I do not do emotions well. Never have. Ever since I can remember, I have been uncomfortable with any sort of public display of vulnerability or feeling–whether my own or anyone else’s. I do not know if it is the “messiness” that typically accompanies the free-flow of intense feelings that makes me squirm or the sense of negligence that I generally associate with its lack of containment. Either way, I have always felt that pushing emotions down and out-of-the-way was the way to go. Easier. Cleaner.
How others might perceive my emotional processes has also influenced how I DO feelings. For example, I do not have an issue showing anger or displeasure in public. Even though anger is not, typically, an emotion one would consider to be “positive,” it is a “safe” one to have—more or less–if you are a man. We are expected to stand up for ourselves when we feel taken advantage of or if we feel that a line—of some sort—has been crossed. Being vocal—even taking action—is not only normal, it is to be expected. When it comes to sadness, however, the rules change. Unlike outward demonstrations of assertiveness or displeasure, men showing sadness and shedding tears are not looked upon, favorably, in our society. “Real men” are supposed to be strong. Bullet-proof.
I picked-up that message from my father when I was a boy—not so much from by any words he spoke to me but by virtue of his very physicality. He stood 6-foot, four inches tall with a lean frame and—what seemed like—a perpetually stern look on his face, giving off a general sense of stoicism that was noticeable to anyone within eye-shot. You could tell him anything and he would respond in the same exceedingly neutral way that he always did, exhibiting little emotion—regardless of the problem—and saying very little. As cold and aloof as that sounds, I found much comfort in his stoicism: it ensured that at least one person in the conversation was grounded, ensuring my sense of safety by making me believe that someone, who was strong, had my back and was never too far behind. That is—perhaps—the main thing I miss about him.
As much as I hate to admit it, I am an exact carbon-copy of the man in many respects, but none so much as with my stoicism. Life has thrown a fair share of drama my way and, as always, I counter each situation with a pensive look and a quick rationalization, diffusing things, while I quietly implode inside. I think—in those moments—it is important for me to feel in control and safe; therefore, melting down never really seems to be much of an option. I know that equating “expressing emotions” to a “melt-down” is nothing more than hyperbole, but when “stability” is the thing you are after, emotional expression seems more like the problem, as opposed to a solution—at least in the moment.
I think there is a proper time from emotional restriction—just not all the time. I realized this, recently, after the loss of one of my beloved pets, Toffee. I had never really experienced grief before and was totally unprepared for the emotional roller-coaster that would shake my life for the better part of a month. I cried for three days straight and then, spontaneously, for a week. To this very day, I find myself tearing up, while doing the most mundane of things, as memories come out of nowhere and pull me back to a happier past with my pup. The whole process and my lack of control over the situation have made me very uncomfortable. I can honestly say, however, that I could not have kept myself sane if I was not able to let my grief just happen—out in the open—where I could, actually, do something with it. It has been a good thing, not only allowing a great deal of healing to occur but allowing me to get a better view of my own emotional capacities. For a better idea of what I am talking about check out “A Boy and His Dog: Finding Strengths and Capacities through Grief and Loss.”
Ultimately, when it comes to emotions, we all need to achieve some sort of balance: we cannot live life to its fullest without it. This means being OK with having and expressing feelings without, immediately, defaulting to a quick round of self-deprecation and pathologizing. For many—for me—this is a tall order, especially when others may look to us for strength and support. We must realize, though, that there is a price to be paid for our stoicism. Closing off the emotional parts of ourselves prevents other from truly knowing us. We cannot truly know ourselves. There will always be distance and, frankly, there is already enough of that in this world. Who needs that?
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