Just a few months ago, I experienced a significant personal loss; it was by far the biggest loss of my life, and the sadness and grief I felt was indescribable and almost unbearable.
But I was able to bear it, and a few months later, although still often sad, the most intense pain has somewhat subsided. Time has obviously helped with the healing, but one thing that definitely helped was the support of family and friends.
On reflection, however, I’m not sure the way some of my family and friends provided support was necessarily ideal. Specifically, most people focused on encouraging me to “be strong” and tried to reassure me that I’d be OK because I was “so strong”. Now that things have settled a bit, people have continued with this theme expressing a degree of happiness that I’m now “feeling stronger”.
Before I go on, I want to make it clear that I’m incredibly grateful for the support of my loved ones and this isn’t intended as a criticism of them or their efforts; further, I want to emphasise that each and every one of these people had good intentions and the language they used around “strength”, which I’m now questioning, is almost ubiquitous and so it’s no great surprise that they chose such words (even if unconsciously).
But taking this into account, I want to invite you to think about, to really think about, what this implies; because as I’ve hinted at already, I’m not sure these are the best words or phrases.
Well mostly, it implies that if I’m distressed, or showing other signs of not coping, if I’m struggling to manage my emotions or any aspect of life, that I’m then somehow weak. Along similar lines, it can easily be interpreted as suggesting that we should “be tough”, which for many (especially men) can be taken to mean we should not show any emotions.
Many years and hundreds of research studies have unequivocally concluded that this isn’t helpful. Rather, it’s distinctly unhelpful. Denying or suppressing emotions, especially negative emotions, is associated with poorer coping and lower levels of mental health. For men, especially, identifying as tough or strong in this sense is actually a risk factor for much higher levels of depression and anger and sadly, even suicide.
But there is a solution
And that solution lies in being vulnerable. Better mental health comes from openly and honestly acknowledging the experience of all emotions, good and bad. Mental health comes from not just recognising so-called negative emotions, such as sadness and grief, but also accepting them and expressing them.
It’s ok not to be ok. Most especially when one’s experienced significant loss. In many cultures this goes without saying and open, sometimes loud expressions of distress such as grief are encouraged. Unfortunately, in our “Western Culture”, this isn’t always the case and as I think I’ve made quite clear, this isn’t healthy.
I share these thoughts now not just because of my personal loss, but more so because almost all of us have experienced some loss in recent months. With Covid-19 and with the associated isolation and restrictions everyone, in one way or other, has lost something. For some it’s been a loss of health or even life, for others it’s been a loss of employment or financial security, and for many there’s been losses in social activity, holidays that had been planned and/or even just participation in recreational activities.
Each and every one of these, large and small, deserves recognition. Each and every one will have a certain amount of distress attached. Rather than being “strong” in the face of their loss we should be more willing to be vulnerable, meaning we should be more willing to feel and express whatever emotions we have authentically.
So next time your loved one, friend or colleague is suffering, instead of wishing them strength or praising them for being strong, maybe try expressing something like …
… I can see and hear your pain, and I’ll do my best to be here, for you, through it.
What do you think?