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Editorial: Mental toughness and softness

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Editorial: Mental toughness and softness

Photo by Eliana Salcedo

This column is intended solely for entertainment and informational purposes. Please contact your personal doctor before making any decisions related to your medical care. 

“I was in the crying place,” she said.

My friend was dying. We stood in a cocktail party and made pleasantries over small plates of food. We both knew she was going to die so I let her guide the conversation, but I had to ask.

“What is the crying place?”

“My shower of course,” she laughed. She was so funny and honest “Don’t you have a place where you cry?”

I had nothing official. I cried in the shower sometimes. But I rarely cried anywhere.

“Probably the grocery store,” I guessed. That’s the place I’m mostly likely to get caught off guard by a memory or see a man who looks like my father.

“Good,” my friend said. “Everyone should have a crying place.”

She was tough. I am tough. When she died, I went into my bathroom and realized she was right. The shower is the very best place to cry.

The last time I cried was December 24. I keep track. I’m trying to do better expressing my feelings, but most days I’m a Vulcan. Logic is my rock. The problem is that I’m also an empath. I can sense other people’s feelings. I can absorb those feelings. People tell me that I’m calm. My voice is soothing. They never see the riot of emotions and restraint that I battle each day. But I can see it in myself and in others.

There’s a mental health crisis, but it’s not new. Global pandemic, war, reckoning with systemic injustice, natural disasters. We watch the pressure of elite athletes who face competition and criticism with a smile. These are old stories through a new lens. The world is always on fire. What about the year before last? And the year before that? What about the year my dad died or the year I left for college? Before COVID, we were no more secure in our brain health than we are now. We were silent then. We were in mental health denial. Now we need to talk.

I can talk to you all day about common chronic conditions and mental health. It’s what I do for a living. We should talk about our physical health, cancer screenings, depression, substance use, and suicide. We have to have tough conversations. 20% of adults are facing a mental health challenge. Research suggests this number might be as high as 25% in teens. You can check the Center for Disease Control and the World Health Organization for prevalence rates. I can look outside my window. I notice how people drive. I see the hustle of distracted parents and tired eyes of my co-workers. I watch teenagers navigating constant change. I catch the moments when I speak to my children sharply. There is a reason why.

Are you tired? Are you filled with emotions like fatigue, languishing, worry, and hopelessness? How are you feeling? Maybe the answer is “Fine, thank you.” If we paused and were honest, would our answer be the same? I will ask again. “How are you really feeling?” Many of our feelings defy clinical diagnosis. These are important signs that we need to take care of ourselves, or we should seek professional help.

I don’t want to seem weak. I’m a survivor. I’m tough. I have mental toughness. It is easy to be angry at the world. People will lie and betray us. People will disregard our feelings and hurt us. Friends will die. Opportunities will fade. I want that tough outer shell to protect me from the harshness of the world. That same toughness is why I am languishing.

There is a value in mental softness.

Soft means forgiving and indulgent. Flexible, gentle, and understanding. I’d rather be these things than be tired and hopeless. I am mother. By design I am meant to be soft, and soft is also strong.

When my oldest was a baby she would cry, and I would comfort her. She would turn her face into my neck. I could feel her shuddering breath as she began to calm her tears. She would inhale and fall asleep. My body was her comfort. My skin warm like the sun. My arms a blanket. My heartbeat echoed hers. I was softness as I held her to my breast, but I was also strength. I remember thinking, babies aren’t ashamed of their tears. Why should I be? And yet I was.

I cried on December 24, because my mother-in-law had died and Christmas Eve was special to her. I cried because I never got to say goodbye. My grief was overwhelming. In a year, where the entire world struggled, I cried for all the other emotions I’d felt and held back.

I realized that I could be allowed my grief. Grief is unwelcome, but acceptable. If you cry over someone’s death, people understand. If you cry because you depressed, people think you are weak. I’m not weak. Neither are you. You are tough. You are soft. We can be both.

In the U.S., 20% of us need clinical support for our mental health. That means the intervention of a therapist, medical doctor, medication, or possibly a hospital stay. We should get the type of help we need and not feel ashamed. Recovery is possible.

The remaining 80% of us can benefit from self-care strategies or digital and virtual care. We can improve how we feel.

– Monitor our alcohol consumption, technology use, and sleep habits.

– Focus on activities that bring us joy. Mucho mucho joy.

– Make our mental and physical health a priority.

100% of us could benefit from changing how you look at the world, act, and react. I don’t have to be hardened by disappointment or embarrassed by my feelings. I can have mental toughness and softness.

– I pay attention the world and my community. Attention is the act of noticing how I feel and being aware of the people around me.

– I feel empathy for others. This isn’t pity, but understanding. I can respect and honoring the emotions of others, even if it’s something I’ve not experienced.

– I am vulnerable. Beside grief, I can show my true self and emotions. This means being honest when I’m sad and when I’m happy.

– I give thanks for this strange life. Gratitude is being thankful for big and small things like your neighbor who hands you a peach on the last day peach season.

– I accept the realness of the world. Sometimes things are bad. Reality is acknowledging the challenges and knowing what is happening around us. We aren’t always going to be in a state of gratitude or empathy.

I’m thankful for the increased conversations about mental health. If I am tired, I will rest. If I worry, I will focus on what I can control. If I am overwhelmed, I will do things in little steps.

Last year, I became certified as an instructor of Mental Health First Aid for adults. I teach Mental Health First Aid in my spare time. I don’t have much, but that’s okay. I want to be informed and have the right words to have conversations with people who need encouragement. I want to be able to ask my friends and family tough questions about depression and thoughts of suicide.

We can do everything right and life may still go horribly wrong. But I’d like to soften my approach. Mental softness is my new strength. My tears are my strength.

“Do you have a crying place?”

My friend has been gone for years. I would tell her my crying place has evolved. I cry in the grocery store and in the shower. I cry when my neighbor hands me a peach. Though it is given with love, I am still moved to tears. I cry when I see a dragonfly at twilight. I cry in when a lady asks me for help finding her ride. I cry in my car.

I am a soft person at heart. Still, I don’t want to lose my toughness. I need both. If I saw my friend today, I would remind her that the crying places are also the same places that I smile.

I think she’d like that.

Nicki is a certified instructor of Adult Mental Health first aid and Vice President at DarioHealth. She is a writer and movie reviewer. She lives in Decatur with her husband and four kids.

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