By Kelly Schmahl
There was a time in my life when I became hell-bent on becoming the girl that was written about so often in online blogs — the strong girl. The girl who was strong because she put everyone before herself. The girl who was strong because she did everything on her own. She was independent, courageous and brave. She spent her days caring for others while secretly struggling in her own right. She was only strong because she didn’t ever ask for help.
My mom once asked me where I got the idea that I needed to go through life alone — and the truth is, it was these blogs that romanticize the princess who protects her castle fiercely. Fiercely, and alone. I used to come across 3 or 4 of these articles each time I scrolled through Facebook and I began to obsess over the image of the “strong” girl. I could talk about this, but not about that. These thoughts were fine, those were not. You can cry, but only alone — in fact, if you cry alone and nobody ever knows that you were crying, it means you’re impeccably strong. Also, help this person and the next person with their problems; support everyone around you, but don’t ever ask for support from anyone. If you were strong, you’d be able to handle these feelings on your own; if you were strong, you wouldn’t need a therapist. If you were strong, you would keep your connections one-sided. Always help, but never ask for anything in return.
How bogus is that?
I came across an article this morning about the “strong girl”, once again. I haven’t read any of these since I got healthy, so it was interesting to read it from a different perspective. The article talked about how “the strongest girl is the one fighting battles you know nothing about”. I mean, sure, a lot of people are fighting battles that we know nothing about and there’s no denying that these people are strong — but what about the people who reach out? The ones who ask for help and support? The ones who talk about their feelings with friends, family, and maybe even a therapist? Does this mean that they’re not strong, too?
The answer is simple: no. If I’ve learned anything on this journey, it’s that asking for help is sometimes the hardest part of the struggle. Being open and vulnerable, having scary conversations, setting emotional and physical boundaries, and saying “no” can sometimes take all of the strength I have. When did the adjective “strong” become synonymous with “lonely”? Shouldn’t it be the opposite? Isn’t it possible that some of the strongest girls are the ones who ask for help in times that they’d rather run and hide?
Maybe I’m the only one who fell for this silly concept — the romanticization of loneliness equating strength. But having chased after this standard of strength for so many years, I can’t help but wonder who else is stuck in a cycle of always being the one offering support and never being the one to ask for anything in return. Relationships should be a two-way street, always. You can’t expect to have solid, intimate relationships without being open and vulnerable where necessary. I never understood that concept. I had learned from other girls writing about their strength that in order to be strong, I needed to have the tools to handle EVERYTHING on my own. And once I failed at that after years of stuffing my emotions, it was as if any possibility of strength and survival was gone.
When the girls at [my mental health treatment center] called me strong (or anything good, honestly) I was so quick to denounce their judgement. I would even go as far as to say that the word “strong” and any synonyms of the word, disgusted me. I had to do what I was doing. I had no other choice. I didn’t choose to fight the battles I was fighting — I was forced into it. But, the truth is, I did have a choice. I didn’t have to get better. I didn’t have to try. I didn’t even have to stay alive, honestly. But, I did. And I chose that. And I’m strong for choosing that. And I’m strong for choosing to have difficult conversations, for setting boundaries, for saying “no”, for asking for help and support, for allowing others into my life. In fact, I’m stronger than I’ve ever been BECAUSE I’ve done these things. Because, despite the fear and the risks, I continue to do my best to be an open book. I continue to see my therapist, to reach out when I need to, to support others knowing that I will be supported in return. I’ve chosen to make time for relationships that are reciprocal and healthy; relationships that don’t drain me or continue to take from me when I have nothing left to give.
I become healthier and stronger each time I push through loneliness and fear to improve relationships and let people in. I’m not strong because nobody knows what I’m battling — I’m strong because I have a system that fights alongside me. I’m strong because I allow others to be my strength when I’m losing my battles — and I choose not to see this as a weakness, but rather my greatest strength. The village that holds me up is the village that allows me to be strong.
I don’t want to or need to be the “strong” girl anymore because I know the difference between fighting battles and winning battles. I know the difference between “strong” and “lonely”, and they’re far from synonymous. I want to be the girl with healthy relationships, with a support system, with struggles that aren’t hidden and scars that people can see — because this is what enables me to continue fighting. This is what allows me to be strong.