My mom used to have muscle pain in her shoulders. Usually one shoulder at a time. She’d walk around rolling her neck and shrugging and getting us to massage the crunchy spot. Finally it would work itself out. It took hours or it took days.

My sister and I deal with the same muscle tension. While we can always find physical reasons for the tension—I don’t stretch enough, I’m hunched over my computer all day, I have poor posture—the real reason is holding tension.

I used to get a serious tension headache a couple of times a month. It started with pain and tightness in one shoulder. A knot. Over a day or two, the pain would creep up. From shoulder to neck, up my skull, along one side of my face. The full blossoming felt like a knife stabbing into my cheek, dull throbbing over my ear, lines of pain radiating from shoulder to top of head, and nausea. It might last for 12 hours or 2 days.

I wonder if I induced these times to give myself a justifiable reason to take a break, to quit caring for everyone and care only for myself. What a terrible way to go about it. I don’t say that flippantly; there’s a particular pattern I see in myself and other strong women.

Strong women keep their shit together and keep the family going. Strong women set the standards. Strong women help others. Strong women have strong emotions, but they control the expression: there are acceptable and unacceptable times and places to express emotion.

Examples: it is acceptable to have a yelling-mad argument with your husband in your home. It is unacceptable to do so in public.

It is acceptable to say privately how overloaded and unappreciated you feel. It is unacceptable to stand up for yourself and say No directly to anyone outside of your immediate family.

It is acceptable to have a group complaining session with your girlfriends about the irritations of daily life. It is unacceptable to explain the soul-deep dissatisfaction you feel in life, to acknowledge that you feel unseen and unheard, to admit that you don’t know yourself anymore, to say plainly that you are unhappy and not sure what to do about it, or if anything can be done.

So many boundaries. Strong women know the boundaries. Strong women keep the boundaries, guard them, stand at the gates, lay down their lives. Strong women understand that everything hinges on keeping everything in its proper place.

What would happen if we relented? What would happen if we stepped aside? What would happen if we quit living for the sake of keeping it all together? What would happen if we traded in the strength of silence for the strength of vulnerability?

It would all fucking fall apart, that’s what would happen. At least that’s what we believe.

So we keep on being strong, the only way we know how. It is a great and terrible burden; no one has placed it on us but ourselves. We resent it, and yet we will not let it go. We don’t like controlling others, but we care too much to let things fall apart.

In turn, we are resented.

No one wants to be controlled. No one wants to be treated like a child, not even children.

We resent the burden we bear; we hate the way it makes us behave; we feel guilty and angry at the same time; we grieve for something we’ve lost and don’t even know what to call it. We long for security. We fear chaos, but the structures we build to keep ourselves safe become traps. They poison, wound, and imprison us.

When we roar in our hurt and anger, it is honest, genuine, important anger. It is the cry of a wounded animal, terrified and trapped, desperate and cornered. We scream our pain at others—usually our partners, our children, our bosses, our parents. We rage, we fight, we flail, and then we feel terrible about it. The emotion is relieved, for a moment. But nothing is resolved. The trap remains, and we remain in it.

The tension begins to build again. We feel it mounting. We search for outlets, acceptable ones:

  • I need a ladies’ night out.
  • I need to work out more.
  • I need to get a better job. My spouse needs to get a better job.
  • I need to get away with my girlfriends.
  • I need to get away from the house/the kids/the routines/the stress/the obligations.

These are escapes. There is nothing wrong with them: they’re good things. But we don’t pursue them for their own sake, in joy and delight. We use them. They are temporary outlets, socially acceptable ways to run away.

When we say, “I need to get away,” what are we getting away from?

When did it become okay that life, our day-to-day existence, is something we want to escape rather than something we deeply enjoy?

This is not okay, strong women.

This is not how we have to live, and there are more options than we have acknowledged. To justify these escapes as self-care is hypocritical; if we care for ourselves, we will not accept as normal a daily life we want to escape. We will not bribe ourselves into lethargy with momentary getaways and temporary changes. We will not distract ourselves from noticing that the life we have built so carefully feels like a prison.

We will care for our selves more than our appearances. We will care for our souls over what is acceptable. We will care enough to ask what is missing, and keep asking until we get an answer that feels true. We will not run away from what we have built; we will turn and face it. We will listen to our anger long enough to hear its message, and we will look in the mirror, into our own eyes, and ask: “Why have you forsaken me?”

What we need is not a way out, but a way through.

What we have built is not meaningless; it does not need to be destroyed, but understood. The roles and structures are there to serve us, not the other way around. The purpose of our strength is not to guard the old boundaries, but to find the line where freedom and love meet, for us, today.

We took what we were given and made the best of it. Now it is time to be who we are and make something better.

Annie Mueller is a writer, reader, seeker of growth, and transplant to Puerto Rico, where she lives with her best friend and their four children. Her crash course in self-discovery came from experiencing job loss, financial devastation, Hurricane Maria and its aftermath, and major surgery—all in less than a year. She writes about creativity, personal growth, and spirituality; runs Prolifica, a content management consultancy for small teams and solo professionals; and sends out a popular weekly newsletter about feelings and freelancing. You can find more of her work on her website.

Image courtesy of Levi Guzman.