(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?