Let me ask you a question…

Are you strong?

Do not look at your biceps or tighten your ab muscles. Different blog for a different day.

I’m talking about inner strength.

If you are a teenager or in your mid 20’s, I bet you didn’t even think about it and said “NO!” right away with an intentional huff. You don’t feel very strong at all. I mean come on, your friend forgot to tag you in a “Who’s your best friend?” post on Instagram and you cried like a three year old in your room for an hour. You have zero personal strength right?

This is wrong by the way, but we’ll get to that.

For us in our 30’s and beyond, we have the luxury of looking at this question through our well-earned pair of rose colored glasses we received when we turned the big 3-0.  Ahh…the wisdom bestowed upon us for surviving our 20’s!  So with this wisdom will likely come a mixed bag of responses:

There are those who will say “Hell yes” right away! You are strong and you know it.

Then, there are those of us that are not sure. The ones that do a pretty good job weathering some storms, but yet still have those days where they are sobbing like fools to a ballad in their car after a stressful day.

I happen to fall in this category and the song was aptly named “Been a Long Day”.

Unfortunately, there are some of you who will answer “No” right away, because all you feel is the personal pain and anguish during stressful times. The fact you are feeling sad, hopeless, and stressed means you don’t have inner strength right?

Or do you? 

Let me ask you a question – right now as you are sitting here reading this post do you feel the muscles in your legs?

No.

Oh my! Does that mean you don’t have any muscles in your legs?!? Of course not.  You know you have muscles because you can move your leg.

Strength is more like that leg muscle than you realize. The fact that you wake up every morning and walk through this chaos ridden world is proof you have strength. It is there, deep inside, making us do…well everything. Making us get up in the morning, making us get through a hard test, making us not pull our hair out with the sound of our kids’ fidget spinners hitting the floor constantly.

But like our leg muscles, we really only feel our strength when it is isn’t working like it should, when it is sore, or hurt, or tired from working.

What’s sad is that when our muscles hurt from being sore, we are happy, excited, inspired, because we know that pain is progress!! It’s working, I’m getting stronger!! Sore today, strong tomorrow right? But we don’t feel that way when our strength is sore.  It’s quite the opposite, we take these feelings of stress and agony as a sign that our strength is not there, not that its sore from getting stronger.  We don’t see these bad days for what they are, much needed exercise for our strength.

We aren’t born with strength, just like we aren’t born with rock hard abs. We are born into a world where we are cute and cuddly, and everything is done for us. People are strong for us, so we don’t have to use our own strength at all. Our unpleasant moments end without our strength even lifting a finger. We cry, there’s a bottle. We fall, instantly we are swept up. We receive medals even if we rode the bench, we receive accolades for everything. Childhood, for most,  is the time when our strength lays back on a lazy chair and watches the show.

Well, think back to those leg muscles again. When you use them after having let them sit dormant on the couch for years, what happens? They hurt like hell right?

Well, cue your teenage years. The teen years for most is the time when our inner strength is forced out of the lazy chair and put through its first exercise.  We get hurt for the first time, suffer our first heartbreak, learn rejection, etc.  And because our strength is just waking up and starting this journey its not that strong. So just like when we start exercising for the first time…it’s hard!!  Exercising our inner strength hurts like hell. Those years suck. There is simply no other way to put it.

But just like it is for our body, exercise is crucial for our strength. If we don’t go through the hard times, our inner strength will look like a wimp from a comic book instead of the gladiator with bulging muscles we need it to look like to survive the adult years.

In other words, if we don’t push through those times and allow our strength to grow, it won’t be there when we really need it.

How do I know this? Well, let’s just say I earned my rose colored glasses due to this very lesson.

For me I was pretty well coddled and sheltered in a “bubble wrapped” perfect life until my late teenage years. This meant that for the majority of my young life my inner strength was lounging on the beach with an umbrella drink in its hand. It didn’t have to lift a finger.

Then came college and my strength was tipped out of that beach chair for the first time. I was dropped off at college with a “Good luck” and a “Go get em”.  For the first time in my life I was sent to an environment where no one was there to do anything for me.  I started at University of Iowa, a large school about 2 hours away from my posh life. There I was, just me and my wimpy inner strength still yawning and stretching from its years of hibernation.

And thus the inner strength exercise began.

But just like my leg muscle did when I started running, when I started to try and use my strength that I hadn’t had reason to use before, it hurt like hell. I was miserable. I was all alone. I started to fall apart and my inner strength wasn’t strong enough to do it on its own.  And each exercise my inner strength was put through was met with more and more pain from me.

Now my 30 something rose colored glasses self would have loved to run up with towel and a drink  and encouraged me to go on. “Hey, it’s okay, deep breath, it’s going to hurt for awhile because we need to exercise that strength. Keep going….it will get easier”.

But I didn’t have the luxury of “from the future” pep talks.

So I did the complete opposite. I put an end to that strength exercise class right away. I quit. I couldn’t endure the pain. I ran home to my Mom and Dad crying. I can’t do it! I wanted back in the bubble wrap world of my childhood.

I transferred schools at the end of the semester to a small college in central Illinois where my best friend from high school was. That way, I had someone there with me to help give me the strength I didn’t have. I needed all the reinforcements I could use with my wimpy inner strength I kept sidelining. My wimpy inner strength climbed back into its beach chair and relaxed.

Fast forward two years later. My junior year hit and slowly but surely more responsibility was entering my world. Big decisions were on the horizon. What on earth was I going to do with my life? How was I going to pay bills…wait I would have to pay my own bills?  More and more adult questions kept coming and popping the bubble wrap life I had put around my self.  My inner strength got up, stretched, and was ready to exercise and help me through. “Alright, I’m a bit rusty, but I’m ready to go”, it said.  It just needed to get a little stronger and it could crush all these anxious doubting thoughts.

But because it had not been exercised before, it was like asking someone off the couch to run the Chicago Marathon. It wasn’t ready. The anxiety grew and grew.  I would sit in class and all of the sudden my heart would race, and I would feel sick. Yep, you guessed it, more pain…more uncomfortable feeling as my inner strength was starting its much needed exercise again. Again I had another chance to keep going and get it strong.

Nope. I quit. Yet again. This time, I drove home in the middle of the night during an incredibly anxious night and announced to my parents that I was dropping out of school.  I resorted to my fate of having no personal strength.

I took a semester off of school and retreated to my warm comfy bubble wrap life at home.  Only this time, it was less cute to my parents as I was now knocking on 20. They decided for my own good that my posh bubble wrap was coming off.   They declared that I could stay home for a semester and get myself together, but I had to work. I couldn’t just sit home.  I have no doubt that their thought was the second I got out into the working world without a college degree I would realize that I didn’t want that life and go running back to school. Well played parents…well played.

What happened next was the entrance to by far the darkest period of my life. Bubble wrap ripped off,  I had to navigate all the emotions of the guilt of leaving school with the reality of the fact I was now working at a hotel and having to pay my own bills and plan my own life.  I had convinced myself I had no inner strength and as a result had the lowest self esteem in the world. I was at the perfect place for something or someone to pounce.

And he did.

I thought I was nothing, and so when a man at work started to pay attention to me and shower me with compliments…well I bet you can see where this is going can’t you? My inner strength inside was crushed…probably shaking its head thinking “What are you doing, just use me! Let me grow!”

But I knew how much it hurt when my strength was exercising. I couldn’t do it. I needed someone else’s strength.  This led to two un-explainable years where I ignored all inner voices, all voices of reason. I started dating this man, got engaged a month later, went back to school because he went with me, and a year later I was standing in a church in front of my confused family and friends marrying a man I didn’t love.  Oh sure at the time I thought I did. I mean come on…he was telling me I was strong, beautiful, funny, talented…all the things I wanted to be but thought I wasn’t. What’s not to love about that?

So there I was married at 21 and because I had him and his strength for me to use I could go to law school. There was no way I could move 3 hours away by myself! No way! My inner strength which was horribly out of shape and weak at this point just stood there in disbelief that I wouldn’t even try.

There is a problem with allowing someone else to be your strength and self esteem. When they want to, they can take it away in a heartbeat. And that’s exactly what happened. Within about 2 months of my marriage, it turned abusive. First verbal and emotional, then physical. I needed my strength big time then. Getting out of bed on a daily basis was a struggle. So, I called on my inner strength for the first time in awhile – “Okay be strong, leave! Let’s go! We can do this alone”.

Oh I’m sure my inner strength would have loved to comply and help me leave but I hadn’t exercised it or made it strong, so it simply couldn’t.  I remained in that prison for 2 years. 2 of the hardest years of my life. 2 years of the most pain in my life. I couldn’t run this time, I was now an adult, no one was going to save me. I was too big to bubble wrap. So I had to endure the pain and soreness that went along with my inner strength being forced to exercise through the toughest workout in the world. Piyo for my inner strength for sure!

Day after day after day, insult after insult, bruise after bruise, for 2 years this went on. I just felt the pain, but inside of me my inner strength was finally getting the exercise it so desperately needed.

The abuse got so bad that my family finally stepped in, told me I was not thinking clearly, and that I had to leave. I think they knew at that point, they had no choice but to be my strength and put the bubble wrap on again. My Mom left work and stayed with me. My brother who was getting his masters degree at the time even said he would move to where I lived if it would help.

And that’s when it happened: my inner strength was ready to show off its sexy strong body it had been working on for 2 years.

“No, I’ll be fine.” I said, not believing what was coming out of my mouth.

I remember the first day my Mom and brother left me there alone. They had just moved me to an apartment on my own. All by myself. My Mom kissed me and walked out. My brother hugged me. I’m sure both of them knew I’d be calling them in 5 minutes. Door closed.  I wanted to stay busy so I grabbed a load of laundry and drove to a nearby laundromat – my first chore in my new life. I put the wash in, started the wash, and sat down with a gossip magazine.

Not even another “Jennifer Aniston is pregnant” story could keep my mind occupied. The anxiety crept in as my mind caught up with the fact I was now alone. I started crying, feeling liked the walls were shutting in around me. What was I doing? I couldn’t do this.  I started to run. Literally. I stopped the wash and took out a pile of wet and sudsy clothes, threw them in a basket. I jumped in my car and sped back to my apartment. If I hurried and packed my bags I could catch my Mom and brother on the interstate and follow them back home to my bubble wrap world.

I got up one flight of the three flight apartment complex when all of the sudden that plan was busted. A sudden calm came over me. It was odd. I had no idea what it was but I know now. It was my strength. Now strong from the years of exercise it went through it was ready to be heard. And for the first time in my life, it was strong enough to stop all my fears.

I stood in the stairway for a minute and took a deep breath. Up to the apartment to pack and quit life and head back to the bubble wrap? Or back down with the sudsy clothes toward MY life?

What did I choose?

Yep, you were right….those clothes didn’t stay sudsy for long.

With my inner strength now ready to roll, I entered my late 20’s and started my new life. I filed for divorce, finished law school with honors, got my first job, met my now husband, married him, and the absolute icing on the cake….

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Had these three, my “trophies” for surviving my inner strength training!

Looking back on these years now, I can see it. The hard times in our lives where we feel we have no strength are the important times, they are the exercise for our strength. Every time you feel pain, stress, and weakness remind yourself that it is just the soreness from your strength getting stronger. But don’t stop that exercise. Don’t you dare. If you do, it’s only going to be that much harder when you make it work again. The earlier you start your inner strength training, the better.

If I would have known then what I know now, those first times I felt that pain of growth of my strength I would have pushed through, it would have been easier back then, as the exercise wasn’t that hard. But alas, I kept quitting, and as a result my strength had more years of sitting dormant. But the more we push through, the more we keep going, the faster we are going to get the inner strength results we want.

I still go through bouts of stress, pain, and overwhelming anxiety from time to time. My inner strength seems to always be training for something! But now I look at these moments differently.  They are painful, but necessary moments. When I feel that pain, that anxiety, that fear, that sadness or pain…I don’t quit. Because I’m for damn certain not going let my strength take a day on the sidelines…nope exercise your little heart out inner strength!! I need you strong!!

As a Mom, I’m mindful to let my kids fail and exercise their own personal strength as well. Yes, I still am the keeper of the bubble wrap for them, but I’m more reluctant to use it on them. The sooner we can start these exercises when they are easy, the better.

So, just like you are grateful after a big workout and your abs hurt the next day, be grateful for the hard times in life.   When the bad days come and you feel like tossing in the towel, treat it the way I treat a tough workout, grit your teeth, swear under your breath followed by a quick prayer, and crush the workout!

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R.C.

 

 

 

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2 thoughts on “An Exercise in Inner Strength

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