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Bad Female Academic: Emotional Wreck

Bad Female Academic is back! This time, I'm wondering what the difference is between being over-emotional and geeking out. (Hint: gender!)

December 15, 2011

(This is the latest entry in a weekly series I did over the summer, exploring the intersection of gender, class, and the expectations of higher education. There’s apparently just something about the holidays that bring these out of me.)

I’ve always been emotional. I cry at all the right parts of Disney movies, even today. When I coached swimming, I would over-react when I thought my swimmers (who were all under the age of 8) had been slighted. When I started working during my undergraduate degree, I once started openly crying in a meeting where we were discussing a document I had written. Even into graduate school, I often over-reacted emotionally to rejection: getting a paper turned down or not being put forward for an award.

I’m not proud of this. I never really learned how to properly express my emotions; I was bullied as a child in a time where the way you were told to deal with it was to not show how upset you were. We were also (or at least aspired to be) a proper WASP family; we may not have had the financial means, but we were going to at least act the part. When my parents’ marriage disintegrated, I did what many “good kids” did in the same situation: try to remain as good as possible in order to not exacerbate the situation. 

So I ate and I swam, and my emotions came out in wholly appropriate places but in completely inappropriate ways. When things weren’t going well in areas of my life that I relied on for some sort of stability, I couldn’t handle it. It got to a point in high school that my friends forced me to go to the councilor. I don’t remember learning any particular coping mechanisms, but it did give me a place to cry for an hour twice a week.  It got both better and worse once I left for college; better insofar as I was finally away from most of stresses I had been dealing with and worse because I didn’t have my usual support system when things did get rough.

I’ve made progress, for sure. I don’t cry and hide in my bed when a paper gets rejected. Even though I was roundly attacked during my dissertation defense, I held my ground rather than fight back tears. I must have done well enough in my job interviews as I did manage to get a tenure-track job (although there was one nightmarish MLA interview that I bombed and my body language communicated my internal emotional breakdown). But I still have outsized emotions that appear in wholly appropriate situations in completely inappropriate ways.

Now, I have outsized positive emotional outburst. Like if you ask me to talk about my research. I don’t know how to talk about my research (and teaching, really) confidently without descending into emotional hyperbolic ravings. I like to call it “geeking out,” a term that mostly applies to men, but is unacceptable for women, because it’s acting like a girl. I’ve rarely been accused of being girly, but my outsized and sometimes out-of-control emotions seem to be my one “weakness. ”

I do a lot of the little things right; growing up swimming with boys and being a tomboy, I learned the “power poses” and the firm handshake (got my first job in large part because of it, too). But I also found how these sorts of behavior could work against me because it was so un-feminine. But then again, my need to apologize (a habit my husband worked to get me to stop doing) never really helped me either.

I am an emotional person – not woman, but person. I smile, a lot. And, I have outsized emotions. Thankfully, the outbursts are more on positive side rather than the negative side, but nonetheless, it’s who I am.  I have yet to find the balance of healthy enthusiasm; instead I try to tamp down my emotions so much that I come off as cold or stand-offish.

I have said it before but I’ll say it again: I’m tired of trying to figure out who other people think I should be and fulfilling it. I understand that yes, my emotions can get the better of me. But isn’t passionate what people are looking for? 


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