Welcome back to Restorative Grief with Mandy Capehart. I’m your host, Mandy, and this week we are going to unpack a concept that comes up with nearly all of my clients and friends. As a reminder, each episode is written with a desire to help you grow in grief literacy and understanding so that you can become the person you need the most when it comes to navigating loss. We are the hopeful grievers, trusting that we will find healing by learning to hold space for ourselves and what we need. We are becoming the people we need most, and by doing so, we grant permission to others to do the same. I’m so grateful you’re here, and pray you’ll find something here that compels you to move forward with grace, curiosity, and compassion for your story.
Have you ever received a compliment along the lines of, “I don’t know how you do it. I could never do this. I cannot imagine what you’re going through, but you are so strong. You seem to be handling all of it really well, and I’m praying for you to stay this strong.”
Throw in a few scriptures or well-intended platitudes, and what you’re left with is one of the best ways to effectively silence a hurting heart. There has never been a time in my own grief process when the phrase, “You’re so strong,” has made me feel better, for a number of reasons. I wonder if you’ll relate to any of the thoughts running through my head when I hear someone praising my strength. I’ll often think, “I already know how strong I am. This isn’t making me stronger. It’s breaking everything in my life. I don’t know how to function, but I do know how to put on a show. You don’t seem to be someone very interested in hearing what I am actually going through, because somehow ‘you cannot imagine’ the pain, and you’re not asking any questions. I’m not strong. Not right now. I wish you’d stop trying to convince us both otherwise.”
I’m sure you could add an entire book of responses of your own. And in grief, it can be very common to feel like we owe it to others and ourselves to keep that stiff upper lip. This method of sober emotional restraint was even popularized as a wartime strategy from Britain during WWII. And you know the phrase! “Keep Calm & Carry On” has shown up on posters, coffee mugs, and with endless variations for years now. I even saw one at the library the other day: “Keep Calm & Wash Your Hands!” For some reason, the idea of remaining externally calm and controlled has been wrongly conflated with inner peace.
Essentially, if you can keep it together emotionally on the outside, your insides will match and all will work out in the end.
But it doesn’t always work out in the end, does it?
The “Keep Calm” phrase is a way of forcing yourself to ignore what is happening around you so that you can appear externally in control. I really can’t stand it, to be honest. So here is another quote I find so much more invitational. Unfortunately I can’t tell where it originated, so if you know the original author, send me a message so I can give them credit!
It says, “I dream of never being called resilient again in my life. I am exhausted by strength. I want support. I want softness. I want ease. I want to be amongst kin. Not patted on the back for how well I take a hit, or for how many.”
This is what comes to mind almost daily as I wrestle with the new idea that strength is not a virtue. Strength is morally neutral – I use that phrase, “morally neutral,” often simply because I recognize that I live in a culture quick to moralize and assign the binary of “good” and “bad” to just about anything it can. I don’t want to assign that to myself, nor do I want to carry the concept of morality into the space of grieving.
I know plenty of people who would much rather I keep such labels nearby for when I make decisions outside of their preference. As a soccer coach, I’m sure you can imagine the parental conversations I have about my coaching methods versus what they might prefer.
Just the other day, while I was coaching soccer with my daughter, she came to the sideline to cry. I thought she was injured externally, but it turns out, a teammate and friend had hurt her feelings. She’d made a mistake during the game and lost the ball. Her teammate expressed that she was feeling some kind of way about it, and my daughter was really upset.
It would be easy for me to tell her to shake it off, deal with it after the game, and use the her anger to play with intensity. And as a coach, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard another parent tell their child to “rub some dirt on it.” The pull to minimize and refocus is strong! And in some instances, can serve us well. However, I want to be a parent and coach who invites softness – who lives as a safe place to fall. And this emotional moment with my child was a chance to practice.
By giving her a moment to feel her feelings, I was able to ask what she wanted to do about how she really felt. She got past the self-protective armor of her anger, and noticed what she was actually feeling about her teammate’s comment. She reentered the game without any closure, but afterward, was able to calmly explain to her friend what she needed. They were reconciled and apologizing to one another within minutes. I know adults who can’t navigate grievous moments like this so naturally, and it’s not for lack of trying.
I believe it’s because we have placed too high a value on stoicism in the face of our troubles.
So how do we borrow from stoicism and the wisdom is offers to feel our feelings and show up as weak without compromising what we think is on the line – whether it is our character, reputation, self-respect? What do we think will happen if we appear to be weak in an area? Maybe we suspect we will lose a role we value, or the respect of someone we admire.
But if you ask me, it sounds like they respect a version of us that is not authentic to who we want to be. I’ll be honest – I’ve struggled in this place. I’ve lost respect and positions because of my inability to hide the authentic version of myself. Whether that is through expressing my frustration, heaviness, or confusion, or just being honest and confronting when someone has hurt me.
I have finally learned it is okay to disappoint people who believe I’m perfectly happy and satisfied. I’m willing to appear weak. Not only because my faith teaches me that strength comes from humility, but because in my weakness, I am able to see what needs support. And with this level of awareness, I’m able to notice the people in my story that are no longer welcome as supporting characters – which might be one of the biggest benefits of authenticity.
To me, the value of stoicism in the face of grief is not to appear strong and settled to those circling my life. Stoicism teaches that by developing self-control, we can overcome destructive emotions. It defines virtue as wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation. Four characteristics that, when applied to a season of tension, can develop mental toughness in certain ways.
But if we rely solely on developing our mental toughness, we lose access to the tenderhearted soft place to land when everything in life seems sharp. Stoicism relies on logic to try and understand the universal reasons for what is happening around us and how to respond. And when we put it this way, it starts to sound like a very empty pursuit in the face of our grief.
Learning how to process our grief means examining our beliefs about life, healing, relationships, and self-awareness. Grief is a big ol’ reset button on our comprehension. While that can feel like the worst thing I’ve ever said to you, I hope it also sounds like permission.
You don’t need my permission to grieve differently. But sometimes permission helps. So if you are feeling a little trapped by your strength and stoic approach to life, may today be the day you find and accept permission to feel weak sometimes, too.
Thank you for listening to episode six of Restorative Grief with Mandy Capehart.
I pray that you resonate with this new permission to shake off this feeling of obligation to keep it all together. Feeling weak is not a sign that you are a weak person; it’s a sign that you have feelings, and those feelings have insight and information for you. If we continue to muscle through, hiding our needs and our low points, we will likely continue to suffer beneath this false sense of strength, which serves no one; least of all our broken hearts.
A friend of mine owns a coffee shop locally, and she shares some of the most encouraging and hilarious reminders of how life can be different if we take a step outside of our usual comfort zones and expectations. Recently she shared a perfect quote for an episode about finding strength in all the right places and I cackled so hard. She said, “I’m going to need you to be strong today – (I whisper to my cup of coffee).” Because really, the only things I need to remain strong are my convictions, my relationships, and my morning cup of coffee.
As always, you can find me on Instagram and Twitter @MandyCapehart or online at MandyCapehart.com. I would love to connect with you so please pop over and say hello! I’m also so grateful to see you sharing about Restorative Grief, so if you do share, please tag me. It means the world.
Thank you for listening, and I’ll see you next week.
Links + Resources from the episode:
- A more honest history of Keep Calm & Carry On
- Follow Outsider Coffee on Instagram for hilarious coffee based encouragement
- Snag a copy of my book Restorative Grief
- Connect with me on Twitter or Instagram @MandyCapehart
- Join The Restorative Grief Project, a private online grief coaching community