Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Emotions in Motion

After the weekend I had - a weird conglomeration of awesome greatness and fun along with moments of soul-crushing self-depreciation and assorted human rudeness - I feel tempted to write a personal post. But on what? How not getting into grad school might have emotionally caught up with me on the sadness spectrometer? How no matter what I do, I still feel angry and Hulkish at people who behave in ways I struggle to deal with and am losing the ability to put up with people who say things I find rude (if I ever had the ability to put up with this in the first place)?

The struggle I face is this - we live in a world where it seems cynicism is becoming more and more valued, a world that sees it as productive and positive and makes people cleverer and stronger. I don't entirely disagree with this - a skeptical attitude and certain cynicism is necessary and can work towards positivity. What bothers me is how much cynicism is being dwelled in, prized, and used against others.

I was sketching down some thoughts the other night and wrote something along the lines of this:
We are not in a world that appreciates softness. We admire hard bodies, fierce intellects, strong beliefs, and rigid logic. The softer side is left to die out or be hidden firmly beneath this harder, molded side.

People like me, people who are soft with hearts of butter, are not meant for this world. We often lose and must change to a rigid, plasticy surface that does not betray what lies beneath. For beneath, we cry when someone sharply criticizes. We weep often over small things.

Sensitive, they call me. Thin-skinned. As if I am somehow wrong and they are right. I am not wrong. I am a different way of being.
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I should note that I tend to get over-dramatic when I write while feeling melancholy. But there's some good reflection here on issues that I haven't thought about for many years. I was the girl who cried in class - who cried when I got embarrassed or when someone accused me of doing something I hadn't done. I remember weeping a lot in my childhood and hating it, because it always made me feel as if others were judging me for my emotional expression. When I got to middle school and high school, where people who weeped were seen as weak and mocked and ridiculed, I forced my softer emotions under the surface. I became more sarcastic, more cynical, more angry. This wasn't necessarily bad - I needed a wider emotional range other than just crying when I was upset. But I got more hateful in someways and more impatient. High-school me felt a bit like the Hulk - people say I have a long fuse, but when I get angry, I explode. I would pent up my emotions and, under pressure, they would unleash themselves like dynamite.

College was another change. I found a way to better balance my emotions, to focus more on the positive and avoid situations that caused stress and hurt and turmoil. Of course, those situations can't always be avoided, but I felt by the time I'd graduated that I'd somehow better balanced things. I was not so soft that the slightest thing would make me cry, but I was not so hard and bitter that I was a super-cynic who thought them superior to all others.

And then I started working in retail. As a person who has now cried several times in front of my co-workers, this Saturday being the most recent when I tried to get myself together in the backroom only to be found (and fortunately comforted) by one of our team leads, I'm having flashbacks to my weepy elementary school days and am worried about it. I am not the balanced happy skeptic that I thought I was - I am a fluffy buttery bunny-loving fool who can't deal with harsh critique and the fact that not everyone expresses themselves the way I do. I no longer find crying negative - it's cathartic and I generally feel better after a good sob. However, I'm still stigmatized by other people's reactions to it. I worry now that crying at customers' unnecessary rudeness will be problematic. It doesn't happen often, but it's been enough to make me worry.

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There's an idea of proper emotional display and controlling one's emotions. In some ways, this makes sense - for example, hurting someone because you're mad at them is really not a good idea for anyone involved. However, not all people express emotions the same way. Some people don't cry when they're sad. Some people sob when they're happy. Emotions are really, really complicated and even I, who have been told I'm good at "reading people" struggle on a daily basis to understand what people are feeling and knowing how best to react. So, for someone who is very emotional, I understand why a more reserved, controlled presence is preferred. But I also think that deciding that a certain kind of emotional stasis is unhealthy and impossible. When someone blatantly treats me with an attitude that clearly shows a position of using the power dichotomy between customer and sales person against me, as occurred on Saturday, it's going to be nearly impossible for me not to react to it. I may be able to act with a certain persona on the sales floor, but I can't keep that up at all times. Yes, I tend to take things too personally, yes, I tend to let issues get under my skin rather than shaking them off, but if I allow myself to react to them as I instinctively emotionally want to, I can cope with it much better. If I cry about it, I'm less likely to mull over it and let it bother me later in the day or the next day. I imagine people that feel force to create some emotional reaction or hide other emotions feel much the same.

So what then of the argument that I see on the internet, that people want to act with rudeness because people are rude to them and no one deserves politeness because they don't act polite? What about those that react with extreme, violent anger because that's how they feel and that's how they instinctively react? This is a caveat of a different nature, but related all the same. Because I'm more of a nurture over nature psychological supporter, I think that a lot of emotional reactions are cultivated by our society, rather than "natural behaviors." I mean, yes, obviously crying and getting angry are natural, but acting in a way that certain incidents only end in anger or violence are not positive. Unfortunately, behavioral therapy sometimes focuses too much on "normalizing" emotional outbursts into a certain way of acting, when I think expanding and focusing and exploring emotions might be more useful. Because repression sure as hell isn't it.

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On the rudeness factor: I get it. When people are rude to you, you want to be rude right back. And not following social norms is all cool and punk and whatnot. Not being polite might seem like subverting social norms, but social norms were created for a reason and some are actually good and beneficial. And not being assholes to one another is a pretty good one. Feel free to argue that asking, "How are you?" is complete utter and social nonsense - because you're right, it is, but it's our silly human way of reaching out to other people. And if you tell me that you are having the most god-awful day of your life, know I respect your honesty. Even if I then fail to know how to react properly because that is a social construct we could really work on building up.

There was one extra little bit in the emotional meanderings I wrote over the weekend:
But there is also something strong and steely in the center that believes in me, that believes that I know what I want that that my emotions are my own and that, ultimately, I am the one who gets to decide what I feel.
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We live in a world where it is hard to care, where it takes too much energy and those who care are seen as being false and doing it only for themselves. Spoilers: we are all operating in a certain degree of self-interest and that's not a bad thing. Deep down, though I am fluffy and butter and bunny-loving, there is a core of knowledge that I am acting beneficially for myself and for others when I listen to what I am feeling. It doesn't always mean that I express my feelings, it doesn't always mean I do the right then with my feelings, but I know that my reaction is my own and I'm feeling it for a reason. It's just what to do with it that's the tricky part. It's one thing to cry over a bad customer interaction but to spend the rest of the day in a funk is not how I like to come off of all that - I like to rechannel my energy and really appreciate the good interactions I have, the people who say "hi" back to me when I great them, people who treat me like an equal when I interact with them. There was a really cool quote I saw online from Antoine Lavoisier, founder of modern chemistry: "Nothing is lost, everything is transformed." I like trying to transform what feels like a loss into something positive. Unfortunately, this is lot easier in chemical processes and energy transfers than it is in recognizing and working with emotions. Here's the truth as I see it: Emotions are hard. Sometimes I agree with people that not having all of these complicated feelings would be so much easier. But then I thing about how boring that would be (and then I think about Daleks and Cybermen and freaking Brave New World and decided that, yes, I would much rather cry about dumb stuff than risk living in dystopia of some kind). Maybe I delve into my emotions more to convince myself that I'm not actually dead inside and really truly care about nothing. But I'd rather feed into my emotions than not; it's made me a happier person and it's worked for me. To reiterate, cynicism is important - it's got a certain emotional component of its own and it's protective, insulating us from a lot of troubling things that occur in our world - but letting it consume you as the only way to express emotion is not good. At some level, we often don't care about things - and that's okay. But to care about nothing, forever and always, troubles me. To move beyond a level of cynicism that is constant and perpetual, one that does not seem to interact with other emotions but mocks them, worries me. At work, I honestly I prefer interacting with people who have either limited emotional expression or lots of emotion than people who look like they feel absolutely nothing at all - not in the way that they can't feel emotion, but that they could but they can't trouble themselves to. They don't give a shit about anyone or anything, other than passively-aggressively pretending they do, and it hurts more than you can imagine. I don't know how that became so common and abundantly practiced, but I hate it. I want to destroy it with its own blunt, steely edge and break it open and make it feel in rainbow technicolors.

And now I'm totally that girl from Mean Girls. (And maybe a tiny bit of Elsa from Frozen. After she realizes feeling is good (which I which had been elucidated a little more from the film, but whatever.))

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One more thought on all of this emotional jabber. I came across this quote when I was in the process of starting this post and once again thanked the powers that are for throwing me something exactly when I needed it:
Being tender and open is beautiful. As a woman, I feel continually shhh’ed. Too sensitive. Too mushy. Too wishy washy. Blah blah. Don’t let someone steal your tenderness. Don’t allow the coldness and fear of others to tarnish your perfectly vulnerable beating heart. Nothing is more powerful than allowing yourself to truly be affected by things. Whether it’s a song, a stranger, a mountain, a rain drop, a tea kettle, an article, a sentence, a footstep, feel it all – look around you. All of this is for you. Take it and have gratitude. Give it and feel love.” - Zooey Deschanel
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Regardless of your opinion of Ms. Deschanel, I think this is a pretty good quote. You don't have to feel this way about things - but we should feel in general. This also reminded me of all the posts I've been seeing online about the initial dislike of Sansa Stark in Game of Thrones because she was soft and emotional and feminine and that people didn't like her because of internalized misogyny. I think some of my issues with my own emotions were that I didn't want to look "girly" and cry and didn't want to be too "masculine" and be angry. And then I finally learned that emotions do not come with distinct genders and that doing so is pretty dumb. Just because someone acts in a specific "feminine" manner, it does not make them any less strong or fierce. As shown by Sansa and by Princess Bubblegum (okay, so I've seen approximately twenty point twelve minutes of Adventure Time and love it), being feminine is badass.

So, to sum up, I'm an emotional ricocheting mess of humany-wumanyness. Being this way isn't better; it's just different and another equally awesome way of being. Maybe I don't always understand people who don't react the way I do, but if we can at least recognize our confusion, we can work through it, rather than not caring. Don't conceal, feel - that, I think, is a better focus.

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