“No one will ever understand the amount of tears that go into being strong.”
The words echoed around my head after I read them, and they’re still echoing around my head now. I re-read them regularly, sometimes needing to steal away a few minutes to sit on the edge of my bed, fingering the thin sheets of ivory paper in the card my friend dropped into my letterbox a few months ago.
I hate crying, and I always have. The feeling of tears trembling on my lower lids and threatening to spill over fills me with the same mortifying dread now as it did when I was a child. My problem is that tears never seem to be far away. I cry when I’m angry, when I’m frustrated, when I’m sad, when I’m scared. Sometimes I just cry because I’m so physically tired that I just cannot deal. I feel like my tears are cheap. I believe that my tears are weak.
“Don’t let them get to you.”
That’s what we’ve always been told, isn’t it? From playground bullies to the strenuous dynamics of systemised prejudice and oppression, I’m never meant to allow “them” to get to me, and never meant to let “them” know it hurts. I believe there are certain situations I need to keep my poker face strong and not give whoever has positioned themselves against me the satisfaction of seeing me crack. But I also need the space to feel the full range of my emotions – the good, but especially the bad.
I’m grateful for the people in my life who allow me, who even encourage me, to cry. The friends who can sit with me in my tears, knowing when to hand me tissues, when to offer a hug, or when to just sit silently and listen. God bless those friends and their shoulders streaked with mascara and smudged with makeup. It’s also just as important that sometimes I cry by myself too, whether I’m wailing into the muffled down of my pillow, or cleansing my soul in the shower.
Allow yourself to cry, to explore every inch of the spectrum of your emotion. Don’t apologise, don’t explain it away, just feel your way through. Eventually it will pass.
2. Accept Help
“Let me help you.”
I was cooking dinner for a friend one evening, simultaneously trying to stir the pasta, cut the onions and wash up as I went along. “No, no, I’m fine.” I said as I quickly rushed to attend to the saucepan over-boiling on the cooker, nearly sending my chopped onions skittering across the kitchen floor. He sighed and rose from his seat, taking the wooden spoon from my hand and turning the down the heat.
Looking back what I was trying to do was ludicrous, why did I feel I had to do it all? But while I may accept assistance cooking dinner now, my one-woman-army mentality is still painfully evident in other areas. Do I want an award for being able to carry my son’s buggy down two flights of escalators single-handedly? Do I enjoy the chest-crushing pressure of shouldering my burdens alone? I don’t quite understand.
I know that I’m extremely capable and I pride myself on “getting ish done”. I hate the thought of being in the vulnerable position of relying on people, because people have let me down before. There is a crumb of truth in the old adage “if you want something done properly, you have to do it yourself”, but it’s only a crumb. I must remember that accepting a kind offer of help is not the same as throwing myself on the mercy of strangers. I must be humble enough to accept my limitations.
The motivation behind the one-woman-band act can vary. It may be motivated by mistrust and the pain caused by previous disappointments, or it may be the wish to minimise myself so as not to occupy too much space or “burden” others. But I also have another reluctant observation. The forced superwoman act can be kind of, well, arrogant. Am I really the only person who can do this? Is my complete involvement and control the only way that tragedy can be averted? Am I embracing the weight of the world so that I can have the satisfaction of being able to say that I did it all by myself with no help from anybody else? Does that even make sense? Is that healthy?
Honestly, I think I learned this from my mother, and I’ve heard others express similar sentiments. But we must ask ourselves: how did that work out for them? While we praise the strength and resilience we’ve witnessed in our matriarchs, we must be careful not to romanticise their struggles – single and otherwise. They’ve been through alot, experiencing their own traumas and heartbreaks. Though they often don’t talk about it, I don’t believe their dreams for their daughters are to experience the same types of pressure and isolation that they did.
Accept help when it is offered, and the humility that comes with it. Maybe one day we’ll even progress to asking for help when we need it, instead of waiting in silent misery until someone should happen to see our struggle and offer to assist.
3. Draw Your Boundaries
I’m going to stop trying to save the world. I’m going to stop worrying for people who do not adequately worry for themselves.
This is one of my most important New Year’s resolutions this year as I explore self-care, not just as a concept that crops up once a month as I take a day to pamper and treat myself, but as a lifelong commitment. The reality is that self-care may mean making decisions that other people, very important people in my life who I love dearly, may not like. In seeking wholeness in myself, it may create a distance with others that is as first unfamiliar and uncomfortable.
I’ve been wrestling with this idea of what it means to “hold down” your family. In my efforts to be everything that (I think) my loved ones need, I can sideline myself to make space for their emotional needs to take precedence above my own. There’s that famous commandment of Jesus to “love thy neighbour as thyself”, and I’ve been wondering if I can truly love others when I don’t love myself? Can I really?
I’m learning the difference between being unapproachable and having healthy boundaries, and it’s an important distinction to make. I can’t let the fear of the former stop me from working out the latter. It’s easier to address a tendency towards being standoffish than rebuilding myself entirely after burn out or some form of breakdown.
Because that’s what is at stake here: my mental health and general well-being. I can’t put a price on ensuring that my soul – my mind, my will, my emotions – is intact, and no one else can truly do the work of safeguarding it apart from myself. Making someone feel guilty for drawing boundaries is abusive behaviour, and anyone who does that does not love me, or you. Sometimes boundaries need to be upgraded to walls to keep emotional vampires who drain you of your energy and agency at bay, and recognising when it’s time to do that is vital.
Loving yourself more does not mean loving anyone else less, it just means prioritising your mental, physical, and emotional energy differently. You cannot give what you do not have, and they don’t give medals to martyrs.
‘Holy’ was photographed in April 2015 for an upcoming collaboration project – stay tuned for more.
‘Death, Dreams and the Dull Inbetweens’ is a collection of poetry and photography and can be read in its entirety here.