and, as we each know, little is harder than being honest and vulnerable after decades of painting a saccharine smile on your face and saying, “No really, everything’s great.”
In the next few weeks, consider your definition of strength. How does your current definition make you feel? Has your definition of strength kept you from feeling connected and supported?
What might it be like to shift your definition of strength?
These are huge questions so be gentle with what comes up.
We are brilliant women forging new economic, social and spiritual paths and we need a definition of strength that fully supports this unique journey rather than one we’ve adopted from the patriarchal generations before.
So tell me, what’s your new definition of strength?