Soon after my separation from my now ex-husband, I received “compliments” about my “strength” from certain friends and family. The gist of the compliment was: “You’re handling this so well. You sure are a strong person. I wouldn’t be able to handle this as well as you are.”
Those sorts of “compliments” pissed me off beyond reason, and it took me a long time to realize why I had this reaction. Now I have a better idea.
You see, I considered myself to be strong already, but not for the reasons people seemed to think I was. To them I was strong, because I wasn’t acting too differently compared to before the separation. Sure I might have been a little glum, but I wasn’t crying in public. I wasn’t freaking out in overly obvious ways. I wasn’t dominating conversation with “woe is me” dialogue. So obviously I must be Ok. Look how well I was holding it together!
But holding it together was exactly what I was trying to avoid. At work, yes, I had to maintain a certain amount of professionalism. But outside of work, I was in counseling. Once a week, almost every week, for an entire year I sat in a counseling chair, sifted through my problems, journaled, received feedback and homework. I invested a lot of energy into the opposite of holding it together, by trying to let go and work through the terribleness that was my divorce.
I wasn’t strong because I wasn’t crying. I was strong because I was trying to change my behavior. I was actively trying to change all of the things that kept me isolated and disconnected from those I cared about. These new actions required a great deal of strength.
My counselor used the analogy of carrying boulders. My divorce was such a heavy load, and of course those boulders were added to the ones I was already carrying around from the past. When my separation first happened, I was in survival mode: I felt I couldn’t do anything but hold those boulders together. Before I started counseling I was investing so much energy into balancing that heavy load, I felt that if I reached out for help the whole thing would fall. But once I committed to counseling and reached out to friends, I realized that they helped to lessen my burden stone-by-stone. They helped to start that process that I couldn’t start on my own, because it all felt too big. Ultimately, they helped to free some of that energy and strength so that it could be used for other things…
During all of this, I often felt weak. Yet in the back of my mind I knew that I was doing something that was making me stronger. Much like I felt when I took my first faltering steps in the Couch-2-5k program when I started running. I felt awkward and terrible after those first runs, but I knew that I would ultimately be stronger and healthier. Now I run a 5k at least two times a week, and I can run up to a 10k.
So, when I received those well-meaning “compliments” I got mad. They diminished the hard work I was putting into letting go, opening up, and moving from surviving to thriving. They suggested that I should remain the same closed-off person I’d always been, in a time when I was experimenting with opening up.
I’m not angry at those people anymore. I know that they meant well and were trying to be encouraging. Now if someone utters a similar compliment, it really does feel like a compliment. Those who have known me for awhile have seen me transform from a relatively miserable person to a relatively happy one, because of the work I’ve put into my personal growth. I am strong, and I’m glad that I’m now using my strength for things important to me instead of using it to just get by. I no longer have an illusion of strength. I’m working on the real deal.
Oh. By the way. You’re strong too. We’re all human, and we’re all strong in our own ways.