I don't generally get feedback from others during or after a run. I don't expect it either. We talk about how good or bad it went, insist we do it again soon, and go our separate ways. I was surprised to find myself on the receiving end of some lovely feedback after a recent run. My friend Jenn, her friend Kristen, and I had an adventure on a snowy Saturday afternoon, exploring a trail we hadn't run before. There were a few decent hills sprinkled in there. As much as they hurt, I might kinda sorta maybe love hills. They are hard as hell but they are so good for your running.
Once we wrapped up our 5 mile trek, we thawed out in Jenn's car and debriefed. I was completely caught off guard when I was told that I "looked so strong" when I was climbing the hills. That she wished she had my legs. Wow. I've been injured for so long that the idea of looking or feeling strong seems impossible. I had no idea how to accept that compliment, other than to deflect a bit and downplay the hard work I've put in these past months to get to where I am. This moment has stuck with me for the past couple of weeks now.
After further thought on this, I realized that I've gotten that same feedback in other places lately. My office, for example. While grief impacts everyone differently (and you will not know how you will react until it happens, trust me), one of the ways I've coped is by sticking to my routine as much as possible. I work when I normally work, where I normally work, and do not deviate. It is familiar, but it is also distracting and a way for me to switch off all non-essential emotional functions. In the weeks since Mark died, I have lost count of the number I've times someone has told me how strong I am. How if they were me they would be XYZ right now instead of my ABC. A similar deflection happens here as well, especially if you are not personally close with said co-worker.
With my brain constantly spinning its wheels, I started to ask myself how/if it is ok to acknowledge/accept the physical strength feedback. Sometimes you try to qualify it with all the things you did and do to get there (as I did). Sometimes you smile, say thank you, and mentally high five yourself for proof that whatever you've been doing is paying off. For me (and I'm speaking only for me), it is not the same with emotional strength. I find myself disagreeing, downplaying, bringing up what people don't see as proof that I am, in fact, weak. Why? I don't want to acknowledge weakness. But...I also don't want people to think I'm doing better than I am. That something no longer hurts the same because you can't see it tattooed on my face anymore. Am I not properly performing the part of newly widowed?
The fact is, most of the places you're displaying emotional strength are public. Professional. Where you need to look as together as possible. Where you might be expected to look as together as possible, if for no other reason than to make sure other people aren't uncomfortable. God forbid, right? There is a lot of pressure to "be ok" so that others don't have to worry about what to do or say or think. This sends the message that emotional pain is a shortcoming or weakness that is capable of being controlled and corrected entirely by the self. And sooner rather than later, k? Physical pain, on the other hand, is less icky for others. Easier to ask about, easier to offer unsolicited advice about. Easier. It doesn't invite others to project their own fears and expectations of how you should look/feel/act onto you.
It is also a lot harder and less acceptable to talk about what you are doing to emotionally cope, heal, manage. So much of what is seen (or not seen) is not close to representative of what went into getting to that publicly "strong" place. My Legs: hours of spinning, foam rolling, yoga, strengthening and activation exercises. My Heart: hours of crying, writing, glasses of wine, hot baths, prayer. The latter is not polite conversation. Similar to the unwritten rule of not telling someone how you actually are when they ask "how are you?"
We as humans are who we are. Flawed. Loving. I suppose all I want to communicate right now is that this is an experience I am having. I'm surrounded by people who care and want to provide support and none of us knows how this works. I'll continue to attack the hills (and soak in my tub) because that is what I know. It is what works for me right now. I just ask that if you feel so inclined as to tell me how strong you think I am, just pause for a moment. Wonder about what you might not be seeing. Or what I am choosing to be seen. Thanks.