One of my readers recently expressed concern about my posts. “What exudes from your writing is that you’re an unhappy person,” she told me. I should specify that her feedback wasn’t unsolicited. I expressly asked for her opinion but did it fully confident I’d receive a wildly complimentary pat on the back. Her words left me a bit surprised but as I mulled over them, I completely understood. You see, the words came from my biggest fan, my most die-hard supporter, the one person I could never do wrong by, my mother (sorry mom!) She is also the one person in my life who rejoices most in my happiness and carries the heaviest burden of my pain. Even my tiniest frown can cause my mom great concern. So, I understood why my writing about insecurities and vulnerabilities would worry her. But I also wondered, do others echo her thoughts and find sadness in my words? And, do we have a tendency to dramatize what are normal swings in our very complex emotional spectrum?
After a recent personal post on social media where I openly shared about a particularly difficult moment in my life, a friend of mine reached out to ask if I had considered seeking professional help. The tone of my post, I thought, was one of hope and compassion. Despite the difficulty of what I was experiencing, I had found the courage to give myself a hug and trust that all would be ok. That was the message I shared. I had hoped it would elicit an empowered fist bump reaction, offering some relief to others who might have been facing similar challenges. Instead, my one friend (and maybe others) interpreted it as a potential cry for help. While grateful for my friend’s attention and care, I was still quite taken aback from his response. And I wondered, is our increased focus on mental health rushing us into over-diagnosing basic emotions as symptoms of very serious conditions?
Both episodes have sparked a lot of thinking in me about how difficult it is to talk about emotions. On one hand, there’s a tendency to hide emotions in fear of burdening others, especially loved ones, or worse, being misunderstood. On the other hand, there’s the shame of what we are feeling, as we ourselves often have a hard time understanding it and end up believing there’s something just plain wrong with us. I certainly don’t want my mother to think I’m a sad person, but I do get sad. I don’t want my friends to think I’m clinically depressed, but I do have days of not wanting to get out of bed. It’s hard enough to talk about feelings. But even more so when they’re negative feelings. Pain, disappointment, anger, regret… emotions most of us struggle to properly express and explain.
We learn to keep our feelings to ourselves from a very young age as we imitate the behavior often modeled by the adults around us. With the best of intentions some parents tend to mask their worries and shield their children from inconvenient truths. They avoid showing or even acknowledging many negative emotions. Yet when a child appears sad or upset, the parents expect him to openly share and explain what he’s feeling. Unequipped to do so, the child internalizes and represses, laying the first stones of a soon-to-be insurmountable emotional brick wall. As we learn to successfully bury our emotions, we become empowered by our strength and ability to compartmentalize as we’re praised for doing so. I don’t know anyone who’s comfortable crying in front of others and doesn’t instinctively fight to hold back tears, no matter the occasion. After all, the expression “there’s no crying in baseball” has been extended much more widely than the sport to remind us that it’s rarely socially acceptable to cry. So, repress we must. Unfortunately, the more we repress the more afraid we become of ever exposing any vulnerability. And that fear keeps us from deeply connecting to others and supporting one another. Alone in our deeply complex emotional states, we struggle to make sense of our often-erratic behavior.
Luckily, with the recent boom in the self-help industry, we are finally allowing our emotions the space they deserve and embracing them to help us improve our quality of life. Self-awareness and emotional intelligence have become fundamental skills at the basis of any good relationship, partnership, or even business transaction. But in our efforts to better understand ourselves and others, we’ve become obsessed with labels, which aim to neatly define us and openly embrace us.
Labels normalize our weird. But sometimes we rush to them as a solution without properly understanding the problem. We find such a sense of belonging in them that we build our identities around them and use them to predict and justify our behavior rather than improve it. In doing so, labels have become our own limiting beliefs that keep us enslaved within static profiles unable to capture our true essence.
I have claimed a myriad of labels throughout my journey of self-discovery and development. When analyzing my behavior in social settings, I went from thinking I was an introvert to an ambivert to a shy extrovert. Most recently, a trusted colleague suggested that I might instead be exhibiting signs of social anxiety disorder. My brain exploded. I realized that rather than working so hard to understand and define and diagnose our emotions, we should focus much more on experiencing them, free to be completely incoherent and courageously vulnerable.
Communication is at the core of our existence. Yet we often fail miserably at it. We fail to find the right words. We fail to listen and reserve judgement. We shy away from conflict and tone down our instincts. We silently swallow things up only to violently spit them out in a torrent of resentment. When we don’t give proper voice to our emotions, we inhibit our ability to love and be loved. So, let’s talk about our feelings and cry and write outpours of personal reflections to help us better connect with the world around us and love it a little bit better each day.