“You’re so strong!”
“You’re so resilient!”
Have you ever been the recipient of these tidings? Or been the one who utters them?
“No one else could deal with what you’ve been through!”
In so many ways, to tell someone they’re strong is one of the highest compliments we can give –
“Hey you – congratulations on navigating– people
[this often crappy] life so well!”
It’s a symbol of recognition and admiration – you’ve come out and through the other side of something challenging and difficult to navigate. So we celebrate and see you for that achievement. It’s a compliment unhindered by age, gender, class, race – an aspect of humanity that we champion and commend.
But the thing is – as much as the compliment is so lovingly uttered – and in most cases – lovingly received, the ‘silence’ of this statement – and the reason why we give the compliment in the first place – is because someone’s life has been awful. There has been a significant, long term, debilitating challenge that they have had to be strong for – and for many people, it is multiple somethings.
So sometimes – as much as the statement is meant to be heard at its best as “I love you! I see you in this moment!” – what I have heard is “Look how crap your life is – and well done on being strong despite that” – to which my response is usually “I kinda had to”.
I was chatting to a girlfriend today about this exact thing. She and her husband have navigated significant challenges for their family, many of which us “lucky ones” will never have to contemplate – and they’ve done it with grace and good humour – it has been a sight to see, to be honest. My hat goes off to them. I’ve often told her (or at least I hope I have) how amazing/strong/resilient she is.
But does she actually need to hear that so often? Is it helpful?
I myself have been through a number of significant traumas in my life and people have told me many times at how strong I am. I love them for it in so many ways – I do feel seen. And there is a fair amount of pride in me that I can and do show resilience in the face of trial.
But if I’m brutally honest, friends –
I’d prefer not to be.
I’d like it if I didn’t need to be strong.
I’d like it if the muscles of resilience and ‘coping’ weren’t so exercised.
It’s pretty tiring, hey.
It can make you be cynical about things to come when you expect to have to cope with “what’s next”,
it can make you unreasonably triggered in situations/emotions/contexts that feel similar- or adjacent – to situations you’ve experienced,
and the ‘strength’ can also come with a side of anger, trauma, scars, distrust, anxiety, depression, jealousy and exhaustion (just to name a few).
I’d much prefer my life to be awesome and struggle-free.
Obviously good counselling, therapy, medical care and healthy relationships all have a vital place for those of us who have been through ‘stuff’, and I am of course grateful for the lessons i’ve learned about myself along the way – mostly I’m grateful for the solidarity I can offer when people are stuck in the mire.
But again – if I could trade those character lessons and not have to have lost what I have? – not even a thought.
I would exchange it in a heartbeat. Happy to return the goods to sender.
I would rather not have to be so resilient.
The loss of what was, the grief of what could have been: it’s a long term, heavy price to pay for that bit of character development.
This is an exercise in honesty rather than criticism – I hope I’m not coming across as hypersensitive or censorious –
But I wanted to offer the solidarity for those in the mire – or those who remember the mire like it was yesterday – perhaps the option to not only feel complemented that you’re strong – but instead the freedom to also recognise the grief and trauma that leaves it mark.
The two things can be true at once.
So Friends – if this is you –
I’m sorry that you’ve had to be strong.
I’m sorry that your resilience was so hard fought.
I’m sorry that your wisdom came at such a high price.
I’m sorry that you didn’t have a choice in the matter.
and finally – It’s ok if you don’t feel strong sometimes.
We can be grateful for the lessons but also sad that they were so hard to learn.
Perhaps the gift we can give ourselves and each other is to permission – and practice – space for both sides of the story to exist.