“You’re so strong”
“You’re the strongest woman I know”
From the moment trauma strikes—the heartbeat stills, time stalls, life comes to a shuddering halt—our human focus narrows in. It’s a physiological reaction, sure—our body attempting to survive. Our instincts, our amygdala, whatever, pulls on its resources: Am I being chased by a lion? Am I going to make it out alive?
Our brain doesn’t know the difference. So, our body responds to trauma the way it knows how. We aren’t that evolved in 2,000 years. Live or die. Eat or be eaten. Fight-or-flight.
Herein lies the issue: we have built a frame around “strength” as value. Raised it in worship. As a thing to be appreciated, admired, achieved. Not the strength of bravado, or arrogance. But real strength. The ability to turn lemons into lemonade. I’m talking the idea that we, collectively, have decided that those who have been handed a bad hand are stronger for their ability to look at it, take a deep breath, and dive in to solving it.
In theory, this isn’t a bad idea. “Life is hard”—gosh, haven’t you heard that before? And particularly, to the other end, we cannot and should not support passive acceptance of our fate—or worse, a third party denial of responsibility. But, as with everything else, our world functions in extremes. Be strong, or be weak.
As a society, we forget the land in between.
We trap people. We tie them up neatly in our perception of their strength. We bind them to the idea that their strength has helped them survive so far, to keep doing what they’re doing. It’s easier than diving into the abyss of what we would do if the strong were actually weak.
We traditionally aren’t schooled in trauma. More often, we plow ignorantly through our first signs and symptoms, making coping choices off the cuff that seem to make sense to our frantic brains. Our strength becomes a matter of survival. When the perceived threat has passed, there is a different mess. Only, that rubble is now in front of us. One crisis has passed, but man, would you look at the mess we have to dig out of now? The mess we have created to survive is often more unbearable than the initial trauma itself.
We abandon strong people when we assume they don’t need our help; this arises out of our misunderstood definition of what it is to be strong. We overlook the mess made to survive trauma. A lack of rest, of expressed sadness or fear, a perceived lack of weakness gives us cause to turn our heads the other way. To avoid offering a helping hand. The mess a strong person created is theirs alone to manage. Then, mystified, we click our tongues when the strong fails to get up after another round. When did they become so weak?
To my fellow strong people feeling weak, scared, and regretful: dig out you will, love.
We are here; we hold you in love and compassion. Give yourself grace and time. We will see you on the other side.