This is Open Letter number 6 of 10. I wrote these as a general response to common themes in therapy that I am noticing. I think the ideas here are important and worth going into. I also think they're safe overall, but there's emotional content in these, so please, put yourself first and take a break if you need it.
I find there is a phenomenon that crosses cultures, genders, ages and religions. In just about everyone that I have ever worked with in therapy. And that phenomenon is the desire to “be strong.” This is not an exclusively male way of coping with life. No one culture has a hold on this, maybe some more than others, but this “be strong” thing is everywhere.
You learned this early on in your life, probably modeled by your caretaker or someone you admired in that role. That person may have been overly and outwardly blatant about it, telling you to “get over it” or “move on” or “keep your chin up” or to not show your emotion, instead to keep it inside.
If you kept it inside, then it wasn’t a problem. It wasn’t real. It also didn’t create a problem for anyone else. But when you kept the emotion in, you also kept the actual problems in as well. I’m sure you know that.
The emotion wasn’t there for no reason. It was there, signaling a problem probably in the larger family system of your life. I’ve always viewed the challenging behavior of children as a barometer for the family itself. Adults can keep it in, disguise and cope. But kids tend to take time to develop that. Until then, they act out or act in. And the worse their behavior, I’ve always found a higher level of family dysfunction.
So rather than being open about these problems and admitting fault, we keep it in. The excuse that we come up with to keep these feelings is to be strong. If you’re strong, we say, the feelings aren’t a problem. You can continue on, go to work, go to school and get through the day. If we aren’t strong, then those feelings will stop us from being able to get through the day. That’s the basic belief anyways.
And that may have a place here and there. I know parents don’t want to show their emotions to their kids, so they say “I have to be strong” for the kids. I’m not sure if I totally buy into that. I think showing kids your emotions is not a bad thing. It can be really helpful actually. If you can regulate yourself, that is.
People want to “Be strong” to get through crises in life. Okay, I kinda get that. You’re going to hold back on your feelings until you get through the funeral preparations. Okay. You’re going to ignore whatever you’re going through until finals are over or until after the SAT. Okay, I think I can get on board with that on some level. Some stuff we just have to get through and that might mean we make a conscious decision to set aside our emotions. Or stuff them down forcefully. I get it. I certainly don’t judge it. And I think we’ve all been there.
I can see that as a legitimate and even helpful coping skill for those temporary things in life.
But you know as well as I do, that people ignore their feelings day in and day out as a default way of getting through the day. It’s no longer about getting through the intense moment or temporary life stress. And that’s because every day, all day, feels like an intense moment. So that coping skill of “being strong” never really goes away. It feels like we need it all the time.
If you stop and recognize your feelings, it becomes too vulnerable. You feel exposed, Weak. Really, the opposite of strong. And then, if you allow that need to be strong to seep away, you’re left with what?
All of it, all at once. The memories you’ve tried so desperately to stuff down because you’re wanting to be strong. All of it - the pain, the sadness, the humiliation. The rage, overwhelm, grief, anger, resentment, hatred, embarrassment… all of it.
I can see why you’d want to keep all of that stuffed down. It’s too much. Not just for you, but for anyone that’s going through the same thing. And believe me, that’s a lot of people. A lot.
I get it. But here’s where I want to introduce a couple of new ideas for you. Or at least get you to question this belief that you need to be strong.
Are you actually being strong? Is it strong to ignore the problem? Is it strong to stuff it down or deny it? Is it? Wouldn’t it require strength to acknowledge the problem? Wouldn’t that require bravery?
Acknowledging all of that stuff is exactly what that is. I tell my clients, because this comes up a lot, anyone can ignore the problem. Anyone can do that. That’s actually easy compared to acknowledging it.
I really think it does require some bravery. You’re going into uncharted territory. Or really, it’s more like dangerous territory. You know what’s waiting for you there. You’ve been there before, right? Except it wasn’t by choice. This time though, it’s different. Delving into those dangerous lands absolutely requires bravery and a willingness to be vulnerable. Not weak. Vulnerable.
When you’re tricking yourself into thinking you’re being strong, you aren’t avoiding weakness. You’re missing the opportunity to be vulnerable.
Don’t get the two mixed up. Weakness is pathetic, small, frail, feeble, flawed. It’s a victim and submits to force. It’s broken. Vulnerability is exposure. You’re putting yourself out there, but by choice. Yes, someone who is weak is also vulnerable. But someone who is brave can be vulnerable too. But they’re doing so by choice. That’s where the strength really comes in. To have the strength to make the choice to be brave, but vulnerable. To face the pain even though it’s scary, that’s bravery.
But look, even if you’re ready to be brave, ready to be vulnerable, it’s not that easy. It is and it isn’t. The concept is easy. The execution isn’t. Because that stuff inside is still waiting for you. So I’ve got a few suggestions for you on your journey.
Do this little by little. Look inward in little bits at a time. Not all of your stuff all at once. Notice your breathing first, not trying to control it or anything. Just noticing and watching. That’s going to be a key part of this also. Watching, noticing, witnessing, being curious. Not judgmental. Not controlling, just being present with it. Like sitting in a movie theatre and watching a movie you want to see.
You’ll want to look inward at your breathing. Watch your body breathe the way that it wants to. Become curious about it, noticing it.
You’ll want to look inward at your body sensations. Especially while you exhale. Just notice what you body is telling you. View every sensation as a message to you. But you don’t need to understand the message, you just need to notice it. And notice what it feels like to inhale, to exhale and the moments in between inhalation and exhalation.
You’ll also want to notice the images and memories that pop into your head. I’d suggest not delving into them before you’re ready. As these things come up, it might bring some discomfort. You’ll need a safe place to turn to.
This safe place can be imaginary or real. It can be a texture or object that you hold or a painting on a wall. Just whatever you know is going to help pull you back to a good place, or at least a good enough place. Get a decent foothold back into that good place, then, when you’re ready, go back to the inner stuff. Your breath, body and mind. And then back to safety and so on.
Little by little, back and forth.
The last suggestion I have for you is to do so from curiosity, like I said before. If you’re evaluating, you’re thwarting your adventure. Enjoy it. Every little baby step that you might need to take, enjoy it. Watch with wonder and curiosity. Tap into your bravery as a resource for curiosity. Know that bravery is inside of you. If it wasn’t, you wouldn’t be in this situation in the first place, right? You wouldn’t have gotten this far into this Open Letter. So it’s there. Remind yourself of that as you move forward.
Little by little, back and forth and with genuine curiosity.
It’s not easy. It is scary. If choosing to be vulnerable wasn’t easy and scary, it wouldn’t require bravery. And look, you’re attempting to undo a way of coping that’s been there for I don’t even know how long. I’m even willing to bet that way of coping, of being strong, was in your family before you were even born. So you might be the first one who is willing to be more vulnerable. Not weak. Vulnerable. And now you know that when we choose to be vulnerable, that requires bravery. You might be the first person in your family to be brave.
I’ll tell you where this is headed. Toward self love. Toward self acceptance. Toward connection with others. Toward generational change. Because if you can do this - excuse me, when you do this, you won’t pass it on to your own kids.
But what if I’ve already passed it onto my own kids? In my opinion, if you’ve passed this on to your own kids, if this is something you’ve modeled, you can model something else. It’s never too late. I see this in the family work I’ve done with clients. Once parents can stop the whole “be strong” thing, it gives permission to their kiddos to do the same. And kids will. They’ll follow.
It’s tough work. But you’re well on your way. It’s a long process.
For now, recognize it’s possible to be vulnerable and this comes from bravery. And that you have that within you. You do. I know this because of the incredible people I’ve worked with in therapy. And I know that I am not your therapist, but I also know it’s within you as well.
You are brave. You can be vulnerable. And that is your strength.
Thanks so much for reading Open Letter 6! The other nine are available for $20 in Stack 1. That includes audio and PDF downloads of every letter. Listen or read at your convenience.