I’d need way more fingers and toes, to count the number of times I’ve had to fake inner- strength. I was born to super-stoic parents. Personal crisis of any kind was kept on the D-L, no matter how bad things were. So even when my mother suicided (I’d just finished the fifth grade), talking about it, or getting actual therapy, wasn’t on offer. Thinking back to that era (feeling more than a little disappointment in the adults in my life), I get that Mental Health was in ‘the closet’ – like a lot of other things. But that was then, and this now. As I absorb new headlines, I struggle to comprehend why, even though as a society we have greater clarity about deep depression, so many smart, successful, “strong” people (role-model types) choose to take their own lives. The Black Dog
No one ever told me as a child that I had to maintain, and not lose my shit when I felt overwhelmed and lost. But it was implied. Self-control was modeled by most grown-ups at that time: parents, extended family, teachers. Happy expressions were “ok”, but negative feelings – especially sad, defeated, I-just-can’t-do-this emotions – were signs of weakness. Yes, my elders had lived through World War II: death, destruction, famine, and visuals that could never be unseen. I do believe that certain events get embedded into human DNA, doing crazy things there for generations. Still, why aren’t we – as people living in 2021 — talking more; reaching-out more; checking-in with one another more? Are we really missing key ‘signs’, or are the signs just not there? Changing our Emotional DNA
I hear a lot about social media and how it’s causing many of us to become too self-absorbed and insulated from other people. That might be true, to an extent. But what intrigues me more than transitioning to Lives in Silos are the contradictions we share around the topic of Inner Strength. Whether it’s in the media, or through our political atmosphere, we’re all expected to mind-our-manners with the feelings of others. Language. Behaviors. Attitudes. Trigger Alerts. We must be woke, sensitive, aware, and kind at all times.
But what about the flipside to this mandated Sensitivity? I’m thinking of the “strong” person who has locked-away all of his or her hurt emotions. All the rest of us see is what we want to see. The awesome career; boatloads of friends; houses and cars and six-figures. Prestige. Glamour. When people in this category choose death by suicide we all scratch our heads…”But they had everything to live for!” and…”How did we miss the signs??”. The Legacy of Suicide
The reality, I believe, is that very often there are no signs because the tragically-unhappy person chooses not to send them out. It’s a conscious decision. Faking inner strength – in my own experience – sprang from my awareness of what others expected from me. Meeting those standards was more important than disappointing them with my actual frailness.
It takes enormous bravery to publicly admit that all is not well; “I am not handling Life at all at this moment and right now it feels long-term.” Back in the days of poets Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, expressing deep depression through the power of poetry was not only therapeutic but a source of truly amazing reading (see Plath’s novel “The Bell Jar”). But I really can’t think of very many other “public” faces who refused to pretend inner strength was there when it wasn’t.
Even now, in our more-enlightened “feeling” stage as a global society, the pressure to have others see us as we think they want and need to is intense. Too intense for some of us. I can bluff my way through a presentation that I don’t feel ready for; and through the interview in front of an intimidating panel. I know those moments will end, and a cold glass of wine is waiting for me at home, when I finally get there and kick my shoes off.
But the long-term fabrication of inner strength isn’t sustainable. It’s exhausting. It’s isolating; because if you’re good at it, no one will ever know how much pain you’re in until you hit The Wall.
Those of us who are masters and mistresses of hiding our true selves away – and I include myself – will always struggle to honor ourselves ahead of everyone else. Whatever their needs are, they can wait. Whatever their expectations are, they can “deal” with being disappointed. We only get one life to live. With every passing day that becomes only too apparent.