Seeing Past the Smile

Quiet, unassuming, steady. She is the woman who is always there, always dutiful. She serves in the Primary, is a leader to one of my children. I can’t express the kind of love and appreciation I have about her service. She teaches in fun, meaningful, participative ways. It’s clear she puts a lot into her calling; she puts a lot into whatever she does.

Although I don’t know her well (our ward split last year, so we are still all still in that process of building relationships), she’s been on my mental list of “people who are on top of it all.”

So one Sunday, as I was running off to take a health break between Sunday School and Relief Society, I reached across the rows of chairs to save myself a seat. I had just the right angle to look straight into this woman’s face. I was surprised by what I saw.

“How are you doing?” I asked.

She gave a simple, non-committal answer. I can’t remember which answer she chose, but you know the kind of answer I am talking about: “Okay.” “Hanging in there.” “Well enough.” “Fine. How are you?” Whatever it was, it was the type of response I think we all get used to giving, whether we are doing well or not. (If we are doing well, there is no reason to say more, is there? If we are not, we know that not everyone actually wants to know how things really are. Or maybe we aren’t ready or able to talk about it all.) (Side question: What’s your typical pat answer?)

I might not have pressed had her eyes not looked almost as though she had been crying. I didn’t know quite how to say that I saw something different in her eyes, so I was just honest. “Are you sure you are OK? You look like you have been crying.”(Yeah, well, when it comes to situations like this, I don’t like to beat around the bush, for better or for worse. I ask as I would like to be asked.)

She tried to brush it all aside (she looked now like she would start crying if she said anything more), but did suggest that maybe we could talk after the block of meetings.

I found her after class, and we began to talk. We ended up in that hallway until the next block was over. I was not prepared to hear what her life is like. She deals with hard stuff, and has for years.

And while I could blame the newness of our ward for my lack of awareness, I don’t, because this woman is strong enough that I may have never seen or known or sensed that she struggled. (Then there’s me, who cries at the drop of a hat if I’m having a bad day and probably doesn’t smile enough through her struggles.) For all my effort at trying to be sensitive to people around me, she had me fooled. I think she has pretty much everyone fooled. Had I not had that chance to see her head-on, I might not have ever seen it. (It was an uncharacteristically bad day, and enough happened to cause me to think we were supposed to connect on this occasion, so any credit goes to God.)

I don’t see her as anything but strong even after our discussion, and I understand the need to be strong. If anything, I respect her all the more now knowing what she works against while she still does so much.

But I am left wondering how many other women around me are suffering behind their smiles. I would never want to violate their privacy or need for silence, but sometimes I think our culture (and/or our interpretation of principles such as self-reliance and faithfulness) creates a faulty notion that we have to be strong all the time. And I think it’s something that, if not kept in check, can keep us from really learning how to love and be loved.

I remember something a bishopric member once said: “Sometimes we don’t do such a good job helping those who are strong.”

I have felt that before. I suspect many of you have, too. If it’s not something that can easily be shared across the pulpit (“Please pray for so-and-so”), easily fixed with a casserole, or easily recognized (as in, your head is bald from chemo), it’s hard to say, “Hey. I’m having a hard time right now.” For one reason or another, sometimes we are hesitant, even afraid, to ask for help.

On the flip side, even if someone’s challenge is well-known or obvious, sometimes we are afraid to ask how we can help, for fear of prying, or asking something that is sensitive or repetitive, or….

Sister Kathleen H. Hughes said something in a general Relief Society meeting several years ago that has stuck with me, and just came to mind as I was writing. She said:

Recently our presidency was meeting with a Church leader. He commented that he wished Relief Society and priesthood meetings would be places where we would be able to say to one another, “Sisters, or brothers, I’m struggling right now. Will you help me?”

I think creating this kind of safe space requires us to be willing to risk both in our need and in our efforts to reach out to those in need. (It also requires us to be patient with each other along the way.) I think that as we open our hearts a little more, we might just find the kind of sacred experiences that Sister Hughes describes in her talk. Our meeting rooms can become holy places. I think, too, that our interactions can be the foundation of more Christlike, hearts-knit-together types of relationships that extend beyond our meetinghouses.

So, what are your thoughts and experiences? More specifically, here are some possible questions to consider:

-When you are in pain, what helps you feel safe enough to share your burden?

– Are you the type that needs some space, or do you do better with a listening ear and a ready shoulder? In either case, if I were in your ward, or knew you in real life, how could I best reach out and support you in times of difficulty?

– Have you had those moments when meetings have become holy places, and hearts have been knit together? What made that possible?

About m&m

really hates writing bios. But here's the summary: She's a married mom who loves reading, writing, tennis, and Italian food. She also savors opportunities to sort through the stuff of life with good friends, which is one reason she loves the sisterhood at Segullah.

48 thoughts on “Seeing Past the Smile

  1. This is a great post. What is hidden in your ward?
    I know people feel the need for pirvacy, I am one of those people. But, sometimes I am just waiting for someone I can trust really cares, to ask me. I’m guarded because I have had intimate conversations with “well meaning” people who turn out to be not that interested after all.
    I agree with the quote from the bishopbric member “sometimes we don’t do such a good job helping those who are strong.” Our family is one of those families that hold several callings, are reliable, have strong testimonies. What do I have to complain about, right? (I do feel grateful. Really, I do. And I have less to complain about than others in my ward.) But let me tell you who shows up at my children’s baptisms: My own immediate family, my parents (if we’re lucky and they travel, we have no other family anywhere close to us), a bishopbric member (required), a primary president member (required) and the person conducting the baptism (also in charge of filling the font). It’s hard for me not to feel a little sad about it when I attend the other baptisms in the ward of members who have “struggled”, or have “issues”, or are “down on their luck”, or are members of the “local elite families.” The room is packed. Sometimes people standing in the halls. I’m glad my ward offers support to those who really do need it, but sometimes it’s hard to watch when families like mine are working so hard to be “on top of it all” and experience virtually no fellowship at all. The only thing left for me to do is continue to look for opportunities to give support to others in all types of situations and remember that the gospel of Jesus Christ is perfect, and we as humans are not.

  2. I usually have no problem telling people that I need help. I know I’m not the only one who suffers, so why be coy about it?

    My problem comes from having a husband who is very, very insecure about not presenting his best face at all times. He feels that asking for help is pathetic and makes people think less of him. He lost his job last year and was unemployed for five months. He wouldn’t let us tell anyone; not the bishop or even his family.

    Not only was it hard suffering in silence, but it denied us blessings of having people fast and pray for us. I don’t know if he really thinks that people will judge him harshly or if it’s only a matter of his pride.

  3. I am in the Relief Society presidency in my ward and have been for that last 2 years. During those 2 years, I’ve also been dealing with the most trying time in my marriage and I don’t feel like I can talk to ANYONE about it. It’s hard to put on my “game face” and go to presidency meetings, visit the sisters, and even teach when my personal life is such a shambles. But I do. My family is one of those “strong” ones (well, that’s our facade) that everyone assumes is infallible. No one knows my husband struggles with fidelity issues that he’s just barely started to address with our bishop. Keeping silent right now is a survival mechanism. If our marriage holds together and we get through this, I don’t want people to remember our “problems” and judge us. Being in the RS presidency has also opened my eyes to others’ pain. No one has a perfect life. We all face challenges, and when it comes right down to it, no one is really as strong as we think. We all need help and support. My philosophy is this – I treat everyone as if they are like me, hurting on the inside but can’t open up about it – then I am so much more compassionate to others. It helps my own pain.

  4. What a great piece. Very thoughtful, and what an important topic.

    As per your prompts:

    1. Um…nothing. I cannot think of one time I was ever comfortable sharing my burden with someone else in person. Sometimes I open up to my husband, and that pretty much sums it up. No one else, ever. (Maybe my mom when I was a teenager.) Probably not a good thing. I should work on that. Sometimes I can open up in writing, and do from time to time post some of my struggles on my blog.

    2. I do best with offers of tangible specific service. In December I ran into a friend who said, “I would love to watch your kids for you one day next week after school for a few hours so you can take care of some Christmas errands by yourself.” I was surprised to hear myself accept her offer, but of course I didn’t follow up with her either. She did follow up with me to schedule the specific day later. Good for her. I was in tears picking my kids up because it was so meaningful for me.

    I am the kind of person who is tough to love…my love language is service, but I can almost never bring myself to ask someone to serve me. And I would never ask unless I could see no other way to accomplish the task. Which is rare. Again, probably not a good thing.

    I have been working on using this specific service idea to find ways in through the tough exterior to serve others in my surroundings who are strong and keep up the strong appearance. I have found it to be an effective technique for getting through to those who are difficult to serve.

    Ex. Rather than, “Let me know if there is anything I can do,” say, “I would like to serve you this week, which of these ideas would be most helpful…can I bring you dinner on Tuesday? Can we meet for lunch at my house just to visit on Monday, Wednesday, or Friday? Can I watch your child(ren) for a few hours on Wednesday or Thursday? Do you have any errands (movies to return, groceries to get) that I can do for you? I need to do some errands and will already be out. I would love to do some of yours too.

    Somehow, I think most of us have concerns about burdening others, but when others offer to serve us and they have suggested the time and the service, it seems easier to accept because we don’t feel like we are inconveniencing them as much. At least that is my take on it.

    3. The time I mentioned above where a friend watched my children was a sweet experience for me, and apparently the sister who served me had been praying to be able to serve someone even in the midst of her own busyness so it was an answer to her prayers. She actually mentioned that she felt honored to have been able to serve me, recognizing that I don’t usually accept service. I have had a couple of other experiences where I was able to see through the strong facade to someone’s struggles. Times when I was in tune enough to be blessed to see some of what was hidden “in the quiet heart.”

    What made these experiences possible? Prayer. Praying specifically for the opportunity to see the needs of others and the ability to be able to meet those needs.

    I look forward to reading the comments of others here.

  5. In reading both Jennie’s comment about her husband, and name withheld about keeping silent being a survival mechanism, I think I understand better some of my own silence.

    In my hardest times I need to pretend I am strong in order to preserve my own strength. If I can convince others I am strong, I must be strong enough to get through it, right? Fake it til you make it has worked for me. I think I am afraid if I open up, I will completely fall apart and not be able to keep going. It is a matter of survival.

    And name withheld…my heart goes out to you. You will be in my prayers. Thanks for sharing.

  6. I am terrible at being honest about my trials. Part of me is just being stoic, I’m sure. Everyone suffers, so why should I bother piping up? I don’t want to be the squeaky wheel. And honestly, I have found that most times, if I try to forget myself and worry about someone else, it is remarkably healing for me.

    Trouble is when I don’t do that, and wallow in silent misery. Then it can be a very isolating choice.

  7. I have only started to learn how to let others serve me during the last few years. I’ve always been one of those strong ones, who would just muscle through everything without asking for help. Sure, I’d ask a friend to take a kid or two when I had a dr.’s appt. or something here and there –but I never saw that as “service” just necessity (our ward members help each other with child care in that non-emergency way a lot).

    But then the depression got worse. And I found myself being given the hardest VT routes (still). And I realized I was avoiding the ward (even on Sunday) so they wouldn’t ask me to help out –and so I wouldn’t have to tell them about my problems.

    I’ve VERY vocal about my problems. To close friends, to family, and on my blog. But only one person (maybe two?) in my ward reads my blog, so I know/knew they didn’t know why I was struggling. And finally –after starting therapy –I laid it out. I took my visiting teaching interview as the chance to lay it out there. I told the counselor:
    I’m pregnant. I have depression. I’m in therapy. I’m not as strong as everyone things I am. I can’t keep having vt companions who refuse to call me back. I can’t do this right now. I’ve decided that there are times in everyone’s lives where they can’t be the servers –they have to be the ones receiving service, and I’ve finally realized I need service right now.

    Because of this, it’s been amazing! My guilt is gone –and can help out when I know I can, which makes the service that more meaningful. This last week, I was incredibly sick and my husband has been out of the country on business. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do; so I just started asking people for little favors. Somehow it snowballed, and people starting calling and being specific: I’m coming to take your kids for a few hours. I’m bringing you dinner. I’m cleaning your house. The love I’ve recieved has been astounding –but I know (oh, how I know!) it wouldn’t have happened if I tried to “muscle through it” and be strong on my own. If I had kept silent, surely we (my children and I) would have suffered greatly.

    Man, we need each other!

    P.S. Great post!

  8. In the “Mormon Culture” we are so accustom to hide our true feelings from others. (Perhaps I shouldn’t limit it to just “Mormon Culture” it can be seen all over, I guess.)

    I believe that one of the reasons we are taught to “pour our hearts out to the Lord” is so that we can learn to practice humility and learn to be more faithful.

    I guess I feel that fear and pride often are the barriers to most relationships. IMHO these are something that we should try harder to recognize and label them as they truly are. It is only then that we will be able to learn to truly become like Him, able to succor those around us as well as allowing others to succor us.

    Great thought provoking post. Thanks.

  9. This is such a beautiful post, and a heartbreaking topic. I would love for Church to be that safe place. Trust is such a fragile thing, though, and often takes a long time to build. Opening yourself up to potential pain when you are already suffering is incredibly difficult. I have been in a few Relief Society meetings where people have made themselves vulnerable by talking about a difficulty they’re experiencing, and it is indeed a holy thing. It takes such courage.

    I tend to keep my game face on. It’s easier for me to work things out at my own pace. But one skill I have learned is how to say no to things when I’m feeling overwhelmed. It helps to set boundaries and not try to act capable when I’m not. I’ve also learned that I don’t always have to explain why I’m saying no.

  10. I feel the same way, Justine. Everyone suffers, so why should I add to the collective burden? So I rarely open up about my struggles. Part of it is the rugged pioneer self-sufficiency that is my familial heritage (I come from a long line of strong, independent widows); part of it, I’m sure, is (unrighteous)pride; and part of it is thinking (perhaps wrongly at times) that others just expect me to be strong and always on top of things, and I don’t want to let them down.

    And, honestly, sometimes talking about certain things–chronic physical challenges, for example, just feels futile. I deal with frequent, debilitating migraines. I have for years. It’s my cross to bear in this life. But I rarely talk about it. I mean, why should I? There’s really nothing anyone can do. Everybody’s got their stuff, and this happens to be mine. I don’t want to be a whiner, so I buck up and battle through the best I can. Healthy? I don’t know, but in the case of my migraines at least, it’s what works for me.

    I so agree with the bishop who observed that we don’t do such a good job at helping the strong. I’m sure I’m as guilty of this as anyone–even with my own children. I’m going to work on that.

    And, name withheld, I am so sorry. I, too, will pray for you. Though *I* don’t, I’m sure Heavenly Father will know exactly who “name withheld” is.

  11. i kept having to check to see if this was a guest post by the other michelle l’s sister-in-law, because except for the part about the sister being “Quiet, unassuming, steady. She is the woman who is always there, always dutiful”, (i’m really not quiet, unassuming or steady, nor am i always “there and dutiful”. alas.) this was precisely my experience last month. and it was so lovely for me to talk to a fellow sister in my ward about the burden i’m carrying.

    since that time i’ve felt considerably less stress. someone else knows, and just knowing that has made it easier. easier to be at church. to be known more fully is a really redemptive experience. it also adds a measure of safety …meaning that my willingness to share a piece of my heart with another is almost a like an extra bit of insurance that will help me avoid slipping away.

    i think a lot of our sisters get buried so deep, and no one knows how they’re feeling, and so they can just quietly fade without anyone reaching out. i’m sure that is one of the main purposes of the VT program…to avoid this scenario…but how often (with my kids and hubby passing back and forth etc) am i going to get “real” with them in our 20 minutes together?

    so my experience of sharing has been very helpful. and it helped me feel like i have a true friend in my ward. thanks for this article TOML. ♥

  12. ‘But I am left wondering how many other women around me are suffering behind their smiles.’

    Most of them…

    “In the quiet heart is hidden sorrow that the eye can’t see.”

  13. Great post. It seems like we’re always talking in R.S. (well, before I was exiled to Primary :) or enrichment about the importance of letting people serve us.

    “Oh yes, we need to learn to accept help, to graciously allow dinner to be brought, etc”

    But this just seems to gloss over the issue. If I’m having a hard day, probably the easiest problem is solving what’s for dinner — that’s what McDonald’s is for.

    I know, it’s the thought and comfort, etc, behind the food, but why can’t we think beyond the casserole and (rarely) the housecleaning? How do we truly help and support each other? Usually I think these silent sufferer types might benefit from some actual therapy. Maybe we can offer to babysit or recommend a therapist.

    One problem is that it’s hard to truly help (beyond the superficial) without seeming nosy or opinionated about what would help.

    But one thing — first you really have to get to know the person, to have any idea what would really help, and to even know what’s really wrong. (as you illustrated so well with this story).

    1. Jane, you said it’s hard to truly help without seeming nosy or opinionated. This may be true sometimes, but not all the time. I have been a frequent recipient of service over the last year. Some of the women that served me knew me, but others didn’t. Some only knew my mother had cancer. Those women did what Kristin (not me) said above… made specific suggestions, not just say, “Let me know how I can help.” And it worked because, let’s face it, I wasn’t going to let them know. I had one sister who I barely knew offer to babysit “sometime”. I said sure, but wasn’t going to do anything about it. The following Monday she called and asked if my son could come over for a couple hours at 10am. Um, sure!?! So she got to serve me and it meant the world to me. She still doesn’t know me that well, but continues to do things like that. She’s a great example to me on how to serve others and I don’t think she’s nosy or opinionated. I just think she’s wonderful!

  14. I have been thinking about this very thing the past few weeks. Last month our ward had an enrichment night on the topic of depression. Toward the end of the meeting, there was a question-and-answer session, and one sister tried to ask her question without revealing herself, but ended up choking away the tears as she spoke. Of all the women in our ward, this was the one who I thought had it the most together of anybody, the one who I had secretly envied for her seeming confidence, work ethic, and dedication. I had been very guilty of assuming that the facade was the real person, even though I myself have struggled with depression in the past and put on the very same facade.

    One thing I learned from that situation is that sometimes people throw themselves into the work to keep busy, to keep the pain at bay.

    I suffer from infertility and was childless for many years. During those years, what I most wanted was for people to reach out to me. I wanted people to ask me about my experiences. I wanted to talk about it, but I worried that people didn’t want to hear about my pain. The one time I did open up when teaching a RS lesson, someone severely criticized me for “whining” about my problems in a lesson.

    When I’m going through things, I need a listening ear, but I am not likely to open up.

    Now that I’m on the other side and have children, I really want to reach out to those whom I suspect are going through infertility, but I am hesitant. It sounds ridiculous, since when I was the one going through it, the people I most wanted to reach out to me were the people I knew had been in my shoes in the past. But now I’m chicken. I worry that they don’t want to talk about it. I am not sure how to approach people that I don’t know well, or people that have not come right out and said that they are going through it.

    I have been in a few meetings that became that “holy place”. One was the enrichment night I talked about above. Another was a time where someone just plain had the guts to open up about their trials, and others then had the courage to do so too.

    One thing I did learn during those childless years was that I could not wait for others to reach out to me, no matter how much I wanted that kind of “rescue”. I had to take responsibility for my own emotional health, and I had to learn to ask for help. That was a very important lesson and huge growth experience that would not have come if other people had done all the work of reaching out.

  15. I apologize for not reading all the comments, I love to read the comments as much as the post but right now I’m sick, fever and all. So what am I doing here? I need connection with the outside world, being sick gets old after so long. This post seems so applicable to my sick self.

    My VT just called this morning. How much I needed her listening ear and her medical knowledge, she just happens to be a nurse. It was so helpful to have her tell me to trust my body, that if it tells me something, to listen. That as much as anything is helpful. After listening sometimes you feel compelled to do something, but you have already done the most important thing, listen.

    We could really use a casserole today but I just can’t bring myself to ask for one.

    In addition to this my husband and I have leadership callings.

    There are so many facets to dealing with an illness it makes my head spin and I’m already dizzy from the medications!

  16. What a beautiful post, and what a beautiful experience. From my personal experience, I know that I often don’t open up more to people because when I do, the person thinks she/he should do something to fix the problem, when all I need is a listening ear and an understanding heart. That’s the gift that you gave to this sister.

    Many things can’t be fixed (like migraines or chronic health or family problems), but the burdens can be lightened with understanding. I have been that sister, aching to have someone see the pain behind the smile, but few do. Thank you for acting on what you saw in her face, and for writing about it. It is good to know there are sisters like you.

  17. Great food for thought here.
    Personally, I pretend to be one that doesn’t need help, but I would love to have a shoulder to cry on. Great post! I’m glad you were there to give that woman some understanding and a listening ear.

  18. Michelle L. — thank you for this incredible post. And the comments! Goodness, I could comment on every comment.

    It’s probably best to just assume that everyone is hurting in some way and to treat each other gently, carefully. Still, my closest friends are the ones who will tell me when they are hurting. I have trouble getting close to people who are always presenting their “game face.”

    Marjorie Hinckley said it best(I have this painted on my wall), “Be kind. Everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

  19. This is such a lovely discussion; there is much to be learned from the variety of comments…how differently we process pain, how difficult it can be to ask for and extend help. I hesitate to say much because each comment just sort of stands on its own. Lots to absorb here…thanks, everyone, for your really wonderful and honest thoughts. I think even discussions like this can help increase understanding and awareness and compassion.

    And my heart goes out to you who have shared some of your pain here. I may not be able to do much, but I will include you in my prayers.

  20. Maybe it is just me, but I agree with the “silence is a survival mechanism” statement. When I struggle, the only person that I really can talk to about it is my husband. But my biggest thing is showing emotion. I am afraid to show my emotion via tears about my struggles because I know that once I let myself cry about it, I will always cry about it. But if I can stay strong and stoic enough not to shed a tear, then I can handle it.

    Sorry if that was a little convoluded.

    I really appreciated this post today. It helped me to evaluate myself and my situation as well as the situation of others that surround me. We are relatively new in our ward, but it has yet to feel like our ward because my MIL goes there too and we are continually referred to as “so-and-so’ son/DIL” and that is a little disheartening. But I find that I do best when I feel kinship with another person, whether that be through working together in a similar calling, visiting teaching, having small children, etc. that I am more able to 1) relate to that person and 2) feel comfortable enough to share with them my struggles. But believe me, I will not just come right out and admit a struggle, someone does have to ask me. Otherwise I am in the same boat as the poster…who wants to be burdened with my struggles, especially without asking about me/them.

  21. My visitng teacher came over just randomly the other day, and this was a topic of conversation that was brought up. A few weeks earlier in a lesson in RS, I felt prompted to share a story from my recent past. I had a miscarriage two months ago (today, in fact) and before that had had an emotionally very difficult pregnancy. I had two toddler boys who obviously needed their mommy, I was more exhausted than I had ever been in either of my pregnancies, and for some odd reason, I began suffering from depression. I am typically very cheery and happy, and so I could sense a huge shift in my emotional well-being, but I couldn’t say anything about it. Not even to my husband. I didn’t want to admit it. Nobody knew. And my heart was breaking inside of the shell of a person I had become.

    I finally broke down and asked my husband for a blessing, which he gave me. I now have a strong testimony of the power that the priesthood has in healing even some emotional issues, because that light entered back into my life, and that dark cloud of depression was gone.

    As I shared this story, even people who knew me well were suprised. They had no idea. There are so many aching hearts that can’t share their sorrow, for any number of reasons.

    Shortly after I miscarried the baby (it happened right before we got home from a long vacation) I didn’t feel like leaving the house, but we were out of bread. I decided to pray for bread. Silly, I know. The next day, my VT came, even though she had been there the day before, with some bread she had made. How could she have known? I know how.

    She is teaching me to be a better listener. A listener to those who are around us, and a listener to the holy ghost.

  22. I can almost never bring myself to tell people about anything negative going on in our lives. It feels like whining and complaining. I know that isn’t necessarily what it is, but talking about it felt like it. On the other hand, I have no problem at all blogging about it, probably because then I can use humor to diffuse the whining.

    We never went to the bishop for help when our business tanked and we were temporarily out of work and broke. It just didn’t feel like something that “people like us” (whatever that means) should do.

    People would ask how I was, and even when we were two shakes from losing our home to foreclosure I would say, “We’re fine.” When we left, only the people in the ward who read my blog really knew why. We very quietly moved out, and when we worked things out with the bank a few months later and came back, I think most people just thought we were on vacation or something. Or maybe they knew, and I’m just not that tuned in to the gossip.

    I don’t know that I would want it to be any different though. The people who knew were supportive and kind and loving. The people who didn’t – it was o.k. that they didn’t know. We made it through just fine.

    Sorry. That was a book.

  23. What an amazing and heart felt post. I have been there. I am there–on both sides, wanting to help and kind of desperately needing it. I am always baffled when people comment on my strength. I feel like there are so many warts that I cannot hide and I really don’t want to be perceived as “the strong one” especially when I feel so weak and wanting, but it is very difficult for me to reach out in that way. There have been times when I have asked for help, expressed tender places and have been smacked down, so that tends to make me hesitate all the more. Let’s just say that there are a precious few people to whom I will pour out my heart and with the exception of DH, none of them live in the same state I do.

    There was, however, an experience when RS became a sharing safe place. It was ward conference and the member of the stake presidency assigned to preside over RS that day is this tender thoughtful man (also a rocket scientist, so it’s an interesting mix). Instead of having some grand lesson or program put forth by “the stake” he just sat on the edge of the table and asked what worries we had, what was hurting our hearts. And one by one sisters tenderly raised their hands and shared. He didn’t judge or chastise anyone; he only made tender thoughtful comments that somehow tied the diverse strands of the meeting together and continued to create the safe place that allowed for more sisters to share tender fears and worries. Holy is the best way to describe the meeting that day. I wish it could happen more often, but I have often wondered if he is the only person that could pull it off.

    I loved the Sis Hinckley quote from Michelle L. and have found it to be startlingly true wherever I go.

  24. My take on this is that we all struggle. We have our good days and our bad days, and sometimes we have a portion of a good day in the middle of a bad one. Or the reverse. We are complex, with many shades and colors, and that’s a good thing.

    Ideally, we should be able to share…to accept ourselves and others in all our strength and all our weakness. Life is meant to be a hard job, and there is no shame in being overwhelmed at times…sometimes longer times than we would like.

    It’s so important for us to remember that struggling through a challenge has nothing whatsoever to do with “being weak.” It has a lot to do with being human, which is exactly what we all are. And that’s okay. In fact, it’s perfect.

    The realization that we are supposed to be stretched to our limits at times and that the process is not always going to be pretty helps us to be more gentle with ourselves and those around us. By the way, I’m still not all that good at any of this, in spite of my advancing years. =) I still find it hard to share sometimes, and sometimes I get too caught up in my own journey to assist others in theirs.

    But I’m happy to say that I’m working on it! And I thank you for the thought-provoking post.

  25. This post and string of comments has really touched me.

    I keep thinking about visiting teaching. Oh, how I wish I had visiting teachers who knew me, who cared to know me. Visiting teachers who came over more than twice a year to drop off a holiday-related sweet. Visiting teachers who wanted to really talk about the monthly message. Who asked “how are you? what can I do for you?” not because it was trite and expected, but because they really cared.

  26. I know I’ve been thinking about this topic, I much prefer people to be more genuine and honest about their struggles at church, yet when people are, sometimes they get hurt. A dear friend of mine mentioned in her ward that she is struggling with the long hours her husband puts in at work (he is a family practice doctor, and they just had her sixth child.) later, someone told her to be careful how loud her voice was while complaining, some husbands didn’t even had jobs. It can be pretty chilling that you can only have the worst problems in the group before you are allowed to mention them. (As I pointed out, some people’s husbands are deceased, the worse problems than yours chain can go on indefinitely).

  27. Loved the post and all the comments. What a wonderful spot in my day to be able to check in on what the Segullah sisters are saying :)

    I struggle on both sides of this: wanting to find a sensitive way to ease someone’s hidden heartache *and* fighting loneliness when my own unspoken heartbreaks/worries aren’t noticed.

    Love the Marjorie Hinckley quote and will add one of my own favorites by Camilla Kimball, her life’s motto: “Never suppress a generous thought.” Between the two women, they cover it, I think! Sensitive asking and following through on promptings will never (or rarely) steer us wrong.

  28. Not much to add to this beautiful conversation, but I did have a discussion about this just the other day. Last Sunday I taught the RS lesson on apostasy. My conlusion was that everyone was susceptible, and that there are people in our midst struggling, just as we sometimes are, yet we so often arent aware of it. Why do we feel like we can’t share with our sisters in the gospel, our joys and our sorrows. The reason I and many others(I suspect) dont share their thoughts or struggles is because of the fear of judgement and criticism. It may not by always be in a vocal way, but it is just as real. We all know the type that seem to complain about every little problem they have ever experienced, I have to admit I sometimes have a problem feeling much compassion for them. This is what I need to work on. The atonement is for everyone, it never will be my place to judge or criticize, only to serve.

  29. I know that I am what others would call one of the “strong” ones, and yet I feel like life just keeps kicking me in the gut. I don’t want to get out of bed every day, and it’s all I can do to get going every day. I am an expert in going through the motions, and I keep thinking that if I can fake it, I’ll make it. I haven’t talked to anyone about this, and I don’t think I will. For some reason it seems as if I don’t want to admit my stress out loud. Maybe it will just go away. I sit through church meetings with a knot in my stomach (even typing this I can hardly breathe).

    The only thing that gets me through every day is that I decided that this year I would do something, no matter how small, for someone else every day. I pray for guidance and then just wait to know what to do. I told myself that I must follow through with whatever I think of. Ideas come to me in the strangest ways. Usually they are very small, but a few times it’s been something that was hard for me to do. I can’t tell you how much it has helped me to constantly be trying to think of someone besides myself. I have had to get outside my comfort zone and meet and get to know many people that I might not have otherwise.

    I’m not sure I can or ever will share my stresses. I don’t like to burden others. I have tried really hard this year to increase my listening skills – both to the Spirit, and to others.

    I also love Sister Hinckley’s and Sister Kimball’s quotes. I needed those today. Thank you. And thank you for this post. It makes me feel not so alone.

  30. “Name withheld’s” comment about her husband is one of the first things that came to my mind, as well. I can be very open about my struggles, and think I’ve found a sort of sense about when to say what to whom (about my own hard times, not necessarily the other way around), but when it comes to marital struggles, there are different rules about openness I think. Marital struggles are some of the hardest and loneliest things I’ve ever been through. I eventually realized I had to talk to somebody about it, but choosing who and such wasn’t easy. And if it’s a hard day with us, and it shows at church, I dread somebody asking the “how are you” question, because I just don’t want the tears to start. I wish there were an easier answer for how to handle those kinds of struggles.

    I do really believe that sharing, in general, has the potential to be very healing. It’s taken me a long time to believe that everybody has some heartache, and no marriage is perfect. I don’t think I would have realized those things had I not learned to be open and share with other people. I am very grateful for the friends who have blessed my life in this way.

    This was beautifully written, Michelle.

  31. Thanks for this post, and thanks to all for your comments. This discussion is so timely for me to read. No name this time–we may have been cut from the same cloth.

    After really struggling to adapt in my new ward, I finally broke down in the bishop’s office last night. Never in my life have I asked to be released from a calling or told a bishop that I no longer wanted to attend church. It was hard. I don’t like to be perceived as weak.

    But it opened a line of communication, and while I don’t expect anything to be resolved this Sunday, or maybe even in four more Sundays, I feel a little relieved that at least one person in the ward knows. He can’t fix anything, and that’s fine. I think I feel enough comfort knowing my concerns have been heard. I feel like I can still put on the happy face and fake it for a while longer, until I’m back to normal and don’t need to fake anything.

  32. I still am just loving the discussion here and am so touched by people’s willingness to share. To me, this discussion has become it’s own holy place as people share and learn and risk and grow and reflect together.

  33. I feel sad that I can’t say I’ve ever been in a meeting where it became a holy place where hearts were opened and shared. I have been in meetings that felt the exact opposite to me though and the only thing I could do was get up and leave.

    A couple of years ago I hit the lowest point in my life. It took my only 3 or 4 months to spiral to rock bottom, and when I hit there, I started down a path of some pretty self-destructive behavior. I wasn’t comfortable with my own self, let alone with other people. And the Relief Society president’s insistence that everyone sit in the very front row all together was the most uncomfortable thing for me in the world at the time. I wanted to hide in a corner. I needed time to heal myself before I could be comfortable with other people again. I haven’t been in that ward for over a year now, and I still feel uncomfortable when I think of her.

    I can commend her on one thing though. She let the two women in the ward I trusted completely be my visiting teachers. It was only to them and my bishop that I was able to say, “no, I’m not fine.” Their love was amazing, and still brings tears to my eyes. I was also assigned to be the visiting teacher to one of them, on my own without a companion. I couldn’t handle anything else at the time, but I could do that.

    I’ve never been one to open up completely to everyone, but I am grateful beyond words for those people in my life I am comfortable with.

  34. I too have loved this conversation between everyone. I am struggling with life this wek. Usually I am o.k. and can talk to close friends. My husband and I are both in leadership positions, he is on the Bishopric and I am in the R.S. presidency so we are seen as doing fine I suppose. This week life fell apart for us, more so for me because he is great in a persaonal crisis and I fall apart (although I can deal with other people’s crisis’s in my calling). Nobody was there for us. Home teachers? No. Visiting teachers? No. Close friends? No. What went wrong? Why is help and support given freely to some and not to others?

    Saying that in our ward we all know about some families who are very vocal with whatever is going on in their lives all of the time. Sometimes I just wish they would shut up. I know this makes me look so uncompassionate. Maybe that is why I have my calling, to help me to help others. Others suffer quietly but come for help. Many of us just suffer I think.

    I think the big problem with church is the perfect face we all put on most of the time. Why isn’t church a safr, happier place? I don’t understand it sometimes.

  35. I have served in the RS Presidency as well and I have seen some cruel sides of members….where personal, private struggles became fodder for gossip. It never ceases to amaze me that there are people who delight in maintaining a perfect facade while delighting in the misery of others. Some of my very best friends gave shared private information with me from their husbands in the Bishopbric. These were good Sisters and it took a lot if courage to honestly tell them they were inappropriate and out if line and to never share that type of thing with me again.

    I don’t share my personal struggles because I don’t trust fellow members or even leadership. Very sad, but true. I have been burned one too many times and I have ended up humiliated not helped.

    I trust developed friendships in or out of church where people know me, truly know me and are sincere in their concern for me. I think to serve we need to invest time in people…or a person.

  36. That makes me so sad, Leisha. My dh is in the bishopric, and he doesn’t tell me ANYTHING. There have been so many times when I’ve shared with him some innocent news like, “Did you know so-and-so is pregnant?” and he shoots me this look that says he’s known for months. Even innocent stuff, he simply does not share, and I would never dream of asking.

  37. Church should be a safe place for everyone, and reading this is all so sad. My husband is on the Bishopric and I know that whatever happens in our ward with our Bishopric is confidential. We have an amazing Bishopric at the moment, and I have seen enough Bishoprics over the years to know the difference. I would trust them completely, but they cannot know everything about everyone. That is why we have all of the church programmes, visiting teaching, R.S., etc. Help should be there for everyone, at the drop of a hat. This has made me realise how much I might miss at church on a Sunday too about people. As a member of the R.S. presidency we are ‘on the look out’ so to speak, but clearly we miss things too. Let’s face it, we all need more love and compassion at church.

  38. This continues to be such a heartfelt discussion. Thank you again to everyone who has contributed.

    Just a couple of thoughts….

    For those of us who have been let down, even hurt, by taking risks and opening up (I am experiencing a little of that myself right now), I think it’s important, when we are able, to take a step back and consider that not everyone will violate trust, and not everyone will hurt us.

    I realize there is no pat formula, and it’s not so easy as saying, “Just risk and everything will be ok.” Sometimes, depending on where we are, boundaries and privacy can play a role in healing. But ultimately, if we choose silence out of fear or anger, we can end up being part of the problem.

    Sometimes people do dumb or even wrong things not necessarily with malicious intent…and maybe out of their own place of pain, insecurity, etc. It’s all a little crazy that we end up being each other’s guinea pigs on how to be more Christlike, but it’s true, all around.

    I think, too, that sometimes we have to help people know how to help us. I don’t know about you, but there are times when I have expected that the only way a prayer could be answered through someone else is for that person to read my mind or just show up on my doorstep having had my name pop into their heads.

    In reality, however, sometimes moments of strength have actually come when I have initiated the process. I tend to think (hope) that people more often than not WANT to help, but just may not know how. Or they may feel afraid of doing the wrong things.

    Ah, fear. It’s such a common emotion, isn’t it?

  39. (And I want to reiterate that I’m writing this even as I am processing some of my own pain of being let down after risking/trusting…it’s HARD.

    I know in my head, though, that if I stay here in this place, I will only create more pain for myself within, and perhaps even unrealistic expectations that set me up for more disappointment. At some point, I have to forgive. And be willing to try again.

    Working on it….)

  40. I’ve enjoyed this conversation so much. I’ve enjoyed reading all of your thoughts.

    I am often very about things such as health issues, frustrations with my (young) kids, etc., and I feel like I often get really great support because I’m such an, um, whiner. But I can think of situations where I wouldn’t feel free to share. Sometimes our griefs involve others whose privacy we’re not free to expose, for various reasons. Broadly speaking I don’t believe in keeping family secrets in a dysfunctional way, but sharing information that involves others can have very unwished-for consequences — for example if someone is on the road to repentance, they could have people form prejudices about them that may be very hard to shake even when they’ve completely changed, etc. When it comes to marriage difficulties it can be very helpful to others when we’re open to an extent — I mean it’s nice to know you’re not the only woman whose husband ever annoys her, etc. — but it’s a very fine line between that kind of sharing and the kind that’s more of ranting or dumping, or that further violates eroding marital trust. It’s all quite tricky, and there’s not really a pat answer that we should all share everything all the time NOR that we should keep everything to ourselves. I *have* occasionally gotten to experience church meetings that felt very safe and involved real sharing and comfort, and it’s a lovely thing when it happens — but I also agree it’s rare. Our meetings are so short, and our agendas can be so rushed. This whole conversation has made me think, too, about what I could do to let the sisters I visit teach feel more free to be more open with me and my companion.

    Anyway, as I said, this has been an interesting read and I’ve enjoyed everyone’s thoughts.

  41. Oops that first sentence was supposed to say often very OPEN about . . .

    Also it’s not just that I can *think* of situations where I wouldn’t or couldn’t share, but that I’ve been in those situations.

  42. Our meetings are so short, and our agendas can be so rushed.

    Zina, I think this is a really important point.

    I hate to say it, because I think the programs are often just not lived out the way they should be, but I had an amazing talk with one of my leaders today, where he encouraged me in my need to ask for the specific help/support I was talking to him about. Once again, I was reminded that a) we need to help each other help us (it’s so hard to ask, though, but I’m gonna do it because I NEED it (and I think they will be happy to help) and b) we really need to find ways to do more than just visit once a month…to really get to know those we visit and help create a situation where the people we visit can feel more comfy asking for help.

    I don’t know about you, but I get pretty excited when I get that visit done every month. But this has made me realize that I need to do more, care more, ask more, pray for them more, be there more, or at least be more available, more deliberate about letting my sisters know I care.

  43. This topic and discussion has stuck with me. It’s actually one that I’ve had with friends recently. But even while discussing the topic of choosing to hide problems in our lives I wasn’t always telling everything going on in mine.

    I do agree there are things that shouldn’t be shared outside the family. There needs to be trust between all members that some things discussed there won’t be discussed with others. As many have mentioned this can involve things that need repentance. This can also mean just simply going down the road of being over-critical. It’s a fine line. Because it is nice to know that others have problems like yours, but sometimes the problems seem smaller if you aren’t looking at them so often.

    I would also say that there are two main reasons I don’t share. And it is the fear of being judged and gossip. There is more than one way people are judged. If your trial is or has been difficult then you’re almost held to a higher standard. OR people don’t talk to you as readily because they judge their life against yours. So I don’t speak in specifics most of the time. I don’t tell people what experiences may have given me the testimony that I have. Of course, what sometimes happens then is that they suppose I’ve never faced anything difficult. You just can’t win – at least when judging is involved.

    And if people gossip about me specifically I’ve never heard the result. I do know others are gossiped about. I know it can be detrimental no matter what the intent when it starts. I think the hardest part for me is that I can be drawn in to the conversation. It’s a weakness that I know exists. I have worked hard the past few years to NOT participate in those types of conversations and how to turn them around. It isn’t always easy. But knowing who has that problem as well, makes me less likely to talk with them or around them about my problems.

    Lastly, I do think it’s interesting that those in leadership callings seem to either be set on a pedestal – or feel as if they are. I was in a leadership calling and my husband is in a leadership calling. When things are going well in our family we know it’s noticed because we hear about that. When I was released without being given another calling right away I know people wondered why – because I was asked, “So, are they giving you a break?” “Why were you released?” “What do you think you’re next calling will be?”

    Maybe if I had told them all the things coming up for our family they would have realized what I knew months before and not asked…. but it felt like they were looking for what was wrong that would prompt me to be released.

    And I can’t put my name on this – because I love all of them. And this post is critical and feels like gossip. So is the problem really with me?

  44. Oh, brother. I read my comment from last nite and realize I didn’t fully explain myself.

    The counsel I received was to ask my VT/HT for the help I was talking to him about. Especially since church meetings provide so little opportunity to really connect, these are, imo, the programs that could bring more love/compassion/service/connection to the Church.

  45. And I don’t know, another sister. I think the problem lies with all of us…because I think at some point, we have all probably acted out of fear, insecurity, pain, etc. We have all been hurt and probably at some point have, whether intentionally or not, hurt someone else.

    What would the picture of true charity and knit hearts look like? Would we share *everything*? Somehow I doubt it. But I do think we would fear less, forgive more, mourn together more, and hold back less for the sake of trying to manage others’ impressions of us (which I suspect most of us do at some level or another).

    But I will say that without question, the wards that have been the strongest in my life have been those where people are willing to be vulnerable and to talk about their struggles openly enough that we see past simple Sunday School answers to understand why and how the gospel matters. I know that people haven’t shared every last detail, but they have talked about difficult subjects (death, depression, singleness, heath issues, even sometimes family struggles (with care)) with some level of candidness.

    (I think I’m rambling.)

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