woman with her head in her lap

Messy Emotions and Social Conventions

How much more would we be able to achieve if we gave each other permission to be a little more honest?

Mental health and wellbeingFriends and relationships
By VoiceBox ·

Katerina (not her real name)

A young writer from Canada.

Messy Emotions and Social Conventions

Don’t roll your eyes or click away yet, but yes, this is another article about how feeling your emotions isn’t weak. I mean, come on, we all know it by now; why do we need to hear it from different sources over and over? Might it be because as much as we understand the concept rationally, many of us haven’t truly implemented it in our lives?

I feel like for ages, I’ve known that the way we process emotions is central to our quality of life. The population of Generation Z, at least in western culture, probably understands mental health better than any generation before; the school I went through practically taught it to death. It’s almost mystifying that I don’t do a better job managing or processing my emotions. 

See, I’ve always been someone who feels deeply. For the most part, this didn’t bother me in early childhood. I felt what I felt, didn’t shy away from it, and others around me reacted however they pleased. I cried, and others attempted to comfort me. It didn’t seem complicated then. 

Then high school hit. The self-consciousness didn’t hit right away, at least in this respect. Early on in tenth grade, I wrote a speech about how vulnerability only made one stronger. It should have been a sign that society was getting better at raising children who felt comfortable in their own skins, if only I hadn’t started to waver. I gradually grew self-conscious about how easily I let myself cry in front of others because I knew I did it more than anyone in my social circles. Maybe I would have been able to leave it alone if I hadn’t started listening more to others’ opinions on crying. Every time I was comforting a friend, they would berate themselves for showing sadness, or sharing it with me. They put themselves down, called themselves weak, commented on how embarrassed they were. I didn’t know better than to offer inadequate consolations, and silently consider how weak I must be as well. 

Halfway through eleventh grade, I made a resolution to emote less. It was time to stop creating awkward situations and humiliating myself because my face gave away everything I was feeling. I worked at keeping my expression blank when I was sad or angry. A few months into this project, a friend congratulated me. It had come up in conversation, and she said that she had noticed my effort and was impressed. In her opinion, “a little repression” was good for everybody. Naturally, her comment reinforced my behaviour.

There wasn’t some dramatic meltdown that brought me to see the light. It was simply having time in quarantine that prompted me to reflect on my goal; there weren’t as many in-person interactions in which I needed to keep up a mask. I learned that it felt better to just let myself feel. The topic came up again in conversation with a different friend. This time, when I told her about wanting to emote less, she asked me why. As I explained my rationale, I became less sure that it was a goal worth pursuing. I recalled that I actually enjoyed how deeply I felt everything. Emotions make fiction, in the form of books or TV, so much more vivid. They make me a more empathetic person and seem to stimulate my creative side. And they make every moment feel grounding, and fuller. 

Bouncing back from hiding behind a mask doesn’t happen overnight, and it’s something I know I’ll be working on for years, if not the rest of my life. Why bother? Whether we like it or not, messy emotions are part of the human experience, and trying to hide it doesn’t inherently improve our lives. We know this. We know that bottling feelings up, denying them, repressing them, none of that is healthy. We continue to do it because it eases friction in social interactions. It makes us feel less awkward, and less useless if we have no power to help. We put on a show of caring about each other, enough to ask how one is doing, when rarely do we answer or expect to hear anything but “Fine.” 

If you change your mindset this minute and go out into the world ready to cry in front of strangers, yes, people will give you weird looks. Do so in the workplace, and you’ll be considered unprofessional. Social conventions limit our ability to express our true emotions, but the outlets are still there. Confront those feelings head-on when you have a moment alone, with family and friends that you can trust, or better yet, with a trained professional. And if you care to pay it forward, let people know that they don’t have to feel embarrassed when they need a shoulder to lean on. Situations are only embarrassing when we let them get to us, which is why I was not ashamed to cry in front of others until I learned to be. We created these conventions, after all. We could choose to live in a world where nobody feels obligated to reply, “Fine,” when they are anything but. How much more would we be able to achieve if we gave each other permission to be a little more honest?

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