#186: The lie of “strength.”

Batman begins poster
Stoicism is overrated and may lead to cosplay.

Dear Captain Awkward

I am currently going through the tail end of a massive crisis involving my Dad having an affair, leaving our state and moving across country, effectively running off and abandoning us for his now girlfriend. This has left my family and I stuck up financial poop creek without a paddle. As you can imagine there is much aftermath to be dealing with, and I am admittedly not coping well.

Before this happened I always tried to be there as much as I could with my friends, helping them and listening to their problems, offering advice and alcohol where appropriate and they have always expressed their gratitude in my doing so. However now I feel I cannot always bring my best self when helping friends.

A few of my friends are going through crisis themselves at the moment and they are turning to me for this continued advice and support. Before I would be more than happy to help, but I don’t know what to say, it is really hard to muster sincerity about looking for the opportunity in something when you feel your life as you know it is crashing around your ears.

They are aware of things that I am going through, but I cannot let them know how badly it has affected me as they have all expressed disdain at the notion of depression and they have said I am strong, however it is only because I have been able to hide my pain from other people so well.

I don’t know if this is crappy friend behavior, I want to support them like I used to – like they need me to now – but I don’t know how to say I’m not sure I can help you at the moment without it being like I have abandoned them.


Exhausted and Disappointing Friend

Oh, Exhausted, look what you made me do. You made me write two answers in one day.

When I was a child, I learned the prayer of St. Francis in the form of a (bad) song, and part of it went like this:

grant that I may never seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love with all my soul

And I’d like to say that not only is that an impossible standard, it is a bad wrong incorrect standard that harms people and makes them write sentences like yours, here:

“They are aware of things that I am going through, but I cannot let them know how badly it has affected me as they have all expressed disdain at the notion of depression and they have said I am strong, however it is only because I have been able to hide my pain from other people so well.”

I don’t think it’s a virtue or an accomplishment to hide or deny your pain so that you can take care of others. We tell people they are “strong” when we are uncomfortable with their pain and would prefer that they shut up and not bother us with it. To say “but you are strong” is telling someone “I don’t think you should feel that way,” and it’s not a compliment. I don’t think that strength means being invulnerable, or pretending that you are. The belief that silence and stoicism are inherently good qualities is how you end up dressed up like a bat punching criminals in an alley – it’s not a good road to emotional health.

I think your father has handed you a really raw deal and has caused you and your family grief and pain and distress, and all of that stuff is real. You don’t owe it to your friends to be the “strong” one. Just because you have always been the good listener and the shoulder to cry on, doesn’t mean you have to maintain that role now when you need a good listener and a shoulder to cry on.

Be sad. Be angry. Let your heart break – in the diner, on someone’s futon, in the park, on the way to the zoo, at brunch, over drinks,  in the therapist’s office, on the bus – Wherever it breaks, let it break all the way open, let it run out and down and spread out in a soggy puddle at your feet. Say, “I’m sorry, I can’t listen to you today, my heart is broken. Will you sit with me a while and I’ll tell you about it?

Say, “I can’t take care of you today, but you can take care of me, and maybe tomorrow I will take care of you, and we can trade off like that for a while, okay?”

Say, “I love you, and I love that you think I’m strong, but I don’t feel like being strong today. I feel like being angry and crazy and sad. Can we go to the movies or just sit here quietly or take a walk or talk about it or not talk about it?

Your friends may get scared when you do this. If you, the “strong” one can break, what does that say about them? That’s why they push back at you and try to remind you of your strength, when what you need is for them to stand by you in your pain and weakness. They don’t have to solve that pain, they just have to bear witness to it. Maybe they don’t know how – a lot of people don’t know what to do in the face of other people’s pain. They want to fix everything, and if they can’t fix it they feel inadequate. As the “strong” one you can help them out with this by saying “You don’t have to fix it. You don’t have to do anything. Just be with me, and listen, and love me, and I’ll love you back. That’s all I need – to know that you love me, even when I’m sad and scared and don’t know what to do next.”

To ask for help is strength.

To admit you don’t know is strength.

To tell the truth about what’s happening is strength.

To be imperfect and to trust that imperfect people will love you despite those imperfections (albeit imperfectly) is strength.

To let the people you love see how you really feel – without trying to hide or stage manage their perception of you – is strength.

Here’s a better song about being blown wide open by pain and then telling people about it. I hope things get better real soon, and that you can help your friends take care of you the way you deserve. St. Francis and Batman, you can shut the heck up and stay out of this one.

36 thoughts on “#186: The lie of “strength.”

  1. “I love you, and I love that you think I’m strong, but I don’t feel like being strong today. I feel like being angry and crazy and sad.”

    My favorite Captain script yet. I am going to hang this on my wall and in my brain.

    (xo – a former LW who now has her own pseudonym!)

  2. LetterWriter, I have been you. And the Cap is speaking the truth. You don’t have to be stoic to be strong. You don’t have to be strong to be loved. You get to be carried, too.

    I give you my own video of love and vulnerability.

  3. Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh.

    LW, express your needs and let yourself fall to pieces.

    Months and months ago I wrote this letter to Captain Awkward. TL;DR I was trying super hard to be cool and good to my roommate/friend and it was making me nutso.

    Re-reading the letter, it wasn’t really about the boy. I left out the real stuff that was making me crack: I also had a death in the family, I got laid off AGAIN, and I had just starting dating again after a not-awesome breakup. If you had to weigh it, it was still less than the crap my roommate was dealing with at the time, but it wasn’t exactly trivial. I was trying so hard to be a good strong friend to someone else and I wasn’t acknowledging my own needs. And because of that, I started to resent my friend and I think I was looking for reasons to be upset with her. When I wrote that letter to Captain Awkward, I was hoping she’d give me permission to lose my shit over something minor when what I really needed was permission from myself to lose my shit over stuff that warrants shit-losing. It wasn’t so much a I WANT THIS BOY GONE, it was a HEY I NEED TO CRACK FOR A BIT AND IT WOULD BE REALLY NICE IF YOU COULD BE AROUND TO PICK UP THE PIECES?

    I didn’t know how to ask for that help. I was afraid to communicate honestly to my friend/roommate, because what if she rejected or refused my need? I felt I needed to be strong for her, and I didn’t trust her to be strong for me.

    Don’t downplay your own needs, LW. The Captain gives good script here. You can take turns taking care of each other; don’t fall into roles where one is always strong and one is weak. The strong need to be weak sometimes and the weak can be very, very strong when given the chance.

  4. Exhausted, I want to give you such a big hug. I’m the “strong” one, too, and it took me years to realize it meant that no one was seeing through to the inner me — not even the therapists I was going to, desperately trying to figure out why I felt so sad and no one seemed to be able to tell. I wasn’t allowed to be “weak” — if I were weak, everyone else around me would surely collapse.

    And then I decided, fuck it, I need help too. And the world didn’t fall apart. And people still loved me.

    As Captain Awkward gave you a song, I give you one too: it’s a hug in musical form. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mlmhMS_luX8

    1. I’m the “strong” one, too, and it took me years to realize it meant that no one was seeing through to the inner me — not even the therapists I was going to, desperately trying to figure out why I felt so sad and no one seemed to be able to tell

      I am trying so hard to internalize this very lesson right now, but it is just not getting through my head! Ugh.

      LW, you’re definitely not alone.

      1. It’s a double-edged sword, because honestly, you probably are what people mean when they say “you’re strong” — you’re someone who’s smart, perceptive, and can figure out (and implement) solutions to most major/minor dilemmas that people stress about. But that just means that when there’s a big problem, or something you can’t handle for whatever reason, people are going to turn to you and go, “but you’re so strong!” With the implication that, you’re strong, you can get through this. And if you can’t get through this, then you’re not strong anymore. And being strong is your identity , so if you’re not “strong” anymore, than…what are you?

        And I am strong. But that’s just a facet of me. I’m also unsure, confused, depressed, smart, introverted with decent social skills, silly, passionate, amusing, incredibly self-aware, my mother’s daughter, an impressive resume, the person who everyone expects to succeed. Most people only see one or two facets of me. (To be honest, most people only see the facets that I show them, because I’ve learned that I don’t get positive reinforcement for the other facets.) As early as middle school, I felt like I was one of the best actresses ever, because people looked at me and only saw the outer shell, and never the cracks.

        All of this is me. The outer shell and all of the facets and the confusion and stress and fear simmering underneath. There’s no reason to be afraid that I’m not who people expect to be: their expectations are useless to me. They can’t take anything away from me. I can be “strong” and everything that goes with it and still need help and space and support. But I still have the same skillsets and attributed that came with being “strong”: no one can take away any part of my personal identity because I need support. And if the constructed identity, the facets I want to display, are no longer what people identify me as — that doesn’t matter anymore. Because what matters is how I, internally, feel. And I am my own kind of strong.

        (I now ask for help a lot. I now admit when I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. I tell people when I’ve reached my limits — either internally or for helping them. And they get it. And, to quote Dar Williams, the world’s not falling apart because of me. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c0attD0RB6c)

        1. This is so impressive. I can abstractly think, “Yes, people should be able to accept themselves so radically” but I still feel like a tiny bird slamming into a window again and again whenever I try to apply that kind of attitude to myself. Thanks for giving me a little something to work toward 🙂

  5. Oh man, “But you are so strong” pisses me off so much. I have given metaphorical African Violets for it if people don’t knock it off. In my experience, it’s a way of saying “Yeah that sucks but I don’t want to help you deal with it at all, so don’t talk about all that feeling stuff.”

    I don’t have anything new to add, Captain has great advice (as always) but ugh it just makes me mad.

  6. I am so grateful for the chance to support friends who have supported me. Please give them the gift of your trust and your vulnerability. That is the bravest choice you will ever make.

    1. Here, here. In my own experience it is so frustrating when friends and family offer to help you but WON’T let you know when and how you can help them. I like to give back! I’m thrilled for the chance to help the people I care for! I want to see them well!

      With any luck, LW, I hope some of your friends will surprise you and fall into this camp. Whatever the case, you deserve to have someone back you up, just as you’ve done for others.

  7. This whole “but you’re strong!” thing is so frustrating to me, because it can be so helpful when it’s not being used to derail! As a person who just has to be strong all the time, it really helps for someone to remind me that they already know I’m strong, so I don’t have to keep on proving it when I clearly just want to cry. But that script goes more like, “You’re so strong, I know you’re going to get through this. But right now it really sucks. Need a hug?”, and LW’s friends don’t seem to understand.

    1. “But that script goes more like, “You’re so strong, I know you’re going to get through this. But right now it really sucks. Need a hug?”

      THIS. It’s okay to encourage someone to be strong, but only AFTER they’ve had time to deal with whatever other emotions they are experiencing at the moment.

  8. I’d like to contribute another song, LW, because I thought of it the moment I read your second paragraph:

    “The one who survives by making the lives of others worthwhile,
    She’s falling apart – right before my eyes…”

    It doesn’t offer any solutions, but it’s a beautiful, sad, grieving song that might give you permission not to be strong for a while.

  9. Learning to grieve? Learning to fall apart? Learning to be broken…they are such a big part of becoming an authentic human being. I’ve had a series of soul crushing losses over the last 15 years…and coming completely undone? accepting help? wow. those things just weren’t in my nature. what made me into a strong person was letting go of all that. letting people love me. it’s made me better at loving, and i know that my friends were happy that i trusted them enough to love me fully.

  10. Seconding all of this, basically. Let the people who care about you care about you. Show them you need it.

    It’s possible some people might say things like “I’m sorry, I can’t listen to you today, my heart is broken. Will you sit with me a while and I’ll tell you about it?“ of course, but that’s where “I can’t take care of you today, but you can take care of me, and maybe tomorrow I will take care of you, and we can trade off like that for a while, okay?” comes in.

    Mutual misery helps me, at least- I think it’s because it involves human contact, so it’s not just sitting in my room feeling crap…

  11. LW, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Don’t be afraid to say, “Look, I need your support now. I need your ear and your shoulder to cry on.” Those friends who give you the support you ask for (remember, ASK FOR IT) are worth their weight in gold. And anyone who “disdains depression” (WTF) while expecting others to help them with their crises needs a reality check.

    But you have to ask for help. People aren’t mind readers. Don’t pretend you’ve got it all together–you are allowed to say, “I know I’m putting up quite a front, but I’m really going through a shitty time right now and I need help.” That’s okay. I promise.

  12. Oh my god, Cap’n, I wish I’d met you the second I moved to Chicagoland, because this is such stellar advice and it takes so long to learn it.

    LW, you are used to being strong for others, and you’re scared to let those others see what’s inside your own head/heart/soul/elbow/what have you. But the thing is, “strong for others” and “scared for yourself” are not mutually exclusive. Your friends, if they are good solid friends with a smidge of wisdom, probably know that. Being A Strong Person is not something that only applies to being with it and brave 24/7. Strong People lose their shit, too. All the damn time.

    When my mom was dying, I got the “you are strong” thing a lot, from many different people. A lot of that was, I think, because I was physically there helping to take care of her–giving her morphine, rubbing her feet, helping nurses, talking to her even though she couldn’t hear me. When I was upstairs in my folks’ house, next to her hospital bed, I acted the way most people think a Strong Person acts. But when I got downstairs, to my old bedroom (with Ani posters still on the wall! good lord), I lost my shit on a regular basis. I cried and ached and watched CSI until my eyes bled and I punched pillows and I called people just to sob at them. But that didn’t mean that when I went back upstairs, I was no longer strong. It meant that “you are strong” doesn’t have to mean “therefore, you never get to be anything less than strong.” That is true for you, too, and I’m guessing your friends will get that if you follow the Captain’s advice and lay it out honestly. Just because they have asked you to be The Strong Friend in the past doesn’t mean they can’t be The Strong Friend for you now. That’s how strength really works.

    Good luck to you.

    1. SweetMachine, (((hugs))) if you want them.

      When Dad was sick, I was the strong one. I stayed the night at the hospital, I cooked, I hugged and listened and reassured and while I might have leaked, I didn’t weep where anyone could see me. I was being strong, you see. And while I don’t regret holding it together for my family, particularly my dad, it was EXHAUSTING.

      It wasn’t until after Dad died that I gave myself space to feel instead of react to what I had gone through. I continue to struggle with acknowledging my feelings about his illness and death, but the more I honor those feelings, the easier it gets. And I’m learning that’s a different kind of strength.

      “The world breaks everyone, and afterward many are stronger at the broken places.” – Hemingway

      1. *Hugs* right back to you.

        “It wasn’t until after Dad died that I gave myself space to feel instead of react to what I had gone through.”

        An anecdote that may be useful to you and LW: after one particularly harrowing visit to my folks’ (in which my mom was sick [pre-hospice] and my stepdad was recovering from surgery, so I was the only able-bodied person in the house), I had my very first full-blown panic attack after boarding the airplane to go back to *my* home. The flight crew was awesome and made sure EMTs were waiting for me at the jetway (I had no idea what was going on, just that I was REALLY sick all of a sudden). Anyway, one EMT guy was really comforting; after talking to me about what was going on, he said he could tell it was a panic attack from my posture and facial expression! Then he said the amazing (and relevant!) thing: he asked me if I was *returning* from a stressful trip. He said exactly what you did: lots of people can be really strong and brave and keep their shit together for the duration of a stressful trip, and when they get on the plane and they don’t have to do that anymore, they lose it. He said the airport medics see it all the time, and it’s way more common for them to treat panic attacks in people ending a trip than in people starting one.

        Isn’t that incredible? Yet it was so validating for me, and I’ve thought about it a lot in the years since–there will come a point where you can allow yourself to lose your shit and you need help, maybe dramatic help. And that’s *totally normal.* It still kind of blows my mind.

        1. Along similar lines, my sister was hospitalized a few years back with a Salmonella infection that had spread to her blood. She was in the ICU for a week, and because of her epilepsy and other medical conditions, she was kept in the neurology ward for another week. I had originally planned to be visiting my family during that time because it was the Jewish new year, so I was able to fly back from grad school to be with them.

          I fear hospitals, and walking in to see my sister sedated, intubated, and puffy from her IV? But my mom looked devastated (my dad had picked me up from the airport), and I determined to stay strong and calm. The night before I left, a few days later, I spent a couple of hours vomiting. My dad observed that I had been holding in my tears and concern too forcefully, and my body reacted. LW and others in similar situations? I highly advise against this course of action – don’t keep your pain inside!

          It was hard to start reaching out for support and admitting to friends that I felt like a mess, but worth it. I was ashamed to discover how I had misjudged their willingness and ability to be there for me, since I have always been one of the “strong” ones. Together, we have made great strides towards mastering the art of surviving simultaneous crises, in fact (including my sister’s recent hospitalizations), and can trade off supporting each other in the space of a single conversation.

          LW, I very much hope that you find the same, that your friends give you the support you want and need. Please take care of yourself, including asking other people to help take care of you as needed!

  13. you ARE still strong. you are strong enough to know “i cant handle any more or i’ll break.” you’re strong enough to know “right now i need taken care of, not to be taking care of others.”

    it takes a lot of strength to know that…and your friends need to understand that you are NOT the rock of gibraltar, you’re a person who also has needs to be met. and you have absolutely every right in the world to be depressed, you got sunk in a world of hurt not of your own making, and you may need some therapy or medication to get you to the other side of things.

    and that’s ok too, because you need to look after yourself. as the flight attendants always say “put your own oxygen mask on, then help the others in your party”. you cant help your friends if you’re drowning yourself…its absolutely ok to put yourself first right now.

    *gentle hugs and wishes that things get smoother for you*

    1. Agree, like, 1000%. Seriously.

      Being strong for other people is less scary than being vulnerable and needy. Letting other people in requires more strength.

      And you won’t likely learn this once. You will need to keep learning it. Or at least I have needed to learn and relearn and relearn it.

      1. I really want to second “Being strong for other people is less scary than being vulnerable and needy. Letting other people in requires more strength.”

        Almost every time I have opened up and let other people in, it has been immensely rewarding. That doesn’t make it any easier to do the next time or the time after, but it’s worth it.

        I also want to add that even if your friends have “expressed disdain at the notion of depression” in the abstract, that doesn’t mean they won’t support their friend. A lot of times, seeing something up close or seeing how it relates to you personally can change your perspective very quickly. So at least give them a chance!

  14. I totally support the advice CA gave the LW.

    A few years ago, I lost my job, relationship, and sense of direction and was advised by my therapist to be more open with my friends about how I was feeling and ask for help. Honestly, I’m not sure I would ever do that again.

    I got several friends who said “You expect too much from (me)” and “Your issues are really hard on our friendship”. Granted, these people are off my holiday card list, but I’m not sure it was the best course of action. Now, I’d probably keep my issues between me, my family, and my therapist, at least initially.

  15. “Losing love is like a window in your heart
    Everybody sees you’re blown apart
    Everybody feels the wind blow”

    Perfect. Those lines always haunted me.

  16. “they have all expressed disdain at the notion of depression”

    Your friends make me want a sniper rifle and a tower.

    I second all the other posts but I am slightly worried that you might not be able to expect much from them.
    To this tendency, mea culpa, seriously and it is not a good thing, at all. St Francis was a dick. I just offered to be the one to fly to another state to help friend with something despite having a brain disease (found out it isn’t terminal YAY!) and a friend of mine dying last week. I am backing out due to this post,(thank you!) no way should I be going. At some point being the strong one is just hubris. I don’t think that you are at that point LW but I need to back off from it.

    1. I appreciate that you are coming to the defense of the letter writer, here, but could you watch it with the violent sniper rifle/tower stuff? That kind of thing can be kind of triggery for people who have lived through violence or in fear of.

      1. Excellent point and sorry if I triggered you. Given my history I shouldn’t have missed that.

        {Edit} Your friends make me want to say “Bad friends no biscuit, depression really sucks, now be nice to LW”

  17. It just hit me that there is the downside of giving up being up the ULTRA-STRONG-ONE(tm).

    Now I can’t pretend that it doesn’t hurt that I loved my friend and she just won’t stop being dead dammit.

    Are you having any of that too LW? Trying to be made of iron to distract from the fact that it sometimes hurts and is scary?

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