Why You Don't Have to be Strong
For almost the entirety of my adult life I considered myself to be a free spirit. I got a kick out of flitting from place to place, hobby to hobby, toxic relationship to toxic relationship all "Scarlet Begonias" style. After getting a taste of the world and studying abroad in the fall of my junior year in college, I prided myself on never being in one place for very long and I found a career that fed that lifestyle: always on the go, always almost leaving, never forming roots. I became wildly independent, caught a high from the urgency of spending limited time in any one place, and was extremely antsy if I went 6 weeks without stepping foot on an airplane.
Until recently I realized that I am not a free spirit— the image in my head of myself frolicking through a field of wildflowers with my curls flying in the wind beneath a flower crown completely shattered.
I was never free... I was a professional runner.
I was unable to face myself and my pain. If I ever got hurt, it was easy to be "strong" and move on because I was literally constantly moving. Brokenhearted, I would throw on my highest pair of heels and haul my 2 50-lb suitcases through the airport on my way to a better, less painful place.
This realization completely rocked my world. I started seeing my "flight" mechanism in every area of my life. I abruptly end difficult conversations so that I don't have to have them. I completely shut down and get stoic if someone offends me or angers me. I jam-pack my calendar with every work or social event under the sun in order to not have to be by myself and actually think about my life. And the more I started noticing this in myself, the more I noticed it in others as well.
The truth is, I think it is an affliction in society that we do not know how to hold space for ourselves and our feelings. When things cut us deeply we turn to alcohol, binge eating, nightly hits of the bong, working 18-hour days, or planning frequent trips to have something to look forward to and numb out the pain. We don't want to deal with the way that we feel because we are afraid of being dragged down into that dark place; we are afraid that we won't be able to pull ourselves back out. So instead we take those feelings, put them in a box, and swallow the key. We put on our big kid knickers and move on. Suck it up, buttercup. Time will heal all wounds. You are stronger than anything that happens to you. Blah, blah, blippity blah.
The problem is, almost inevitably, somewhere down the line something will trigger that pain again and the box explodes open, unleashing those same feelings but compounded by 10.
So how do we break the cycle? It is a constantly evolving process for me, but here are the best strategies that I have found:
1) Acknowledge the feeling without judgement. Have you ever said to a friend, "This is going to sound so stupid but I feel..." or "I know this is completely ridiculous, but..." or some variation of that? If you have (and I am pretty sure everyone has), you are judging your feelings or experience. One of the major keys to processing emotion is acknowledging that it exists, not trying to cover it up or swallow it down right away, and not judging the hell out of ourselves for feeling that way. Your emotions do not make you ridiculous, stupid, pathetic, crazy, weak, or anything else. They are simply your emotions. The only thing that they make you is human. It is your CHOICE to impose any other judgement onto them, but that judgement is only an interpretation. It is not real.
2) Allow yourself to be with that emotion and ask someone to hold space for you. This step is so key, but it is going to be the hardest one. Often we isolate ourselves when we are going through hard times because we do not want to show anything other than a picture-perfect, buttoned-up version of ourselves to the world. We are afraid to be vulnerable because we are worried about what others will think of us. We think that others won't be able to understand, or that they will confirm the judgement that we have already made of ourselves. But guess what? Your pain is not unique. (Ok, hear me out before you start furiously typing hate mail.) I am not devaluing your pain or your uniqueness as a person; you are a beautifully one-of-a-kind individual. But what you are going through is not new in the world. You may think that your situation is "complicated" or "different" and that may be the case, but the emotional struggles that your situation boils down to are the same ones that bajillions of humans have been grappling with over thousands of years. Other people CAN relate to you, I promise. And other people tend to appreciate it when we open up to them because it deepens the relationship and validates their own feelings. But even if you cannot find someone in your same situation, another person can hold the space for you to be supported and loved while you are being authentic about the way that you feel. Find a friend, family member— or even a coach if you don't want to go to someone from your familiar circle— and get real. Talk it through. Or not. Just cry. Or not. Vent. Or not. Do what it is that feels right to you in order to be with that emotion.
) Forgive. There is no peace without forgiveness. No seriously, there is no way around this one. No matter how much work you do on yourself, no matter how much time that passes, your wound will not heal until you forgive. It may not be another person that you need to forgive... maybe it is yourself. Maybe it is God. Maybe it is a circumstance. But imagine that ou are one of those cartoon characters lugging a 10-pound ball and chain around your ankle... that ball and chain is your resentment, your anger, your hurt feelings. Now can you imagine the FREEDOM in being able to take the chain off? How light and agile you must feel? The POSSIBILITY that opens for your life? Forgiveness is NOT about letting someone off the hook, it is about setting yourself free. Once you understand that, the whole world opens up to you.
3) Exhaust it. The best way that I have found to move on from a feeling is to completely and utterly exhaust it. Go round and round and round with it like a dog with a bone until it collapses on the floor and gives you some peace. This process looks TOTALLY different from person to person. If you are a musician, play through your feelings on an instrument. If you are an athlete, take a nice long run to do nothing but be present with that feeling and pound it out on the pavement. If you are an artist, draw or create a likeness of your emotion. If you are a poet, fill an entire journal with lyrical interpretations of your feeling. As I writer, I like to just put it all out there on paper. Let yourself feel that shit until you literally cannot feel another feeling. Then sleep it off.
You don't need to just be "strong" and move on in the traditional sense when something knocks you down. To me, a "strong" person confronts the uncomfortable and takes responsibility for it. You may think that you don't have the luxury of taking the time to do this, but keep in mind that when that box explodes, it is going to take so much more out of you and will effect not only you, but everyone around you as well. Embrace those feelings that make you human and remember that sunny days are so much sweeter when we have battled through the storms.