Why Are We Taught to Hide Our Emotions?
I'm not afraid to speak my mind, except when it comes to my emotions, one of my students wrote recently (I'm paraphrasing here). It made me think, if we're afraid to talk about our emotions, we're not really speaking our minds. So why is it that we're taught to not talk about how we're really feeling?
In my family, we don't talk about emotions. As a kid and teenager, my parents never seemed to understand my mood swings, depressive episodes, or anxiety. It was always, "What's wrong?" and I couldn't answer, unable to parse out why I felt distraught or angry or worthless. It didn't make sense and my logical parents wanted an explanation for why I was upset over seemingly nothing. It was always, go to your room and come back when you're ready to participate. I felt I was being punished for being too sensitive. There was never a question of how I was really feeling or acknowledgement that those feelings were valid, if not logical. The truth was, I was undiagnosed bipolar and couldn't control my often-overwhelming emotions, didn't have the words for understanding them, as I hadn't been taught to talk about my feelings.
I remember one day at summer camp when I was around ten, I was in a fog. I felt far away from the other kids, who were swimming and laughing and having fun. I was on another planet, sad for a reason I couldn't put into words. I didn't want to feel that way; I wanted to have fun with my friends, but I couldn't seem to tune in and be present, to quiet my negative thoughts about myself. I wanted to crawl under my covers and hide from these emotions. I went off to the side of the rocky beach where we were swimming and cried alone, racked with uncontrollable sobs. When a counselor found me and tried to talk it out, I couldn't come up with a real reason for my tears so I made one up. I said I was upset that my brother got to go to hockey camp that week and I didn't, which was kind of true, as it was my first year in competitive hockey and my parents felt I wasn't ready for a training camp just yet. I did want to go to the camp, but really, wasn't that bothered by it. But I knew I needed to offer the counselor something tangible and specific to explain my mood. I was too embarrassed to say, I'm really sad and I don't know why.
Over breakfast one day, a friend's baby was fussing and she said to her, "Oh, I know. You've got too many emotions for your tiny body," which made perfect sense to me. I always had too many emotions and, growing up, didn't have the space to talk about them. No one seemed to get it and I knew enough to be ashamed of the way I was feeling.
My depressive episodes, overwhelming emotions, and self-loathing got the best of me when I was thirteen. I stopped eating, convinced I wasn't worthy of food, of love. I cried a lot that year. A lot. And I couldn't explain to my frustrated parents what was happening, why I felt so worthless and broken, why I didn't feel I deserved to live. Arguments were near nightly. My parents would demand to know what was wrong and, despite my love for language, words didn't seem like enough to capture all the terrible feelings in me. Ultimately, my parents couldn't handle me and I was sent to a teen psych ward two and a half hours away. There, I had to participate in daily group therapy, as well as individual sessions. But I still struggled to find words for my emotions. I learned what to tell the therapists in order to get the hell out of there. But I was convinced there was something really wrong in me and it was my fault, my burden to carry.
Part of my release included having to see a child psychologist every week, which meant every Wednesday my mom picked me up from school early and drove an hour each way to my appointment. There, the therapist asked me to do things like draw a box with the way the world saw me on the outside and the way I saw myself on the inside. She talked down to me and it was hard to take her seriously. I didn't feel like I could really open up to her; I wasn't ready to open up to anyone about my emotions. And even though my best friends told me they were there to talk if I needed it, I felt that I wasn't supposed to tell them how terrible and desperate and worthless I felt. I didn't think anyone would understand.
Why don't we teach kids to talk about their feelings, even the bad ones? Why do we make them feel like they're being punished for being sad or anxious or depressed? I think we've made great strides in normalizing talking about mental health, but we still have a long way to go. There are still generations out there who were taught to hide their emotions, bury them deep inside, and not say I need help. So those emotions weigh on us for years or even decades and come out in destructive behaviors, such as addiction or self-harm, or, in my case, an eating disorder, panic attacks, and manic episodes.
Being diagnosed with Bipolar I three years ago finally gave me an explanation for my inexplicable moods and uncontrollable emotions; I finally had words for what felt wrong in me. I wasn't just too emotional; I had an actual disorder that caused these feelings and, more importantly, there were steps I could take to get help. Through therapy, I learned to be kinder to myself when I felt a way that I didn't want to feel, learned that it was the disorder playing tricks on my mind, and found medications that helped control my overwhelming emotions and mood swings. Of course, therapy and medication don't make those emotions go away, but they do help me get a handle on them and I've learned to try to examine what I'm feeling when emotions take over, as they sometimes still do. But I can't help but feel like I could have saved myself a lot of hurt and heartache if I'd learned these skills earlier, gotten the supports I needed as a young person, and felt safe sharing my feelings, even the bad ones. Now, in my thirties, I'm finally learning those skills. How many lives could we save if we normalized talking about emotions and processing them, if we destigmatized discussing mental health openly? If "I'm actually having a hard time right now" was a socially-acceptable answer to "how are you?" If we could share how we really feel on social media, instead of images of our alleged happiness, even when we're struggling?
That's exactly why I thought of A Tether to This World, the mental health anthology I edited, which comes out next month (pre-order it here). I wanted to show that it's OK to share your pain and emotions, even the ugly ones. I wanted to inspire others to be open about their mental health, even when they're struggling, and, most of all, to offer some support and the feeling that you're not alone. And, dear reader, if you need to talk through your emotions in order to make sense of them and relieve some of the pain, know I'm always here to listen.