Being an emotional man is a gift and a curse

Before I start, because I know I have to write defensively on subjects that are touchy for me: I’m not looking for any sympathy, I’m not trying to brag about “how enlightened I am for having basic emotions” or whatever negative preconceived notion you started reading this with. I’m not trying to say “woe is me”.

I just have a lot of spiraling thoughts in my head that I want to get out so I can actually focus on what I need to focus on today. This post is mostly for me to read myself over and over again, if it resonates with anyone else, neat.

I’m about to start year six of a journey of self-discovery. Six years of therapy. Six years of trying to go against my nature of blocking all emotions. Six years of always being on the verge of a mental and emotional breakdown. Well, to be fair, 25 years of that, but six years of actually acknowledging it.

Internally, I feel pretty good. It took a long time but I now fully believe that an emotion bubbling up to the “surface level” is something that’s been neglected. No longer do I wait until something explodes to look in and say “hey buddy what’s going on?” I try to acknowledge and feel my feelings well before I’m forced to feel them.

I’m on a life-long journey to connect with my inner child. The scared little refugee who needed to assemble a myriad of self-defense mechanisms to handle living in a world that constantly gave him signs that he didn’t belong. A lot of the parts of me that I despise are actually structures he relied on to feel safe. Some of those are more hurtful than helpful at this point, so I can work on dismantling them.

I’m on a life-long journey to connect with my inner custodian. The internal leftover of all my parents’ and everyone-who-helped-raise-me’s expectations of me. The lessons they taught me. The value systems they either gave me or the perceived value systems that rubbed off on me.

Speaking of values… I’ve been thinking a lot about what I value. My friends with children tell me that once you have a human being that depends on you, the answer to “What do I value?” is really easy. Until then, I need to come up with some answers. They don’t have to be the right answers, and in fact I’d prefer for them to be wavering and changing, but at the very least I need to be able to answer “Right now, what do I value?”

Anyway. That’s all just for the world inside my head. The world that mostly makes sense, at least to me 🙂

Externally, or when it comes to dealing with other people, oh god. I wish I could just fit the stereotype they expect me to fit. It’d be so much easier.

Being a man who is in touch with his emotions is scary for the rest of the world. It throws a curveball into so many interactions and relationships.

When dealing with people who don’t acknowledge their emotions, typically other men, typically engineers and logical minded humans I get to be surrounded with because I am in tech… I always feel like they’re attacking me for having emotions. I know this isn’t what they’re trying to do consciously, but honestly I kinda get it.

If you aren’t in touch with your own emotions and see someone else in touch with theirs, it’s easier to consider them weak and make fun of them or disregard them than it is to say “wait a second”.

Mayim Bialik talks about this very poignantly in this video:

The thing is, just like she says, I like being emotional. I like being in touch with my feelings. I like sitting down and crying for hours after seeing a photo of a kid in Aleppo who looks just like I did at his age, but is in a much worse situation than I was in. I like being able to connect with people. These are all parts of my superpowers.

Always having my emotional receptors up both externally (to try to connect with others and imagine how they feel in the situation we’re both in) and internally (to be looking for resemblances of emotions occurring before they bubble up to the surface) is exhausting and leads to me being very vulnerable.

I enjoy being vulnerable. Last year at a company management camp one of the lessons learned that upon hearing honestly made me feel a whiplash and “WHOA” was:

For others to feel safe being vulnerable around us, we need to demonstrate our own vulnerability first.

I think vulnerability is equal to “being on the cusp of growth”. I like when others feel safe enough to be vulnerable with me. In fact, all I’m ever looking for is relationships and people I can be vulnerable around, so I can grow.

I don’t mean people I can pour my emotions into and have them deal with it because I can’t, I don’t mean people I can abuse as an outlet for emotional labor. I mean people that I can feel safe around and not have to preface everything with sentences like that previous one. I hate writing defensively. I wish I could just say what I’m trying to say instead of needing to calculate all the permutations of what people could hear instead and deciding on the least-risky way of saying it.

Anyway. I don’t think just “wish I was Vulcan” hyper-rational men think I’m weak for having emotions. I think everyone deep inside when they see a man who doesn’t fit society’s toxic masculine stereotype, they think that person is weak, different, weird.

I honestly feel more negative reactions stemming from this from the radical third wave feminists in my life (which, for the record, I consider myself to be amongst) than the men who are just uncomfortable and edge away.

I think being in touch with my emotions makes me stronger and a full human being. I don’t think that’s what society and the individual people that combine into the concept called “society” think.

I’ve learned this the hard way, way too many times. Somewhere deep inside of me I refuse to change and keep setting myself up to be hurt over and over again because I think that if I stop being hyper emotional and emotionally vulnerable in every situation, I’m lying to myself and not being myself.

But you know what? Just like when I was a little kid and subconsciously generated self-defense mechanisms to feel safer, I need to do the same today. Not everyone deserves (or even wants!) my full emotional self. It makes people feel uncomfortable. It makes me feel uncomfortable. It makes people think I’m weak. It makes people disregard me. Why go through all that trouble?

Instead, I’m trying to set up a gauntlet of steps and masks to rely on when I meet new people. Instead of defaulting to being the hyperemotional mess that I am, I need to take it easy and slowly decide if it’s someone I feel safe being vulnerable around. I’m not strong enough to be vulnerable 24/7. No one is.

Mentally, I’m thinking of this concept as a way to rate new people in my life through a system like this:

“I live my life in widening circles”

Logically, I’m calling it my matryoshka model. Just like the rate of perceived exertion framework gives people a way to segment and rate their amount of physical excretion, I want to rely on a system to help me decide things like “I can be 4/10 of the way to myself around this person”.

I don’t really know what this will look like in practice. I have a similar scale for “rate of perceived drunkness” during those rare times I’m out at a bar, so I have some sort of prior evidence to show that I can do this once I set my mind to it.

I feel a lot better having written all this. Thank you for going through it with me. I no longer think that putting on a mask makes me not myself. We all wear masks. This is something I’ve known deep inside for a long time, I just never took the time to think about it until right now.

So. All that said. I’ll leave you with two things.

First, a poem that resonated strongly with me the first time I read it as a child, and I’m finally realizing just how strongly it still resonates:

We Wear the Mask by Paul Laurence Dunbar

And second, my “not resolutions but long term goals that would be great if I make a dent into during 2017”:


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