A friend of mine was diagnosed with cancer right after an episode that almost took her life. It was a blow to her family and friends. But most of all, the one-two punch of the life-threatening diagnosis and experience was a blow to her. She insisted she was focusing on being positive and strong, but I knew it was much tougher than she let on. Friends offered encouragement on the “stay-strong, stay-positive” ethos, but despite their well-meaning support, I couldn’t get behind it.
To me, “being strong” means pretending strength exists where there is confusion, sadness and desperation. Putting in the effort into showing outer strength means that you’re taking away from the strength it takes to deal with the weight of pain.
We spoke with some experts to help us unpack the way we handle other people’s pain, and how we can be better at being supportive. Here are the four biggest takeaways.
“Refrain from imposing personal expectations on someone else’s pain.”— traumatic grief counselor Veronica Sites
Being strong denies the opportunity to process strategy.
We love to see a mentally or physically handicapped individual who won’t let their handicap affect them. Our admiration is well-meaning and natural; unfortunately, it’s also what licensed clinical psychologist Josh Klapow refers to as an “indirect condemnation of their struggle,” which communicates that pushing feelings aside and withholding truth is what’s best for everyone.
Psychotherapist Karen R. Koenig adds, “Suppressing emotion builds a tremendous amount of physical and psychic tension.” So, telling someone to “be strong” is invalidating; it tells them not to feel what comes naturally, otherwise they won’t “be strong.”
Expressing emotions is not a sign of weakness.
Koenig remembers the first time a client of hers sat down and said, “I’m a very strong person,” then immediately burst into tears. Her client was trying so hard to seem strong and then she hit a breaking point. She was weak because she was pretending to be strong, but crying doesn’t always mean you’re weak.
“Weakness has nothing to do with the emotions you experience,” psychologist Mark E. Sharp of the Aiki Relationship Institute says, “Rather it has to do with what you do with the emotions. You can express very intense ‘weak’ emotions like fear or vulnerability and still act in a strong way.”
We tell others to “be strong” out of selfishness.
Telling someone to be strong is sometimes a way to protect ourselves from the invasion of another’s hardship, or the burden of not knowing how to offer help. Klapow calls this shielding ourselves from the “burden of helplessness.”
Psychologist Jerry D. Smith Jr. adds that when we tell someone to “be strong,” it’s because we don’t know what to say or do for that person. He says, “That advice is more about the speaker than it is about the person they’re trying to comfort.”
Being supportive means applauding someone’s true self.
For those whose luxuries in life don’t include an expiration date to the pain or to the roller coaster of good days and bad days, we owe it to them to delve deep, help explore feelings and not placate or hold them to unreasonable standards.
Traumatic grief counselor Veronica Sites suggests, “Refrain from imposing personal expectations on someone else’s pain.” Don’t expect them to be or feel a certain way because you would; just accept them for how they’re handling their unique situation, lend your ear if they need it and share similar feelings if you’ve got them—sharing the burden will help make it feel lighter for them.
No one’s advocating a pity party. But when someone is going through the aftermath of any type of trauma, whether it be a divorce, a death in the family, chronic sickness or pain, let them know that you’re proud of them for being who they are and feeling how they feel—not just the outer display they put on for the rest of us.