What does it mean to be a strong woman?
I’ve always considered myself to be a strong person. Like many women, I have experienced my share of trauma and disappointment. Even from a very young age I felt like I had to take care of myself. I didn’t feel like anyone had my back. My solution was to become an independent woman. I worked very hard at not needing people.
My determination to be strong was supported by the cultural messages around me. We've all heard, "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger." It is reinforced in books and movies along with messages that women are the ones who hold their families together. We are the hub for our immediate family and for our extended family. How many of us laughed in agreement with Andrea Martin’s character in My Big Fat Greek Wedding when she said, “Men may be the head, but women are the neck that moves the head.” Over time we can start to feel like our strength has become brittle. Years of sucking it up and pushing forward even in the face of trauma can lead to fissures forming in our defense systems. At least it did for me. So, on the advice of my dermatologist (after too many post cancer surgery break downs in her office) I started seeing a therapist. I wanted to regain my ‘strength’ and get back to feeling like I could handle anything that came at me. In the first session with my new therapist I cried for almost the entire 50 minutes. When I wasn’t crying I was apologizing for crying. I kept assuring her I am usually way more together. “I’m a strong woman,” I explained to her through sobs. I truly believed this was just a bump in the road and after a few sessions I would be back to world domination. But in our second session she asked me what became a defining question, “What does it mean to you to be a strong woman?” Over several sessions she helped me rethink what it means to be strong. I realized that strong women have support. And being a strong woman meant being open with people who are in my inner circle about my struggles. This week I shared some anxiety about a situation in my life with a close friend. I was feeling weak and vulnerable and even though I no longer define being a strong woman as not needing anyone, I can still act like I do! It takes intention for me to share my struggles. My wise friend, Wendy Milne, sent me a beautiful email the next day. She graciously has given me permission to share it. Here's what she said, “In my world: Being strong means having resilience. It’s the ability to get up in the morning and despite crying in the shower, stepping out and getting on with your day. It means accepting your decisions and either leaning into them, or changing your mind, but not wallowing in a poor choice. It’s taking the next step. Being strong means showing up as your true self. It means crying when you need to cry. It means laughing, sometimes where its inappropriate, because that’s the right stress relief for you at that moment. It means allowing yourself to be you rather than succumbing to the pressure of being the person people expect you to be. Being strong, to coin Brené Brown, is allowing yourself to be vulnerable. It is to admit, not only to others but to yourself, that there is a problem. It is in vulnerability that our soul-centred wisdom is the most free to express itself. What a gift! Being strong, is having the wisdom to listen to your inner self. It is the ability to view a situation and realize that there comes a time when you have to choose between turning the page and closing the book. (Wish that were my line, but I read that somewhere, and it resonated with me.) It takes strength of character to close the book on past relationships, on bad habits, on limiting thoughts or fears. So yes, my dear friend, you are strong in these ways. Sometimes that will transcend into the ability to be strong for others. Sometimes we will be strong for others because of our desire to do so, sometimes because of outside pressures or expectations. However, being strong for others is not necessarily the same as being strong. Being strong for others is energy draining, exhausting, sometimes exhilarating and satisfying. Being strong in oneself is life-sustaining, life-enriching and the evidence of a person striving to live a soul-centred and authentic life.” Her words took me back to my therapy sessions. I know that I’m not the only recipient of these cultural messages about strength. Here is the truth - it’s time to define what strength looks like in our lives. What does it mean to be a strong woman? Take some time and journal through that question. And here’s a bonus question - where are you allowed to show vulnerability and weakness in your life?