What Does It Mean to Be Strong?

I met a psychic once who held my hand and said, “You’re enormously strong. You shouldn’t have been suffering with depression.”

I don’t think she ever knew the strength it can take for a depressed person, whose body feels like it’s weighed down by boulders, to stand up and get a shower and make breakfast and drive a car.

I am not depressed anymore, and I hope I never am again. But I do think depression is a teacher that tells you something is not working, and you need to make a change. Sometimes, the change you need to make is not clear, and the experiences that have led to such darkness are hard to know. But the illness is so nefarious that it convinces you it doesn’t exist, or that you have a special kind of knowing about the awfulness and bleakness that exists in life. That you are inherently wrong, that you fail at everything, that you will always be awful, that you are a burden or drain to everyone you meet. It is all a very big lie.

I have thought for a while about what it means to be inwardly strong. I come from a line of single mothers, women who have suffered betrayal and loss and chosen to keep loving anyway, keep doing their duty. I think at some point, I began to adapt an understanding that “strength” meant muscling through, developing a harder shell that helped you meet your obligations. Strength meant you had to be tough and vigilant about avoiding or ignoring emotions, because if you let yourself feel them, you may get washed away. You may never be able to stand back up if you acknowledged all that was inside you. You would simply be overwhelmed.

This pattern of muscling through all worked well enough for me until I had my daughter, my second child. Up until then, I had low-level anxiety and a simmering kind of anger, even though anxiety and anger were never words I used. I went through life harder-hearted, thinking I always knew what was right. I worked hard and I did what was expected and went above and beyond. I paid my bills on time. I thought society was a kind of ladder, and it was very messed up, but still, I placed myself prominently on one of the higher rungs, because I was smart, and I was educated, and I was empathetic. And I was, or would be, successful. I had been through shit, and I had overcome, and I did something good for a living.

But my daughter was born, and my interior world became shattered. Because here was this baby girl who needed her mom and dad, just like I had been a baby once, too. This girl didn’t like my breastmilk, and she didn’t seem to like me. She cried a lot, and couldn’t sleep alone, and got sick and I didn’t know how to take care of her. I wanted her off my hands. I was overwhelmed by her needs and desires, by how to make her happy, because until then I hadn’t acknowledged I had needs and desires, too. I was jealous of her relationship with her dad, because I grew up without a dad who loved me. So my body reacted with depression, and an intense form of anxiety and worry. I started seeing a therapist, and I went on medication, crying as I took the pill, because I felt I had failed at being human, at being the best at everything.

And slowly, I began to uncover and learn about who I was, what it had taken to be me, the habits and practices I had adapted that weren’t so good for me anymore. I realized I had spent so much of my life trying not to feel. I had spent so much of my life fighting, fighting, fighting to keep my head above water, to prove my own self-worth. If I was perfect, if I did everything right, I would be loved, and all the wounds of childhood would heal. Only then could I be happy.

That’s so not the way it works, I was lucky enough to find out.

Love works by accepting what is, and not trying to make up for what could have been. Love works when you’re learning and discovering and curious, not when you’re pushing things down. A commitment to love and a commitment to ignorance are very different things.

My baby grew, and now she’s a little girl. I am her mother, and I am a mother to myself, too. (Though luckily, I still have my real-life mom.) I learned, because of that depression, to love myself better, to acknowledge different parts of me and start integrating them into the whole of who I am. I learned that I am not perfect, and never will be, and that’s okay. I learned that I needed to find practices to nurture myself, spaces that were safe and quiet and just for me. And I undertook all of this not only so that I could live happier and wiser for myself, but so that I could teach that to my kids. True happiness is not a selfish act. I want my kids to be happy, to know what happiness is, and so I have to show them what it takes. Because if I don’t know myself, then I only model behaviors for them that may limit them or make it harder for them to know happiness, too.

Muscling through a hard period of life might be necessary for a time, but it can not be a permanent state of being. We have to trust the teachers that come into our lives, the people or the moods that nudge us toward change. We have to trust that the universe has our backs, that there is always a new day and a new opportunity. We have to trust that our lives matter, that our happiness matters, too. Suffering exists, but that is not what we were made for.

Maybe strength is hard to define, or maybe it isn’t. Maybe some people have more than others, and that’s okay. But it’s certainly a muscle that can be exercised, a foundation that can be built. Strength is a commitment to knowing yourself, to facing yourself, and loving all the pieces and parts that make up you. Loving yourself is not selfishness, if it’s actually love and not ego. True love doesn’t mean elevating yourself above anybody else. Love is acknowledging the inherent worth of every person, including yourself. By knowing who you are, what are your strengths and limitations, you can ultimately be of more service.

Strength, then, in my estimation, is the humble willingness to inwardly grow.


“Dumbbell 1/2” by HyeonCheol Lee is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0

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