The Unfair Burden of the Strong Friend


“Check on your strong friends.” That sentence sweeps social media every time a new suicide hits the news. People suddenly urging each other to go check on the “strong friend”, as if the “strong friend” shouldn’t have been checked on before. People worried that the one who displays the least vulnerability, may be on the headline of the next news article. Friends hurrying to text their “strong friends” because they’re now forced to acknowledge that the people who portray contentment may not actually be content. People suddenly reminded that the “strong friend” endures, too.

I despise the rhetoric of the “strong friend”. I wonder what the standard of the “strong friend” is. Who the heck is assessing a friend's strength or weakness? Are they 'strong' because they keep things bottled up? Are they 'strong' because YOU don't see what they're enduring? Are they 'strong' because they help you with your mess?

I was the strong friend for most of my life, and I was not being checked on. I was contacted when problems arose; reached out to when people were emotionally distraught and had nowhere to turn. I was the friend with the best advice and the most attentive ear. But I wasn’t very strong at all.

I was the dumping ground for my friends’ problems. I was the one who carried their burdens the best – showing the least bits of weakness and smiling through the most amount of pain. I wasn’t strong, I was hiding.

Being the “strong friend” wasn’t an honor nor a reward. It was lonely. The friends that came to me most didn’t have the decency to replenish me. Time after time I poured myself out to lend advice and counsel to women and men who didn’t have the capacity themselves to return the favor. After a while I stopped expecting reciprocity. Instead, I carried the burdens they laid before me, along with my own. I didn’t speak to anyone about what I endured, because I knew it would yield nothing. No advice, no help, no support. That didn’t make me ‘strong’, it made me heavy.

I embarked on every new friendship with the idea that everyone would be the same. Every new friendship I started would take more than it provided. I didn’t trust the friends I had to counsel me or love me properly, and consequently I wasn’t open to being vulnerable with them.

I forged friendships based on fun, rather than actual community and companionship. And when I happened to stumble upon a friend who would listen, I replicated the unfairness placed one me – pouring out my burdens for them to pick up. Ironically, this friend usually came in the form of a boyfriend. I placed an unfair expectation on my partner to bear the brunt of most of my issues, and placed an unhealthy dependency on our relationship. My man was the only one who listened, and would care enough to express concern, support, or counsel. In my head – apart from my immediate family – my man was all I had.

Oh, how unhealthy it was to build a young relationship based on need, rather than desire.

Oh, how ironic it is to fall into isolation, loneliness, and depression because you’ve been improperly dubbed the “strong friend” – by force, not choice. Being considered “strong” wasn’t my desire. I wanted to be open, I wanted to be vulnerable; but the hand I was given was strength. I wasn’t allowed to have problems. I wasn’t allowed to share my struggles. The same friends that respected and allowed their self-perceived ‘weakness’ to pour out, didn’t honor mine.

The struggles of strong friends are often discarded because we “handle everything so well”. Because we’re “always smiling”. Because we “always know the right things to say”. Yet no one acknowledges the pressure that weighs on us because of it.

Strong friends feel alone. Not because we don't have people in our corner, but because those same people in our corner are the ones adding luggage to our already heavy load.

I've grown to be okay with the reality that most people won’t know how to help. Most people are so caught up in themselves, that they’re okay with taking and giving nothing back. And, you know what, I’ve become okay with the reality that part of my purpose is to be a listener; to provide counsel; to encourage growth. However, my purpose is not the “strong friend”. It does not require my hardships to be dismissed. It does not require me to bear the burdens of those who choose not to recognize the ones I’m already carrying – the ones that actually belong to me.

It’s been a conscious effort to form healthy habits for building friendships. The truth is, I only recently started welcoming the idea of new friends and readily acknowledging the importance of friendships – after having been in so many unhealthy ones. I’m just now learning how to lean on people in healthy, constructive ways that foster nurturing and are rooted in support and care. I’m just beginning to learn to tap into the friends who selflessly remind me of their presence – while having to unlearn the narrative that people don’t care.

It took immense toxicity for me to realize that the relationships that forced me to be strong were everything but actual friendships. It took depression and defeat for me to connect with the strongest friend I have, Christ, and learn how to be a better friend for others and myself; for me to learn when to step up for them and when to sit out; for me to recognize when to carry the luggage, and when to lay it at Christ's feet; for me to discern when to provide counsel and when to simply provide prayer.

They say check on your “strong friend”, but how about going a step further. How about deciding to stop unloading everything onto them without pouring something in. How about stop placing an unfair burden on your friends by giving them a label they may not want to uphold. How about creating a space for your friends that welcomes and honors vulnerability and transparency. How about you stop leaving your “strong friends” to fend for themselves. And how about you just be a friend…to all your friends…always.

The burden of being the strong friend is incredibly heavy and unfair. It starts a cycle of toxic friendships and unhealthy relationships. We want to be there, we want to help, but we also need reciprocation. Our “strength” doesn't reduce our humanity. We still hurt. We still endure. We still cry. We still fight. And it's not okay to use what you perceive a compliment to rid us of our realities.

A former “strong friend”

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