Updated: Feb 20
Lately I've been thinking about what people mean when they say they're strong. With all this talk about mental health and the increase in numbers of those seeking help, is the definition of strong changing?? I've known so many people over the years and seen so many examples of what's thought to be strong.
For some it's saying absolutely nothing about your problems, If you don't speak about them then you don't have to deal with them. If you don't speak about them, then no one knows about them and they continue to think that everything is good with you. You are strong.
You can talk about them but also spend days, months or years avoiding them and keeping busy so you never have time to think about them or deal with them. You continue with life regardless. You are strong.
You tell everyone your problems, talk about how hard life is and you still manage to laugh and joke because if you didn't you'd cry. You tell people you can handle all this and never accept any offers of help. You are strong.
All of these and more are behaviours that we have seen our parents, grandparents, siblings, friends and colleagues do and while they are acceptable, is there a cost? Are they really strong or are they coping?
At some point will the continuous coping with the stresses and strains of life take it's toll on a person's mental health?? I'm not an expert but I've been dealing with people from a support level, both personally and professionally for a while now and I feel the answer is yes.
I tried all of the above, each and every one and more. I was strong - why?? Because everyone told me so. Because I had come through so much and come out the other end. I had dealt with everything in a way that was acceptable to society. I was still standing and all the better for it.... or so I thought.
Only by pure chance did I see a social media post one day by a therapist looking a guinea pig. It was connected to weight management and as far as I was concerned it was the only demon I had left. I messaged the therapist and applied to be that guinea pig. Thankfully for me I was successful.
I started therapy and what began as a way of dealing with my eating demons soon became a way of dealing what lay much further underneath, many of which I had buried away, thinking I had dealt with them all as they had happened over the years. Things like bullying in school, verbal and physical, unsuccessful relationships that led to mental and emotional abuse and grief. Things that, unknown to me, hadn't really been dealt with in an appropriate way and were now affecting my self-esteem, confidence, lifestyle and my own personal happiness despite the fact that, from the outside, it looked like I had so much to be happy about. Somehow I didn't quite feel it.
These things were an underlying cause for my emotional eating and using food as comfort, something I didn't fully comprehend. A coping strategy that had been put in place from a very young age and fuelled by endless diets and the inability to actually recognise and deal with my own emotions. I had already been diagnosed with depression 2 years previous to this at the doctors and took anti-depressants but had weaned myself off them after 6 months once I felt I no longer needed them. I was never offered counselling.
By the time I was a month into seeing this therapist I knew I was starting to sink into depression again but this time instead of visiting the doctor we talked, that's all it was. Obviously now as a qualified life coach and trainee counsellor, I realise that it was so much more and recognise some of the strategies the therapist used, but at the time for me it was just talking.
It was a space to go where I could say whatever I wanted, no matter how bad and I wasn't judged. I could cry over things and tell my innermost thoughts and never get told off for being emotional. Never once was I called stupid or told I was imagining things when I voiced my opinion. Not once did the therapist treat me the way others had previously when I tried to express myself. My thoughts and feelings were validated. I was listened to and respected.
I knew that this therapist would never discuss what I had said in that room. Not only would it be unethical but they also had their own professional reputation to think of. It felt safe.
What I didn't realise was that just talking was helping me in a way I never imagined. Part of my therapy looked at all the various emotions and how I dealt with them. I always thought I was in touch with my emotions, now looking back, I hadn't a clue. The upside to this is that I am more self aware. I recognise my emotions much easier now and I allow them to happen where possible.
Because of this therapy I am now more confident than I have ever been. My self-esteem continues to climb and while I still have my moments of self doubt or fear, I do my best to refuse to let the doubt or fear beat me. The girl I was before the therapy is no longer the girl I am now. I may look the same but I have changed. The upside to self awareness is that most if the time I know why I behave in a particular way, I know what makes me tick. The downside is that most of the time I know why I behave in a particular way and sometimes my behaviour isn't quite to my own standards and I have to be an adult and deal with it in a way that is acceptable to me. On the occasions where I'm not sure, I will ask others how they feel about my behaviour; sometimes the truth comes from others whether we like it or not.
Sometimes being that adult means forgiving myself for my wrong doings. To acknowledge that they have happened and to move on from them, hoping very much that I have learnt a lesson.
I am no longer the passive, quiet, awkward, inferior girl who felt like she didn't quite fit in but was able to put on a show for work and professional purposes (and yes as an autistic individual I did and still do mask). I am turning into the assertive, says what she needs to introvert, who hopefully knows her owns needs and to stands up for herself in situations in a way she never dreamt possible. I don't always get it right but I do try.
Now I've learnt that while things happened in my life that weren't desirable and made things difficult, I coped with them but I didn't necessarily deal with them. I was strong enough to keep going but I was unable to move forward. These things were still holding me back but I had no awareness of it.
Thanks to just 'talking' to a therapist I now have ways and means of dealing with things, a healthier mindset. A different way of looking at life. A way that has taught me that the things that really make me happy aren't measured by how much money I have or where I live or the car I drive, what I look like or how much I weigh. What makes me happy doesn't depend on another person's opinion of me.
My happiness starts with me, the love I have in life starts with the love I have for myself. Does it sound corny?? hell yes but its true. I had years of self-loathing, some of it was brought on by the bullying and abuse, which in turn created low self-esteem and virtually no confidence. Feelings of not being good enough. Some of it was because I thought I was failing; failing diets, failing relationships, failing at life.
We know that while there are things we fail at e.g. exams, driving tests etc, this in turn does not make someone a failure. We live in a world where people are seen to be failures if they lack a certain social status, look a particular way etc etc the list is endless. There are things I have failed at in my life and I accept this now and have stopped punishing myself for it. Sometimes our greatest learning comes from failure.
My self love involves accepting who I am, what I look like, my dress size, my age, how I behave and what it is that drives me forward. Accepting that I am autistic and have ADHD has come from this too. With this brings a freedom of mind like I would never have imagined. I no longer spend the best part of my days caught up with catastrophic overthinking. I no longer obsess about what I'm eating or what the scales say. I have all this brain space and I'm now using it for the things I enjoy. I love reading and reflecting on things. I always used to wonder how those folk who sat and though up theories and were continually studying and learning did it but I'm now one of them and even saying that amuses me. Its fascinating once you find a topic you enjoy lol
I also know that while things are good, I only need to talk to to friends or take some 'me time', participate in self care. My problems can be the topic of conversation with those I trust as it's good to get these out providing I feel comfortable sharing it. A problem shared really can be a problem halved.
More importantly I know that if I find myself struggling to cope, overthinking is kicking in too often, I feel overwhelmed or getting to a point where I'm feeling more anxious for longer or I feel the depression is kicking back in, or my mood drops and I can't seem to shake it, it's time to see a therapist. I have done this several times now.
Sometimes being strong is accepting that you can't do it on your own, its having the strength to talk to another, exposing your vulnerable side. Sometimes that other person needs to be a therapist.