Keep Your Emotions to Yourself

In the early 2000s, in an attempt to have a conversation with my brother Tim about a family matter, he turned up the radio in the car and said, “I don’t want to talk about it.” That was the end of the conversation. We grew up conditioned not to talk about our emotions, not to have a dialogue about the things that were bothering us. No one in this family dared to talk about their emotions. We silently suffered in our silos. We kept our emotions to ourselves as if an invisible barrier was erected at the base of our throats denying emotional dialogue passage.

I’m reminded of Kindergarten picture day. Even at six years old, I know that today is important. I put on the blue, floral dress I selected the night before and head to the bathroom. The pink and maroon porcelain tiles feel cold against the bottoms of my feet. Too short to see myself in the mirror, I climb on the ledge of the bathtub to give myself enough height. In position, brush in hand, I begin to tame my bed head. Tangles are being attacked, hair is snapping as it breaks with every downward motion. I repeatedly climb down from the ledge, add water to the brush, climb back up and comb my hair. I envision a head full of straight, fine, black hair but the reality disappoints me. Looking at myself in the mirror, I see one segment of hair that’s been slept on. Fashioned into a tousled mess, no matter how much water I use or combing I do, it won’t flatten down. Each cycle of attack does nothing to tame the lock of hair that remains popped up in defiance. It finally breaks my spirit and tears of frustration start to well in my eyes.

This scene, in my memory, plays out for what seems like an eternity. As I reflect back on this small moment in time, it tells me so much about my younger self. As a six year old, I had no idea what an adverse effect my home life was having on me. Reflecting as an adult, I can’t help but feel a deep sense of sorrow for my younger self. So much of my everyday life was broken and out of my control that that the six year old version of me tried to control and manage to perfection everything and anything that she could. And that morning, the out of place strands of hair that I could not fix despite my best efforts got the best of me. Those stupid strands of hair were the culmination of everything I couldn’t control or make better.

There was no follow up discussion about my tears that morning. There was no assistance in helping this tiny version of me process my emotions. For nearly all of the tough circumstances in my life that required a conversation, there was none. This was the standard.

As adults, we’re blessedly mature enough to understand we can’t hold our parents hostage for the awareness they didn’t have. We can’t blame them for what they grew up knowing or not knowing. We can’t blame them for what may have been modeled to them as parenting. I know my parents were doing the very best they could. I’ve come to terms with this. Not letting go would be too heavy a burden to carry for the one lifetime we have to live. I choose to be free of this weight. The difficult thing about this resolution is that I’m still required to process the byproduct of the upbringing, still dealing with the fallout of the pre-maturely independent little girl who was left to manage circumstances outside of her own scope of maturity.

Over the years, in moments of valuing my self-respect above staying silent, I’ve had conversations that were difficult for me. Growing up in a state of constant unease, I’ve never been one to rock the boat. I avoid uncomfortable conversations and am a people pleaser. So “tough” doesn’t begin to describe how difficult each of these conversations have been, how much anxiety builds in the lead up. For years, I wondered why I couldn't talk about my feelings without being brought to tears. Perhaps that's the flood of emotions that I’ve kept bottled up finally finding its escape. In 2012, I asked for a raise because I deserved it. It was black and white, in my eyes. There was data to support growth that I was directly responsible for. Even that conversation, where I felt I had to justify the work I put my heart into, nearly brought me to tears. Just this past weekend, Dave unconsciously disappointed me, hurting my feelings. Garnering the strength to have that conversation took an entire morning and still resulted in me in tears.

I often wonder what it is like not to have this affliction. I think about it more frequently now that I’m charged with raising two little humans. For now, my attempt at not repeating history consists of breaking it down in the simplest way that I can. I tell Tessa (and will tell Miles when he’s old enough) that she has a super power. That super power is to use her words. We will encourage them to create dialogue around the good and the bad that will arise. We won’t keep our emotions to ourselves in this family.

P.S. I got that raise.