This is going to be one of those posts you need to read from start to finish. So either commit, or get out right now. (I think I said something similar to my husband in the days leading up to our wedding…)

While staring into space and eating brie with crackers for lunch, I half-listened to a local news program featuring a riveting story about an upcoming all-female adult choral concert. The woman organizing the event said the idea for such an affair came from knowing “so many strong women, and wanting to bring them together.” Let’s hope all of the strong women she knows can sing.

I see this word “strong” thrown about on Facebook comments and talk shows all the time. She’s one strong woman! It takes a strong person to do what you did. You don’t always have to be so strong.

I tend to think that word is overused. I mean, what makes all of these women in that chorus so “strong”? Is this false advertising?

While definitions and implications differ, I’ve decided that this post will focus on how to be “strong” in the sense of overcoming challenges. And I’ll start by saying this: Sorry, but you’re not “strong” just because your parents got divorced and you didn’t turn into a mass murderer.

When my mother passed away, so many people called me “strong.” (I have the vague recollection that I’ve written something similar to this before, so forgive me if you get a little déjà vu.) Even then, I didn’t understand what they meant. Was I really all that “strong” for simply continuing to get out of bed? Did opening my eyes each morning make me “strong”? How about drinking prosecco out of styrofoam cups to keep my anxiety in check when I went back to work? Is that what made me “strong”?

bubble gif

I didn’t feel very strong when my mom died. Sure, I didn’t legitimately become an alcoholic, nor did I start wearing black all of the time and yelling curses at strangers, but I don’t think I did anything particularly praiseworthy. In my mind, I didn’t really have a choice but to keep living a normal life after that tragedy. Therefore, I wasn’t really sure why people thought that I was so “strong” for putting on pants and continuing to eat. Trust me, if I had any other option, pants wouldn’t have made the priorities list at that time in my life. Actually, pants still wouldn’t be on my priorities list if it weren’t for public disruption laws. Eating, on the other hand, is a solid control variable in every stage of my life. I could be running from a grizzly bear, and you would still see me stuffing a bagel with veggie cream cheese and bacon into my mouth.

While many of those days following my mom’s death weren’t particularly enjoyable, waiting for time to heal the open wounds seemed to be the only available option. So I went back to my routine of working, spending time with friends, and gorging on Indian food. (How I miss thee, NYC Indian delivery food.)

I’ve recently experienced another wave of being told I’m strong, because now I’m a military wife. I have to do a lot of things on my own while my husband is deployed, and those struggles will only increase if and when we have children, or once I stop having a landlord who takes the trash out to the curb each week. #tenantperks

I can’t say that I am particularly strong just for happening to fall in love with a man in the Coast Guard, though. I mean, either I deal with the stresses that accompany deployment, or I divorce him. Which would be a really poor choice, because he scratches my back every night and cooks me delicious food. Just like continuing to live after my mother died, I don’t really see many options for how to live as a military wife other than just doing it. All I can do is wake up each day and adult (v.). Having no other choice doesn’t make me strong. It’s just dealing with this little thing called “life.”

cant choose who you love

But you know what? Maybe simply dealing with life is a sign of strength in itself. Maybe I’m too tough on myself. Maybe it’s falsely humble to say that getting out of bed didn’t make me strong, because it certainly took quite a bit of effort during the grieving period. Maybe holding down the fort while my husband is gone does make me strong, even if I see it as my only option.

You see, some people don’t think pressing forward is their only option in the face of adversity. Some people don’t get out of bed. Some people can’t bring themselves to drive the kids to soccer practice when their husbands are out to sea. Some people decide life isn’t worth living at all when they lose the person they love most, or face a different kind of challenge that exceeds their mental and emotional capacity.

So yeah, maybe getting out of bed is a pretty major sign of strength.

Mental strength and physical strength have a lot in common. Think about it– sometimes doing 18 curls with a 15lb weight feels like the hardest task of all time. You get down on yourself and think “I am weak. I got tired after 5 curls, and barely completed 12.” But think about it this way: At least you did 12. You could have stopped after the first 5, but you pushed yourself a little bit further. That’s how you build strength. Days like those are the ones where opening your eyes feels tough, but you manage to put on pants and go all the way to the grocery store.

no pants 2

Then there are gym days when you feel like you are a lifting machine. Sometimes it’s because you’ve built up muscle, sometimes it’s because you ate more protein than usual, and sometimes it’s because of no identifiable reason at all. Some days are just easier than others. “Strong” looks different every day, and that’s alright.

This isn’t to say that you should take it easy on yourself. No matter what, try to push yourself a little bit– because that’s what makes you strong. If you’re having a good day, make the most of that good day. If you’re having a bad day, do what you can within the emotional constraints. Your strength may not always appear impressive, but the only true sign of weakness is not doing anything at all.

Hardships may consume you at certain moments, but as long as you leave the door cracked for at least a single ray of light to enter, then maybe you can push it open tomorrow. Tomorrow’s strength might look like taking yourself to the kitchen to get a glass of water the morning after your mom died. A year from now, strength might look like being able to think about her without crying (every time). Three years from now, strength might look like being able to help others work through the same things you did.

I guess the reason “strong” is used so often is because the majority of people on earth are strong. 100% of the populations goes through difficulties, and the vast majority continue to live as functionally as they can. I used to think that people overuse “strong” as a compliment, but I’ve come to realize that people need reminders of their emotional capabilities, even when the weight of life is crushing them. So go ahead, throw the word “strong” around, and give yourself a little credit, as well.