The Problem With Always Being “The Strong One”

On Wednesday, I taught the wrong lesson to my 6th grade classes. And then on Thursday, I somehow lost the lesson I had previously prepared for my 8th grade classes. Friday was blessedly uneventful and then on Saturday, I walked into my yoga studio without any of my yoga gear.

None of this is like me. I’m always the Type A, super-planned and over-prepared type of person. My yoga bag, that I’ve never forgotten before, has two of everything. You know, just in case.  I’m the one that acted as a reminder and an alarm clock for friends and family before phones evolved to provide those services. My brain usually attends to details and dates without a problem. Both professionally and personally, I’m seen as the dependable, responsible and has-her-stuff together one.

But right now, that’s not the case.

Luckily, I’m not having trouble because of anything bad. I’m just struggling to handle too much. Yet in some ways, the results are similar. I’m having a hard time and, because I’m typecast as “the strong one,” I don’t always feel like I’m allowed to have a hard time.

I see this dynamic so often in single parents as they appear to balance it all during the day, only to collapse in tears behind the privacy of the closed bedroom door at night. They have no choice but to be strong – to keep it together for their children, even as they feel like they’re falling apart.

On the one hand, it feels good to be deemed strong, it means you’re independent, determined and resourceful. On the other hand, the moniker often brings with it an additional burden.

Because when you’re always the “strong one,”

You don’t feel like you’re allowed to break down.

When you’re always told that you’re strong or that you have it together, you don’t feel like you’re given permission to be any other way. You may be  told that you put this pressure on yourself, but the labels also promote this pressure. The expectations are there, you can uphold them or dash them.

You help others even when you need help.

When you’re the strong one, others depend upon you. Your own hardships get sublimated or postponed in your efforts to support others. Sometimes, this can be a blessing, because you’re not able to wallow when you’re busy lending a helping hand. Yet other times, you push yourself to exhaustion because you don’t give yourself permission to take a break.

You feel like you have to maintain the image.

When you’re the strong one, others look to you to learn how to push through. And you don’t want to let them down. Once you’ve assumed that role, it’s hard to take a break from its demands. And if you’re modeling fortitude for your children, it’s even harder to admit that sometimes you simply can’t do it.

People minimize your struggles.

“Oh, you’ve got this,” your friend breezily says as you try to confide your growing panic. When others perceive you as indomitable, they have a hard time believing that you are really fighting to keep it together. Your complaints are brushed aside or excused with a pat response, leaving you feeling like you have to do this alone.

You don’t know how to ask for help. 

You’re not accustomed to asking for help, so you ask quietly, or obtusely. Since you’re the one others turn to, you don’t know where to go now that you need support. You know that it’s okay to ask for help, but you still grapple with truly believing it.

 

All of us have time when we are the strong ones and time when we need to rely on the strengths of others. There is no need to be typecast in one role or the other, we can all move fluidly between the two positions.

One of the gifts I received from my divorce was the shattering of my lifelong “strong one” title and the need to learn to accept help. Even in my weakened state, I learned that people didn’t think less of me because I couldn’t do it all. In fact, I think, if anything, my increased vulnerability made me even closer with others.

Because all of us have times of strength and times of need.

It’s okay to embrace your role as the strong one.

And it’s also okay to let it go.

 

 

 

 

 

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Why the Hard Work After a Breakup Is Worth It

“It’s not fair,” I remember thinking. He’s the one that had the affair, led a secret life and committed crimes and yet I was left having to manage the recovery from his actions. Part of me railed against putting in the emotional work to right myself again. After all, if he made the mess, shouldn’t he have to clean it up?

In the beginning, I did place the responsibility in his lap (and in the hands of the courts). I was convinced that I needed an apology. I was certain that I needed him to hear my victim impact statement. I was determined that I needed for him to return the swindled funds in order for me to move on.

Yet those things never happened. And so I could wait. Or I could try to navigate the road back to “okay” again on my own.

I chose the latter.

At times, I was angry when it seemed as though he was escaping consequence as easily as a cat navigates through a fence. I felt despair when the reality of where I was mentally  crashed rudely into my reality and getting better seemed like more mirage than realistic goal. I became frustrated when certain strategies or passed milestones failed to bring immediate relief, worried that my efforts were being wasted. And throughout, I was exhausted. Emotional work may not break a sweat, but it sure feels harder than any workout at the gym.

But then, as I kept slogging through the emotional wasteland, some strange things started to happen. Because although the work may be hard, the efforts are worth it.

 

Opportunities to Heal Earlier Traumas

While I wrestled with the pain and consequences of abandonment, the early childhood pain of my parent’s divorce and my dad’s subsequent move across the country resurfaced. I had long ago buried this sense of abandonment, convinced that it wasn’t worth the attention. Yet when my ex-husband left, I became acutely aware at how strong of a presence this fear was in my life.

The pros call it “trauma reenactment.” Others refer to it as baggage. No matter its label, the stuff that has happened to us tends to stay with us unless we do the work of processing it – absorbing the lessons and dispelling the waste. We often fail to do this work because it’s not fun and we can usually convince ourselves that it’s not necessary.

A breakup will often trigger earlier trauma that has not been resolved. It’s a spotlight on your past, pointing out areas that need attention. And if you do the work to resolve those early pains, it will help you find and create better relationships going forward.

 

Acceptance of Personal Power

I felt powerless after my marriage ended. I had no say in (or even knowledge of) of its eminent demise. I felt like I had few choices in how I handled the immediate aftermath and my basic needs. And no matter how much I tried, I couldn’t make him talk to me, much less offer an explanation or apology.

I started small. I pledged to finish an entire waffle for dinner. Or to walk twice a week. I accepted the offer of medications to calm the body and allow it to rest.

Then, I began to cook instead of just eat. My walks turned into runs, which led to crossing a finish line of a half marathon. The medications allowed me to experiment with other ways to calm my body, leading me to solid yoga and meditation practices.

Maybe I didn’t have a say in my marriage or my divorce, but I realized just how much of a say I still had in my life.

When you undertake the emotional work of recovering from a breakup, you’re learning to identify those things you can control. And even though your agency is limited to your sphere, it’s amazing how much of a difference just changing your attitude and perspective can make.

 

An Opening to Build Authentic Confidence

Breakups have a way of destroying our self-confidence. We feel rejected. Unloved. Unwanted. Even while smearing our ex’s character, we silently question if we are somehow broken and not worth loving.

Emotional recovery is a long and often arduous process, two steps forward followed by a long slide backward. It can difficult to see the progress along the way, because it is often nonlinear and even nonsensical.

Yet at some point, you’ll encounter a memory, or a bit of writing, or a picture that highlights just how far you’ve come. And you’ll shake your head in wonder even as you feel a little sense of pride blossoming within you – “I made it through that. Damn, I’m a badass!”

That newfound confidence, along with the insight and skills you have learned, will serve you well going forward as you approach subsequent life challenges.

 

An Invitation to Overcome Inertia

Okay, so maybe “invitation” isn’t quite the right word. It’s way more like being shoved out of a plane with a tangled parachute and having only part of the instructions for its use.

It certainly is a wake-up call.

In my former life, I had certain elements that I was discontent with and I had allowed myself to become content with that discontent. I rationalized my reasons for avoiding the efforts of change, but really it came down to being more comfortable with the status quo than uncomfortable with my life.

When my ex left, I no longer had the option to remain as I was. My life had been pulled out from under me and I was either going to have to make some changes or crash spectacularly into the ground. Those options certainly make the efforts required to do the emotional work a lot more compelling.

This is a magical moment. A break in the routine. A chance to try something different. You’re not settled, not anchored, not stuck. You can move, you can shift. You can even dance.

 

A Gift

So the wrapping is ugly. And at first glance, the contents seem rotten. Yet inside that mess are the seeds that you can plant and nurture and grow. And once you see the verdant and magnificent results, you realize that all the efforts were worth it.

 

 

 

Feeling Lonely After Divorce?

We all experience those gut-dropping moments when we feel alone after divorce. Mine came one night when I realized that I was going to be late returning “home,” which was a spare bedroom generously offered for the school year by my friend and her husband. Used to being married, I panicked a bit, thinking that somebody would be worried about my whereabouts and welfare.

And then it hit me.

There wasn’t anybody that I needed to report to. There wasn’t somebody who needed to be kept in the loop about important decisions or changes in plan. It was only me.

Well, me and the cat, I guess.

I often see people respond to this natural and inevitable (and temporary!) feeling of loneliness by doing one of two things:

1) Isolating further and retreating into themselves (which only increases feelings of being unloved and unlovable).

or

2) Entering the dating scene too early as a source of attention and distraction (which only increases the feelings of being unseen and disposable).

How about trying these strategies instead?