Yesterday I was talking to a friend who has been having a tough few months. In news that will shock no one over the age of 23, this co-incides with her first year in the world after college, about which I believe I have been quoted as insisting, “Is the worst year ever.” That’s the year of my life in which I worked as an underpaid and terrified waitress, developed crippling panic attacks, had to drop out of the world for a few months and ended up on meds that I am still taking to this day. I defy you to find someone who did not have a rough time during their first year out of college.
My friend, because she was having a genuine emotional experience, began to tear up, and then, even though she was only among friends, she felt like she needed to apologize for it. “I cry at everything,” she said, trying to minimize the fact that where she is now is genuinely scary and worth crying over*.
We’ve all been there. I certainly don’t like crying in public, at work, in front of people who just hurt me, whatever. It can feel like admitting to a weakness we don’t want to let anyone see. For men, it can feel like (I know this from testimony from my guy friends) failing to be stoic, failing to do what is expected, which is to keep the reins on your emotions. For women, it comes with the fear of being labeled “crazy” or not being taken seriously because of “emotionality.”
I’m so tired of being expected to pretend everything is fine if and when it is not. I’m so tired of acting like my heart isn’t broken when it is, of smiling when I want to cry, of violently blinking and looking to the ceiling so that my mascara won’t smudge. I’m tired of it on my own behalf and I’m tired of it on the behalf of other people.
What is adaptive or strong or “normal” about not having emotions? If feelings were an unnecessary relic of some evolutionary mistake, don’t you think we’d move past them? Why is it impressive to pretend you’re not like other people, that you don’t feel? Why would being ashamed of an emotion you can’t control be helpful? Where has that ever gotten us?
I’m not saying we should abandon professionalism or subdue work ethic to the general “I’m feeling bummed so I’ll just watch TV and eat” temptation. I just hate that people feel like they have to hide their legitimate feelings in order to save some kind of face instead of admitting that they feel things deeply and have both the capacity to be hurt and the potential to be overjoyed.
When you’re 22 and you have no idea what you want to do with your life and you wake up every morning dreading your job and you feel like you have worked so hard for so long to get somewhere that you don’t know you’ll ever make it to, you are allowed to be sad and scared and cry. Who cares if it freaks people out. If they can’t remember being in exactly the same place, they’re obviously robots or zombies or something and you’d do well to get away from them.
When you’re dating someone you really, really like, and out of what seems like nowhere they break up with you, even if looking back you can see all the signs, you’re allowed to be upset and to demonstrate that. Not to threaten them or not respect what they’re saying or anything, but in that moment, you can be sad! You are sad! You can present sadness and not try to smile and say that it’s fine, you’re sure you’ll be friends soon! You don’t ever have to be friends if you don’t want to be!
When you hear that something horrible has happened near the people you love, or just near people, and you’re reading about it or calling home or listening to broadcasts and you feel like your stomach cannot stop clenching and like you could choke on the thickness of your own tongue, you are allowed to be a human being in that moment! You are completely allowed to be disturbed, to cry, to feel rage, to feel terrified even if you rationally know that you and your personally-known loved ones are safe.
Of course, you are also allowed to know what works for you, to maintain that you do not want to go home because being around people is what you need, to thank your well-meaning comforter but tell them you would like to have some alone time, to do whatever it is you need to do in that moment of extreme emotion, whether or not the potentially-uncomfortable people around you understand it. Sure, sometimes we find ourselves wallowing in feelings that are unhealthy and need help or need to get moving in order to get to a balanced place again. But I honestly think that if we as a culture were less concerned with hiding emotions–our everyday emotions, whether positive or negative, whether joy at a promotion or just a well-told joke or sorrow at a loved one’s passing or a friend’s perceived slight–we’d understand each other better, we’d feel more connected, and we could reach a place where at the very least what we had to grapple with was merely the emotion we felt and not the double-edged combination of that emotion and shame for ever feeling that way.
Then maybe we could get to a place where we all give other people a little more space for experiencing negative emotions instead of instantly trying to cheer them up and make them forget about it. But perhaps that’s a pipe dream. I’d settle for some brave, sane, normal, completely human tears every so often. They’re not a weakness. They just happen. To everyone.
Feel. It’s terrifying. You might think it’s cowardly. But it’s the strongest thing we as people do.
*In a move that I love him for, a guy friend, also present, immediately said that he also cries easily and that it’s no big deal. I agree 1000% and I was especially impressed that he said this matter-of-factly when there is such pressure on dudes to be completely robotic and taciturn.