Karen's Blogs

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Being Strong All The Time is Not Effective Mental Health

An article I read entitled “It’s O.K. to be a coward about cancer” (Time magazine, 8/7/17, pp. 21-22) got me thinking about our culture’s obsession with being strong no matter what happens. I firmly agree with what the author, Josh Friedman, has to say—how pushing ourselves to be strong is neither realistic nor helpful. For example, it can pave the way to emotional eating.
Friedman, a cancer survivor himself, made reference to U.S. Senator John McCain’s public diagnosis of brain cancer, contending that to encourage and expect people to be “strong” while suffering serious diseases is wrong-headed and foolish. I have a friend who has endured several types of cancer over the many decades I’ve known him who does just that: insist he must be strong. His forceful statements about this need always seem to me more wishful thinking than realistic expectation.
As Friedman says, our “tough guy narrative is seductive. It suggests that we have control over our fate, that we can will cancer away.” The truth is that there are an infinite number of terrible fates that could befall humans and that we have little or no control over. We can eat healthfully, exercise regularly, steer clear of toxins, manage stress effectively, and still get cancer or MS or Parkinson’s or scores of other conditions.
When we, or our loved ones, are diagnosed with these diseases, we might wish to remain optimistic, cheerful, and functional. However, we must realize that we cannot be that way all the time. We require time to be sad or afraid, to consider what we might lose and start to grieve, to be comforted, and to let others take over. We need time to withdraw into ourselves and cry—and cry and cry.
Our western notion of strength in the face of adversity and that every horror that befalls us must be fought to the death, is wrong, ridiculous and dangerous. No one should expect us to react in only one way. Sometimes people want us to be strong because they can’t stand the helplessness they feel when we’re not, especially if we’ve been the rock in their lives. Sometimes they want us to be strong because if we’re not, we’re edging them too close to the reality that they may need to care for us or, worse, lose us.
If you insist that you must be strong in the face of difficult or stressful times, you might be setting yourself up for mindless or emotional eating. Who would blame you for seeking food comfort—aside from yourself, that is? By allowing yourself to feel scared, sad, and vulnerable, you’ll cope better with whatever awfulness you go through in life. And you’ll reduce the emotional eating that is sure to make you feel even worse.
Things You Should Never Say to Yourself
How Critical Parents Hurt Their Children

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