I read a quote today that pissed me off:
(In case the image didn’t come through, the quote is: “The problem with being the strong one is that no one offers you a hand.”)
This is bullshit. It’s not a lie, but bullshit all the same. Bullshit isn’t always a lie. It’s just not the truth. And I know, because I’ve lived it.
I used to be “the strong one.” In my family, my friend group, my marriage… I was always putting myself under others as the rock and the foundation to lift them up when they needed it, and sometimes even when they didn’t. It was always appreciated, of course (except when it wasn’t, because sometimes people don’t WANT your help, even if they need it. They want to figure it out on their own, solve their own issues, and be their own savior. But that’s another post for another time). For years, I would always sit there dumbfounded when it was my turn to need help, wondering where everyone was and who was going to lift me up. I was miserable. I suffered in silence as no one volunteered their hand to pull me out of the muck whenever I stumbled my way into it.
I was resentful for years. And then I figured it out, the very hard way: the real problem with being “the strong one” is that I didn’t know how to ask for help and was too afraid to learn how. And it put me in the hospital as a result. More on that in a bit.
Here’s a pretty deep, probably already-known-but-not-yet-accepted truth: Your persona is not you. The way you behave, act, think about yourself, present yourself, and generally are on a day to day basis — especially around other people — is an act, even if you don’t realize you’re acting. It’s a story your ego tells you about yourself, so that you can believe the you that you want to be is the you that you really are.
Think back to your last few quiet moments alone, when you were also generally happy (even if those moments are rare). Maybe you were playing a game and enjoying it, or watching a movie or show, or chilling with your dog or cat (or in my case, both). Be honest with yourself and ask this one question: Were you behaving the same way you do with friends and strangers while in the comfort and confines of your personal space? Or were you just you, sitting there doing you stuff, thinking simple thoughts, and generally existing in peace?
This may be tough to imagine or accept. I understand. Right now, you’re reading some guy’s blog and having conversations with yourself about strength and weakness and why things hurt. If you’re genuinely looking for an answer, the first thing you have to do is drop the persona and allow yourself, even if for a second, to admit the truth. And the truth is, when no one is watching or paying attention, you are really pretty boring. And that’s a good thing. It means you’re not putting on a show so that other people have a picture of you that you want them to have. It means you’re being honest with your existence. It means you can relax and simply be.
For some people, instilling a picture of how strong they are in other peoples’ minds is vital. It may be a defensive measure, so they don’t get picked on. It may be a validation tool, so they can be called upon in times of weakness and thus feel important. Or, it could be as simple as wanting to be there for people because you genuinely love them, even at your own detriment. But being “the strong one” absolutely relies on everyone else knowing you are “the strong one” — and that’s where the unhealthy bit begins.
When you’re the one hurting, and no one comes around to make sure you’re okay, how does that make you feel? If you answer anything other than “resentful” then you’re in the super vast minority. You can’t help but be angry that no one is paying attention to you in your time of need, if you’re always paying attention to them in theirs. But why would they leave you hanging?
If you’re making a habit of giving yourself to others who don’t give back, you need to ask yourself: is it because they don’t love you like you love them, or is it because they don’t know how to help you because you’ve never let them or told them how?
My dad taught me that you train people how to treat you. In any situation, over time, patterns emerge. We are creatures of habit and routine. Our brains default to reaction to pattern simply because it’s more energy efficient than actively thinking all the time. And if in every situation where you need help, you never ask for it, people grow accustomed to the idea that you don’t need help (if, indeed, they even know you are in pain, which is something that goes hand in hand with being “the strong one” — being unable to admit when you’re in pain).
My idea of being “the strong one” drove me to a complete mental collapse where I attempted to take my own life. in 2011, the stresses of being a savior to everyone eventually did me in. I slipped into a deep depression. And no one came to save me. I blamed them for it: how could they possibly not know how much pain I am in? How can they not see? And because it must be obvious to them, they must be electing not to help me.
I went angry and resentful to sad and nearly unable to function. And one day, I just decided it was time to end the misery for myself, since no one was going to come in and save me from it.
Come to find out, no one knew the severity of my pain. No one had a clue. It was a major shock to any who found out just how bad things had gotten. I’ve never discussed this publicly, so the fallout was limited mostly to friends and family; the people closest to me. When they found out, they reacted first with shock, and then with sadness, as is often the case in these situations. It’s the people whose personas demand that they are impervious to pain, unflappable, unyielding, and able to handle anything who are most at risk for suicide. It is this very persona that gets people killed because it keeps them from being able to ask for help in the first place.
It’s like drowning, and being too afraid to raise your hand above the surface of the water to signal you are in trouble… To the rest of the people at the beach, it’s just water rolling in, and water rolling out. They are none the wiser that you are just below the surface and running out of air.
I realized, only after deciding to choose living instead of dying, that the vast majority of how I lived my life was bullshit. Again, not a lie… Just not the truth.
In the aftermath of all of that, I learned a lot of very powerful, but very simple truths.
One of them is that acting strong is weak, because it’s just an act. Real strength comes from admitting fault, failure, weakness, and other spots where improvement is needed because it’s only then you can improve them.
Another is that asking for help is not weak. It’s actually strong to admit when something is beyond your grasp, because it enables you to find a way to reach it. If someone else grabs it and hands it to you, you still got it. So what’s the damn difference if they know you couldn’t reach it? So what? Why is that some big secret? You have it now, that’s all that matters. Say “thank you” and go on about your business.
When you add the two together, they completely invalidate any idea whatsoever that being “the strong one” is, in fact, being the strong one.
So that’s why the quote above really stabbed at me. If you’re not strong enough to admit when you need help, you’re not the strong one. If you’re sitting around hoping someone will save you, you’re not doing anyone any good.
You’ve got to learn how to be humble if you want to learn how to be strong. You’ve got to stop being afraid of appearing weak. Fear is the worst reason to stay silent, because that’s fear’s ONLY job: keeping you in your place. If you let fear keep you from getting out of a bad place, it wins.
I’m sure you’ve heard before that bravery is not the absence of fear; it’s the acceptance that you are afraid and doing it anyway. To that end, strength is not the absence of weakness. It is the acceptance of the parts of you that you can’t change, and the constant work to adapt via the parts of you that you can. It’s looking fear in the face and admitting you’re afraid, which takes all of its power away. It can’t stop you anymore.
If being “the strong one” is causing you pain, you need to ask yourself why that is — is it because you’re truly alone and isolated and everyone around you is nothing but users and opportunists leeching off your amazing strength? Then those aren’t friends, and you’re foolish for letting them stick around. Shed them and be alone, it’s better that way.
But you and I both know that’s probably not the case. There likely ARE some opportunists and users around you, but you already know who those people really are. The ones you’re most sad about are the ones you thought better of, who disappointed you in your time of need. But before you start Instagramming and Facebooking and Tweeting those cute square prefab “woe-is-me” feels, maybe ask yourself…
Did they even know you needed help, and how to help you? And if not… Why didn’t you ask?
(And in a future post, we can discuss what it means if they did and left you hanging anyway… The ending is: why be sad? You just figured out which of those boxes you’ve been stacking up around are really empty, and can be thrown away.)