“You’re so strong”

by Catrin Harland-Davies.

“You’re so strong!” It’s a phrase that many people hear, when they’re struggling through difficult times. It’s intended to be (and perhaps often is) very affirming – effectively a way of saying “I don’t think I could cope half as well as you are, with what you’re going through.”

But it’s a phrase that often causes more damage than we realise. My chaplaincy role involves working with students who have been bereaved. These are usually young adults, many of whom have lost a parent, a sibling or a close friend. They will frequently know no one else in that position, and often feel a responsibility to make social interaction easier, when surrounded by people who have no idea what they may be going through, or how to react. Some are having to take on a significant amount of adult responsibility, whether financial, or a caring role, for which they may not feel prepared, or which they may not have expected to take on at 18 or 19. And they get praised – “You’re so strong.” And they feel the pressure to be strong – to cope, to bear up, to earn the praise.

This can be hardest for those whom we particularly expect to be strong, because of their gender, age, or role. Many of us find it hard to admit to ‘weakness’, because it not only affects people’s view of us in the moment but, we fear, may affect their whole perception of us. If we have a pastoral role, might they no longer feel that they can turn to us for support, for fear of troubling us with little things? Might they no longer see us as capable in other areas, because we’ve proved ourselves fragile in this?

The need to be ‘strong’ – to be seen to be coping, to avoid showing weakness – is often thought to be a significant part of the reason that young men are more likely to take their own lives than young women are. As a society, we load upon boys and men our expectations of masculinity, making it harder to seek support. This surely disempowers them, and gives a very distorted understanding of emotional maturity. The opposite expectation of girls and women also contributes to a stereotyped perception of them as ‘weak’ and ‘emotional’. This is an issue across much of society, but are we as a church complicit in that?

Jesus, facing the reality of his own death, asked his friends for their support and care (Matthew 26:37-41). We often note how they let him down, unable to stay awake, and reflect on how this may have added to his pain. But maybe the hardest part was asking them at all? And yet, maybe that was also one of the most important things he could do – to express to them his fear, his vulnerability, and his need of the strength of others? Perhaps, if we live a truly Christ-like life, that needs to include knowing when to be vulnerable? In particular, when we seek ‘strong leadership’, what do we mean by that? Leadership which expresses no emotion, and seeks no support? Leaders who make no mistakes? Or leadership which admits to vulnerability, asks for help, admits mistakes, says ‘sorry’ where appropriate, and asks others to pray for us?

Of course, there will be times when we have to be strong, to do the things that need to be done, to support the people that need to be supported. But perhaps what we should be saying to one another is not “You’re so strong”, but “How can I lend you strength?” Not “I’m impressed by your strength of emotion”, but “I realise that you may be needing to be strong right now, but if at any point you need to be weak, I’m here for you and won’t judge you.” Perhaps we need to stop asking for ‘strong leaders’, and seek instead leaders with a willingness to seek their strength from God – where appropriate, through their weak, vulnerable, very human fellow disciples?

10 thoughts on ““You’re so strong””

  1. Really helpful and insightful thoughts, Cat. I have heard too many bereaved people being told that ‘you need to be strong for…’ when, as you say, a better way of expressing this would be ‘how can we support each other through this?’ The gender stereotypes of perceived strength or lack of, are also incredibly unhelpful. Thank you.

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  2. Someone had just said to me before I read this ‘You are very resilient!’ so I probably needed to read your Monday morning piece………
    This was theology wrought out of experience, rang all sorts of bells for me, and I am reminded of Anna’s discovery (‘Mister God this is Anna’) that ‘Mister God is empty’.

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  3. Thank you so much, Catrin.

    When my husband died (some 33 years ago, I find, to my astonishment!), I was a mess, and several of the members of my church community were of immense help, in fact I don’t think I’d have got through it without them. But when I moved on, moved my job to a different employer, etc., their view of me didn’t.

    I began local preacher training, but had a period of illness, which meant I continued to study – I was one of the last batch to complete their training by 4 exams! – and, after a further year or so, started preaching again but with a different mentor (or whatever they were called then), which brought the same voices saying, in effect, you didn’t cope then, how will you cope now!

    Then I ‘upped the ante’ by candidating, which was questioned by the same voices. No one knew at that stage that after completing my training and started work as a greener that green probationer, that I was living with an undiagnosed primary progressive form of MS! I worked too hard, very long hours – which probationer didn’t/doesn’t? – but my fatigue seemed disproportionate to the situation. The circuit supported me through all the diagnostic tests, and, as soon as the consultant gave me the diagnosis, they did their best to find ways to help me. It had taken 10-12 years from the first appearance of symptoms to get a diagnosis, and, looking back, I suspect that the trauma of my bereavement was one, but only one, of the factors which caused my MS.

    The conference report on the church and ministers living with long term conditions came later, and I felt that, if the circuits followed the recommendations, other people in similar positions would find a greater systemic, church-wide support than I had had, and right from the beginning of their attempts to follow their calling.

    Now, some 16 years after ‘sitting down’, I look back on the whole experience with mixed feelings. There are the fantastic ‘what might I have been able to do during my circuit appointment (just one 5 years term) and beyond which I was prevented from doing by my condition’, and the contrasting ‘living in the Assisted Living section of the MHA run retirement village, my needs are being met, and, while I often can’t see how I’m living out my calling here, I now feel closer to God than I have for years, sharing in the worshipping life of this community, even if I frequently watch my tv via cctv.’

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  4. Thanks so much Cat. Just what I needed today. I am reminded that I am called to be real and that strength lies in vulnerability not in an ivory tower façade which is unsustainable in my experience. So many echoes in what you’ve written that I appreciate.

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  5. I agree we should not put pressure on people to be strong in a crisis; there is nothing wrong with seeking support when you need it. But some people are naturally more self-contained and really prefer to keep their feelings private; they shouldn’t feel there is something wrong with them if they don’t open up. One of the loveliest compliments I ever received was when one of the tutors on a pastoral training course said to me ‘You have a quiet strength.’

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  6. Thank you, Catrin.
    This is so vitally important at this point in time, when our society pushes people to their limit and beyond. Human beings, in my opinion, are not intended to be strong as if they were mechanical, and yet we start pushing children to achieve before they’ve learned to talk properly, never mind grown a brain which is biologically ready for formal learning. Then we wonder why, a few years later, they develop mental stress. So many people in work push themselves (or are pushed) to the limit to prove they are strong, capable and resilient, but at some point large numbers of these develop either a physical or a mental condition. Those out of work are equally (arguably ‘more’) likely to feel the pressure, in a different context.
    Like M.E. in its early days, before the biology of its nature was evidenced, people with F.N.D. (a condition I have) are often considered weak or even lazy, and yet most of them were recognised as hard workers prior to the triggering of their ‘weakness’; as ‘strong’ people. They want to get back to that vibrancy.
    Our national cultural philosophy seemed to change in the 1980s; ‘efficiency’ and ‘effectiveness’ were what mattered. It saddens me that the Church is subject to the same pressures, though I guess that’s human nature.
    The longer I’ve spent time (not enough!) with the scriptures, the more convinced I’ve become that God is wastefully extravagant by nature, and that humanity was made for the sabbath; we are not supposed to work like slaves, to push ourselves to the limit and be strong in every situation. We are to have time and space to appreciate how the world and our lives work together for good; to integrate life’s challenges at a gentle pace which has unplanned room for others and for God. God seems less interested in strength or resilience than in harmony and integrity, appreciation, and mutuality (a more flexible model of resilience or strength, perhaps). Strength as I hear the word in your article seems to describe the ultimate independence; “I can handle this, and don’t need support”, or, “I can handle this for you since you can’t”. By contrast, mutual interaction seems to characterise the dance of the Trinity, and God’s interaction with us. The strength is in the whole, not the individual. There is nothing ‘strong’ about being crucified, yet there is so much love in the crucifixion of Jesus. The resurrection came later – and the resurrected Christ still bore the scars. Rather than stopping the world for those who want to get off, perhaps we could slow the world down so that everyone has room to grow in God’s garden.
    (With my apologies to anyone who finds this to be a rant!)

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  7. Very well said, Cat! I’ve been on both sides of this and have also observed that clergy in particular have trouble at times admitting vulnerability. I particularly like you application of these insights to leadership.

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  8. I’m more than 50 years older than your students but your post spoke to me. A year ago my treasured, elder daughter, a good swimmer, drowned in the “safe” pool of her gym club. Fortunately few have told me “I’m strong” which of course I’m not. Grief persists but there is God and prayer and the church.

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  9. Thanks Cat. I know people are trying to be encouraging or perhaps don’t know what to say to a bereaved person, but the phrase which got to me when I was widowed was ‘You’re sensible’. I still have no idea as to what they meant by that and I certainly didn’t take any comfort from it. Language is always a difficult one. I recently came across a widow who doesn’t like the euphemism ‘lost’. In her words, “I haven’t misplaced my husband; he’s died”.

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