We tell people they are “strong” when we are uncomfortable with their pain and would prefer that they shut up and not bother us with it. To say “but you are strong” is telling someone “I don’t think you should feel that way,” and it’s not a compliment. I don’t think that strength means being invulnerable, or pretending that you are. The belief that silence and stoicism are inherently good qualities is how you end up dressed up like a bat punching criminals in an alley – it’s not a good road to emotional health.
Be sad. Be angry. Let your heart break – in the diner, on someone’s futon, in the park, on the way to the zoo, at brunch, over drinks, in the therapist’s office, on the bus – Wherever it breaks, let it break all the way open, let it run out and down and spread out in a soggy puddle at your feet. Say, “I’m sorry, I can’t listen to you today, my heart is broken. Will you sit with me a while and I’ll tell you about it?“
Say, “I can’t take care of you today, but you can take care of me, and maybe tomorrow I will take care of you, and we can trade off like that for a while, okay?”
Say, “I love you, and I love that you think I’m strong, but I don’t feel like being strong today. I feel like being angry and crazy and sad. Can we go to the movies or just sit here quietly or take a walk or talk about it or not talk about it?“
Your friends may get scared when you do this. If you, the “strong” one can break, what does that say about them? That’s why they push back at you and try to remind you of your strength, when what you need is for them to stand by you in your pain and weakness. They don’t have to solve that pain, they just have to bear witness to it. Maybe they don’t know how – a lot of people don’t know what to do in the face of other people’s pain. They want to fix everything, and if they can’t fix it they feel inadequate. As the “strong” one you can help them out with this by saying “You don’t have to fix it. You don’t have to do anything. Just be with me, and listen, and love me, and I’ll love you back. That’s all I need – to know that you love me, even when I’m sad and scared and don’t know what to do next.”