In a recent counseling session my counselor was asking me why I hold back emotion. Glenn and I both do, he noticed. I thought about why I do this. I have never liked for people to see me cry. I don’t think I grew up having it modeled for me. People in my parents generation tended to keep emotions under wraps I think. I started thinking about what it must have been like for my mom growing up in the 40s and 50s and being a single woman who was getting a college education, the first in her family, and then went on to get a Masters degree. It wasn’t the norm for woman in that time period. She was going against the norm of getting married and having a family. It was a man’s world in the workplace and academia, so she had to act like a man to survive. In that time period that meant not showing emotions. That was “being strong” and “taking it on the chin”. I do remember showing some emotion with her in private though. One particular time stands out in my mind. My dad and mom got divorced in 1986, when I was 6 years old. It was a particularly nasty divorce with so much pain and heartache for us both. She wisely got herself and I both into counseling, something that changed my life because it taught me to seek help for my mental health at a young age. I don’t remember talking about the divorce much but I have a memory of she and I hugging and just crying one day. We didn’t need to say anything, tears are all that was needed.
The challenge for me now as a woman is the question of how to be “strong” and yet show emotion. We are finding that our kids are struggling because they have emotions about all the trauma we have been through as a family for really the past 8 years or so but they think they cannot show that emotion because we don’t. Glenn and I were talking about it and I think we have for all those years tried really hard to keep things emotionally stable and in doing so that meant not showing any emotions. Our daughter came to us with deep hurts and trauma and she also had limited ability to understand the world or express herself with words. So, being developmentally about a year old, she threw tantrums. Not little ones either, big ones from a large person. If you’ve never lived through this you cannot imagine. It’s traumatizing to live with on a daily basis. You never know if you would get happy emotions or sad or angry ones. We learned that it was a bit like a rollercoaster and the higher the highs, the lower the lows. We found the more excited she was then the larger tantrum she would have later, so we learned to keep her stable. Nothing too exciting, so that we wouldn’t get too much anger later. We still have to maintain some of that with our son Josh. That leads to a rather flat emotional existence for a parent. You are afraid to get too excited or happy so as to avoid the negative emotions. You learn to put a governor on yourself, but you become emotionless.
We are practicing emotions for ourselves now. Allowing ourselves to cry or get angry so that we can also experience joy and excitement. I think Christianity also sometimes says you should not acknowledge your “negative” emotions. It’s not spiritual to get angry, the Bible says you shouldn’t, right? (it actually doesn’t, it says get angry and don’t sin, not that we shouldn’t feel anger at times) People are uncomfortable with negative emotions. Just go through a loss in your life and you will run up against people who say all kinds of dismissive stuff and encourage you to “get over it”, if you grieve too much for too long. One of my absolute favorite verses in the bible is “weep with those who weep, rejoice with those who rejoice”. The bible is saying we need to feel both emotions, not dismiss either one. And we need to sit with other people in their grief and just cry with them and when they are joyful we need to be joyful too. Frankly I’m not sure which is easier. For myself and my family, we are working on showing emotions more, both happy and sad, angry and joyful, but hopefully less indifferent, which is the real opposite of anger. I don’t want to be someone who feels nothing anymore, it’s not helping myself or anyone else.