“So tell me, did you have a successful day?”

Yet again, a complete stranger has sat next to me on this plane and misread the giant “eff off” plastered across my forehead. I’d just completed my exaggerated “I am not interested in chit chat” performance, which includes:

  • Putting on my oversized headphones
  • Positioning my body away from him
  • Pulling out my laptop and opening up an important looking spreadsheet

And yet, here we are.

I forced a polite smile, and braced myself for an hour of banal talk about my day. Yes, I had been in Auckland for work. Yes, working in digital is “fast-paced.” Yes, the workshop I ran was positively scintillating for all involved. Yes, I’m engaged, enjoy going to the gym five times a week, and am a keen participant in Wellington’s brunching scene. Thank you, I am doing quite well in my career for “a woman of my age.”


As the plane ground to a halt on the runway, the relentless questioning finally came to a close. I slid my Macbook into its case, adjusted my blazer, and practically burst through the exit, sucking in the fresh air to alleviate the tightness in my chest.

Little did this well-meaning, albeit nosey, stranger know that for the past 1 hour and 6 mins, I’d been trying not to have a panic attack. 

He thought he was engaging in casual banter with a well put together woman.

What he didn’t know was:

  • He’d stopped me from listening to weird ocean sounds on Spotify in an attempt to calm down (admittedly not a great choice when you want to refrain from using a plane bathroom)
  • That my palms were sweatier than Eminem's in the Lose Yourself music video
  • I’d spent the last ten mins dissecting a conversation I had with a client earlier, where I’d gotten a little too excited about the aforementioned colour coded spreadsheet
  • That I’d been desperately trying to calculate whether the lightly salted corn chips or the Cookie Time cookie would fit within my daily calorie count. 

Little did he know that this strong, career driven woman had a seemingly “successful day” to those around me, but was battling a racing mind, anxious thoughts and a deep concern that the plane’s wings might fall off somewhere between Hamilton and Wellington.

Little did he know that actually, I was floundering, fearful and pretty fucking fragile. 

Woman wearing a girl boss t-shirt points at a graph

An optimised life

Apparently, I’m someone who “has👏🏽 my 👏🏽 shit 👏🏽 together 👏🏽.”

I’ve been called a girl boss. Unflappable. Brave.

In fact, for most of my late twenties, I’ve been typecast as a strong woman. 

And, I have all the trappings of strength, professional success and poise.

I’m a senior content strategist at a reputable agency. I run workshops, pitch new ideas and I’m not afraid to hold my colleagues to account. 

I’m engaged to a man who is my best friend, treats me well, makes me laugh and is a steady source of support and unconditional love.

I’ve been praised for overcoming some pretty shit stuff, including a debilitating eating disorder and a very problematic relationship. 

I have a nice house, with nice things. A wardrobe brimming with athleisure and suit co-ords. A very ergonomic work from home set up. A king sized bed with approximately seven carefully placed and coiffed cushions. 

My skin is clear, glowy and smooth, thanks to my elaborate ten step skincare routine, complete with eye cream with Vitamins A through to XYZ, and a weird cleansing tool that looks a lot like a vibrator. 

I follow a disciplined gym routine, and calculate my macros with precision. I deadlift double my body weight, I can get through an hour of HITT cardio without vomiting and I often match my male counterparts at the gym.

I live an optimised existence; tirelessly tweaking my weekly rituals and routines to be stronger, more productive, and more successful. 

An Instagram and reality comparison between the same woman pretending to "have it all together"

Make way for the not-so-strong woman

The thing is, I’m renowned for having my emotional shit on lock.

I’ll get an upsetting piece of news about one of my family members, but I’ll still slide into my Lulus and drive to the gym for my 6:15pm class, wiping the tears from my eyes in between burpees. 

In client workshops, I’ll appear engaged and enthused, but in reality I’m so obsessed about my stomach making an embarrassing noise that I won’t hear a single word being said.

I’ll make up a witty reason about being “triple-booked” for a Friday evening vino, appearing to others as an in-demand socialite, when actually I feel like my life is spiralling out of control, and I might lose my shit after a couple of savvy b’s. 

On Saturday mornings, I’ll scrub our shower with approx. 1 tonne of JIF to distract myself from niggly feelings of being an imposter. 

I’ll clock off work at 9:30pm, with some sanctimonious comment about work/life balance, but in actual fact, the last few nights I’ve woken up sweatier than a menopausal woman because of repeated night terrors, and I just want some god damn rest.

You see the strong woman, facilitating ideation workshops, smashing out a shoulder press, effortlessly socialising, smiling and wafting through life with ease.

You don’t see me lying on the floor next to my laptop, completely at a loss. The hours spent overthinking before a social event. The expectations I put on myself to be a high functioning, high octane superhuman that constantly wants to do more, be more, and be better.

You don’t see anxiety. You see a strong woman. 

An illustration comparing anxiety to traits of a 'hard worker'

Oh anxiety, you sly wee thing

Let’s get one thing clear. I don’t want people to pity me. I’m not writing misery porn so I can get some sympathetic comments on my next Insta post. 

But I also don’t want you to assume that strong, well put together women aren’t having a hard time coping with life. 

Being cast as a strong woman with her shit together is dehumanising. It implies that strong women don't need comfort, tenderness and support. It suggests that us ‘strong women’ don’t fall apart. That we’re not scrubbing our shower furiously in between sobs. That we’re not obsessively making our pre-gym smoothie, hoping the whir of our Nutribullet drowns out the feelings of imminent dread. That we’re not sitting in a meeting over analysing if we use the word “disruptive” too much. 

So with that being said, let me introduce you to a friend of mine. She’s a stage five clinger, who I’ve politely put up with for most of my adult life. I’ve named her “Annie the anxious asshole.” 

A more professional, and less crass person might know her as high functioning anxiety. 

The truth is, anxiety is part of life. It shows up when we’re making a big life decision, right before a job interview, or when we’re going on a date with someone we fancy. This type of anxiety is a part of being alive - it’s situational, temporary, and is usually triggered by an unfamiliar situation. An anxious feeling in our tummy means we genuinely give a damn about something.

But if this anxiety morphs into unshakable, ongoing feelings of dread and mental distress, you might be dealing with a general anxiety disorder (GAD). 

Anxiety disorders are a different kind of beast. GAD can quickly take a hold of your daily life, and it's usually not tied to a specific event or trigger, which makes it all the more unsettling. 

And, high-functioning anxiety is a sneaky fucker. It’s hard to spot. Why? Because often, we praise the symptoms it presents.

“She’s such a perfectionist.”

“Oh, Sally is driven and hard-working. She never leaves the office before 9pm.”

“They’ve got an eye for detail. An obsession for quality.”

“She’s just gets it done, you know? I don’t know how she juggles it all.”

Sound familiar? 

This is the face of high-functioning anxiety, hidden behind the guise of a “strong woman”.

And, it’s much harder to talk about mental health when you don’t appear to be visibly suffering.

A group of woman who all have different physical appearances

Strong looks different on everybody

I like to think as a whole, we’re maturing our understanding of mental health. We know that being vulnerable is a fundamental part of the human experience. We know that mental illness is not something to be ashamed of.

But (and this is a big but) our understanding of strength is still pretty one-dimensional. 

And in recent years, as Sophia Amoruso sells us the “girl boss” dream, as society fetishes the strong black woman trope, and as Crossfit athletes with their powerful thighs become the new sexual fantasy, the rise of the “strong woman” has made our expectations of female strength higher than ever.

The strong woman trope is extremely limiting. Is the woman who gives up her job to stay at home and look after the kids weak? Is the woman sitting in the back row of the uni lecture, silently practising her breathing a lost cause? Is the woman who chooses to ignore the lads that grab her ass in the club helpless? 

Sometimes, being strong is making it through the weekly supermarket shop with a screaming baby in tow. 

Sometimes, being strong is sitting in a big crowd for the first time in months because passing Uni depends on it.

Sometimes, being strong is ignoring a man’s comments about your body, because it’s actually pretty god damn triggering and you don’t have the mental energy to clap back today.

Sometimes, strength is just getting through the day without obsessively checking your Insta DMs every minute, apologising for a million minor things or obsessing over what your friends/colleagues/neighbours/Barb down the road thinks of you.

Strength can be as simple as saying no to something that no longer serves you. It can be as mundane as switching off your social media for a day. It can be as gracious as forgiving yourself for past fuck ups.

An illustration of a woman being squashed by the words 'strong, composed and independent'

Too much of something is never a good thing

In the era of #GirlBoss, side hustles and female empowerment, the value of being a ‘strong woman’ has been elevated to cataclysmic heights. Women are encouraged to speak up and out, facing their fear head-on while remaining calm and measured.

And don’t get me wrong. I’m pretty stoked to live in a time where women are not seen as meek - but in a mad scramble to prove our strength and our ability “to do it all”, have we gone too far in the other direction? 

There’s been times in my life where I’ve felt the pressure to be a strong, independent woman that doesn't rely on anyone. #goals, am I right?

Recently, I’ve learnt that there’s such a thing as being too independent, too resilient, too composed. The ‘strong woman’ that our society likes to glorify can also be lonely, exhausted, and joyless.

In an attempt to be some sort of strong superhuman, I’ve gritted my teeth and attempted to control every detail of my life, barraging through my to-do list and emotionally numbing my feelings in order to “have a successful day.” I’ve been overworked, over-exercised and over-extended. 

I’ve felt like a failure because of my own unrealistic expectations, coupled with my unrelenting anxiety - it really makes for a cute combo 🤷♀️ 

Vulnerability doesn’t come easily to me. Scrubbing my shower with JIF until my hands are raw? That, I can do.

A to-do list ripped in half

Loosening the reins 

I started this blog because I couldn’t find any content on self-love and self-compassion that felt relatable. I was sick of influencers telling me to “free myself of my anxiety” and to “lean in” to vulnerability.

I’m not here to stand on my soapbox and pretend like I know how to manage my anxiety. Some days, I’m not so hard on myself. Other days, I struggle to relinquish control. Occasionally, I’ll almost uppercut a stranger on a plane for making it 1000x harder to reign in a panic attack.

So, know this. 

Strength is not a permanent state of being.

I am not a strong woman. I have been strong when certain life experiences have required me to be so.

I’m also not a weak woman. I’ve felt weak when certain life experiences have worn me down.

We’re not inherently strong. Strong isn’t a permanent state of being. Strength is something we do and apply.

Give yourself permission to cry into your carefully arranged cushions after a tough day.

Remember strength isn’t a one-size fits all character trait. You are just as strong as the woman campaigning for equal pay rights, or the woman who has three toddlers under five and STILL manages to colour coordinate her towels.

Don’t fill an emotional void with endless to-do-lists. You’re allowed to feel fragile. Stop distracting yourself from those feelings. Stop, and take a moment to really sit with them.

And finally, it’s okay to soften. You don’t have to feel guilty for not achieving item 1000 on your weekly goals list. You don’t have to feel like a disappointing friend when you aren’t a pillar of support 24/7. You don’t have to feel embarrassed for losing your shit occasionally. 

Suffering in silence is not a marker of strength. You’re no less of a warrior when you have an occasional wobble. 

So put down that JIF, take a night off the gym, and tell that nosey stranger on the plane to get wrecked, you sometimes-strong, sometimes-not son of a gun you. 

If you, or someone you know is struggling with anxiety, there are plenty of great organisations, resources and therapists out there to help. As a starting point, check out these links below:

  • Anxiety NZ has a range of resources and a free helpline 
  • Depression.org has collated a list of different helplines and health professionals well versed in all things anxiety 
  • The Lowdown has a great SMS service, as well as other live chat options
  • The Mental Health Foundation explains how to find a mental health professional who best suits your unique needs

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