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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Turning Back the Clocks

My social media feeds this morning have been filled with various iterations of the following:

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The meme made me think. If I could turn back the clock to twenty, would I want to?

My immediate (and powerful) reaction was hell, no.

I had a specific image of twenty come to mind. I was in the living room of the apartment that I shared with my now-ex. The generous space was only furnished with a cheap couch from Montgomery Ward and a large, black, hand-me-down trunk that was serving as a television stand. It was shabby and yet I had such pride in the space because it was mine.

It was a Sunday, and so I was home just after 6:00 pm from my job as the manager of a tanning salon. I was grabbing a quick bite to eat before tackling an assignment for one of my classes (which was always frustrating because this professor used an online platform for submission and our dial-up internet often wasn’t up to the task).

While eating, my then-boyfriend came through the door. As always when he returned from his work at Sea World, our pug pressed her nose into every inch of his uniform, inhaling the delicious (to her) smells of sweat, oil and fish. He soon stripped off his uniform and headed to the shower while I headed to the home office to begin my assignment.

We were in limbo that year. His job offered no opportunity for advanced, he found the work un-stimulating and the wages were not sufficient to provide for any real future. He didn’t have much direction, but knew that we would most likely have to leave San Antonio in order for him to secure something better in his field.

Meanwhile, I had already given up on my first degree choice and was weighing options for a second choice while I completed the basic requirements. I hesitated to make any firm decisions, waiting instead to see where his job would take us.

Yes, in some ways life was easier then. Having little in terms of income or possessions meant there was little to lose. I had the certainty only found in the young that my boyfriend would always be by my side. I was drifting, but also not too worried about it because time seemed to stretch out in front of me like an endless Texas highway.

But I still wouldn’t want to go back.

Because I am grateful for every experience I’ve since then, either because I enjoyed it in the moment or because that event imbued me with wisdom and perspective. And even though I would love to have the smooth skin of twenty again or the ability to recover easily from a late night, I would much rather have the more wrinkled and tired version of myself that I am now. Because this is the person that my twenty-year-old self was waiting to find.

How about you? Would you want to turn back the clock? If so, to what age?

Not Suitable For Release

Several days ago, a tiger was spotted near I-75 just outside of Atlanta. I can only imagine the initial reaction of the 911 center when the first call came through early that morning –

“911. What’s your emergency.”

“Uh, yeah. There’s a tiger walking down my street.”

“Did you say a tiger, sir?” the operator responds, trying to maintain professionalism and keeping the incredulousness out of her voice.

“Yes. A tiger.”

Hours later, a woman was alerted to something by the sharp barks of her dog outside in the yard and the sudden illumination of her kitchen from the headlights of the police cars. The timing was serendipitous; just as the great cat snatched the small dog in its jaws, the police fired upon the tiger. The dog was fine. The cat, unfortunately, had to be killed. With the city beginning to stir and children heading to their bus stops soon, it was simply too dangerous to wait for the team with the tranquilizers darts to arrive on scene.

It wasn’t until later that night that the full story came out. The tiger was part of a circus convoy driving to Tennessee. Somehow, it managed to escape the trailer while it was parked overnight and it decided to explore the wilds of central Georgia.

This story made me think about the life of that female tiger. I don’t know if she was born in captivity or captured as a cub, but I do know that she spent years in captivity. In some ways, her life as a kept animal was easier than that in the wild – she never had to face hunger, she didn’t have to work too hard for food and any injuries or illness would be quickly attended to.

And like all animals accustomed to captivity, I’m sure she adapted. Over time, those natural instincts to hunt and wait and fight for food would begin to soften. Her nose, no longer needed for survival, would become lazy. And her ability to endure the hardships would weaken as she grew comfortable in her limited and unchallenging world.

After only a brief period in captivity, many wild animals are deemed, “not suitable for release.” They have become too soft, too complacent to make it out in the real world with its fights and its famines. They no longer know how to hunt. They have forgotten how to interact with the group. They have lost the drive and the grit to survive.

Much the same can happen to us. When we’re held in environments that both constrain us and overly care for us, we can become soft. Forgetful of how to be hungry and fearful of struggle. Like the captive animals, we become accustomed to things being easy and we can flounder when circumstances become more difficult.

There’s a lesson here, one of which I’m always cognizant of in the classroom, when we try to make things too easy, to remove all of the discomfort, we are teaching our children and ourselves to be dependent, not suitable for release. I’ve never been a fan of “no pain, no gain,” but I’m a big believer in the idea that struggle is what makes us strong. There’s a huge span between comfortable and pain. And that’s where the growth happens.

However, all that being said,

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Not Every Day Is a Good Day. Show Up Anyway.

My hairdresser is usually an upbeat and positive woman. Her energy pulls me into the moment and her “bright side” approach helps me forget the fact that I seem to have a little more grey to cover every time.

Yesterday was different. Tears teased the corners of her eyes as she detailed all that had happened to her recently. She was valiantly trying to hold it together, but it was like her emotions were winning at tug-of-war, pulling her over the edge.

Finally, as she applied the last of my color, she wiped the corner of her left eye, picked up a curling iron and exclaimed,

“Damn it. I am going to be beautiful today.” 

And she was. I watched as her hair – and her face – transformed while we waited for my color to set. As each new ringlet was formed, her eyes became a little more determined and her expression became a little more hopeful.


 

It is a fact of life for all of us – bad days will happen.

Some bad days are of the, “I overslept and my car was rear ended on the way to work.” Other bad days fall into the, “I just buried my best friend” category. And in between those, there will be plenty of the, “I’m just not feeling it today” variety.

On those bad days, there is the temptation to crawl back under the covers and wait for the next sunrise to signal a do-over. Our minds feel pulled towards what’s not going right, thinking about it even past the point where thinking is needed. The plummet of our emotions seems as inevitable as a raft in whitewater poised at the top of a waterfall. We yearn to avoid the discomfort and so we try to distract with food, a drink or busyness. And the idea that things can be better is nothing but a distant possibility, so hazy that it seems like the false hope of a mirage.

Not every day is a good day.

Yet even if the chips are down and the tears are frequent, it is still YOUR day.

You can make the decision to show up anyway.

To proclaim, “Damn it. I am going to be present. I am going to persist. I am going to be positive.”

 

My husband likes to say that loyalty isn’t about being there when things are good; it is about being there when things are bad.

Be faithful to yourself.

Even on the bad days, show up.

And never confuse a bad day for a bad life.