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Wednesday, June 4, 2014

20

Too Emotional, Too Sensitive, Too Much

♫♬ 2 much of something ♫♬ When I was maybe three or four, I wept upon seeing my mother after she returned from the hairdresser. She’d clipped a few inches and in doing so, irrevocably altered her visual context, and, as it seemed to me at the time, transformed into another woman who was not my mother. Later that same day, already devastated by the slight change in my mother’s coiffure, I announced—loudly—my displeasure at the way the ivy was placed on the clock that was hanging in the kitchen. Maybe it seemed oddly parallel to my mother’s haircut (the ivy hung down the sides of the clock, somewhat like hair); maybe my childhood eccentricity was the sort that would make me suddenly become invested in plant decor regardless.

In any case, I spent much of my childhood having prolonged, seemingly inexplicable outbursts like this, and my flummoxed mother came to describe me as a “raw nerve.” I was neurotic, haphazardly emotional, ultra-sensitive to change. Growing older has soothed this somewhat. I am much less inclined now to weep at the specific drape of a potted plant. But every once in awhile, I still worry that I am much too emotional and much too sensitive. Much too easily moved to tears. Simply: that I am just too much.

In 2010, my love of all things Victorian and most things Tim Burton sent me to the movies to see his adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. I left generally underwhelmed by the film but very taken with one of its terms: “muchness.” If you’ve seen the movie, you probably remember everybody bemoaning, over the course of the film, that Alice has “lost her muchness.” The word’s definition is left ambiguous, but it suggests an amalgamated form of courage, assertiveness, and passion. Until she can summon her muchness, Alice remains powerless to defeat the sociopathic Red Queen. And, of course, Alice and her muchness do prevail.

It pleased me to see female strength tethered to emotion in such a positive way, and to come away from the movie with this gift of an old visceral feeling articulated in language. But I also know that Alice’s “muchness," so empowering in this particular manifestation, is not the muchness that I have known. My version is much more fraught: the inconvenient tendency to burst into tears at the wrong moment, or to experience seemingly tame events in extraordinarily sensitized ways. It is something I often have associated with feelings of shame and personal diminishment; it is an emotional and physiological roadblock, something I have had to navigate on the path to being acknowledged as a reasonable human being; it is an innate tendency to respond passionately that I constantly worry diminishes my “professional persona.”

Depending on the circumstances, masking my emotional vulnerability can feel utterly impossible. As a graduate student I learned how important it was to learn how to “perform competence,” which tends to mean suppressing intense emotions, even in the most difficult circumstances. It is true that we admire the passion scholars bring to their research, particularly when it is manifested publicly. But however genuine, that passion can never be separated from performanceand to perform implies self-control. What we must not and cannot do is lose control.

I did not learn these lessons easily, and they are not unique to my field. In the workplace muchness is something that must be squelched; we must behave as expected. That is what I have endeavored to do so farso much so that when my voice shakes in a public space, and my eyes start misting, I'm overwhelmed with anxiety that others will notice, and soon I'm awash in shame. On the one hand, I recognize the hyperbole of this reaction. But its magnitude stems from acute awareness that public vulnerability is regarded as inappropriate. And for women, it is especially damning.

For centuries, our society has tethered emotional expression to femininity. So many public spaces have been—and continue to be—hostile to women; expressions of muchness are almost always unwelcome. In muting myself for the sake of my professional reputation, I have accommodated and perpetuated a climate resistant to muchness, one that treats it as a shortcoming to be concealed at the very least, ideally overcome.

But vulnerability is not weakness. I wish it was not regarded as a marker of incompetence or lack of professionalism. Creating a more feminist professional sphere means supporting one another in our vulnerable moments without chastisement or judgment.

I asked some of my female friends whether they had experienced censure or feelings of shame for being emotional. One friend, also a graduate student, expressed her frustration with “female professors” who “seem invested in cultivating a generation of take-no-shit women who have no feelings at all.”

To an extent, I sympathize with what leaders like this are responding to: the stereotyping that casts passionate women as maudlin and irrational. But our answer should not be to attack emotional vulnerability itself. Uninhibited feeling in no way indicates one’s predisposition to taking shit.

Of course, I would rather have a good cry alone, or with someone close to me, not in public. But I wonder how much this preference derives from shame. I wonder what it would be like to live in a world where emotion carries less baggage, and we do not diminish others or ourselves—even subconsciously—for the temporary inability to “keep it together.” I loathe this expression because of the way it seems to both demand and exonerate emotional suppression.

Lately, Leslie Jamison wrote beautifully in The Empathy Exams about bodily wounds as “the threshold[s] between interior and exterior,” as self-exposure. When we ask others to “keep it together,” we ask them to seal a threshold created through the experience of—sometimes profound, unbearable—pain. We are saying, “I am not willing to bear witness to your wound, your muchness.” Yet I do want to bear witness. I, like Alice, draw power from my muchness. It has taken me years to understand this, but it’s true.

Rachel Vorona is an English doctoral candidate living in Washington, D.C. She also writes creative non-fiction and personal essays at positiveandpromise.wordpress.com. You can find her on Twitter here:@RachelVorona.



20 Comments / Post A Comment

tofuswalkman

reading the empathy exams at this very moment!

lisaf

@tofuswalkman Also! (Not at this true very moment. But like, read some earlier today, and will read some later tonight)

tofuswalkman

@lisaf just finished it. my heart is smashed to bits, it was so good. my favorites were the essays on morgellon's and the final piece. oof!

bureaucrab

One strategy I've found very effective in striking a balance at work is to VOICE how I am feeling within the context of the situation causing the feelings, AFTER I've explained how I'm gonna handle this shit like a boss. Basically my feelings are like a pill that I slather in the peanut butter of professional competence so people will happily allow me to express my emotions. They don't even know that's what I'm doing! They think I'm "brash."

For example, one day last week I had to handle a totally avoidable crisis that REALLY pissed me off. First, I put the wheels in motion to fix the shit, and only when got to a stage where I was waiting for someone else to act did I tell my boss (who, granted, is awesome) how frustrated the situation made me and how I was sick of people jamming me with preventable crises all the time. In that conversation, I said that after I took care of the situation, I wanted to sit down with her and strategize things we could do that might help avoid future problems. So all those feels were layered within a heaping spoonful of corrective action, problem-solving, strategic improvements, etc. Everybody else sees Somebody Who Gets Shit Done, and I don't have to suppress anything. I emote all the time, but people consider me brash rather than emotional (or the dreaded "overemotional") because I do it in a way that is easier for them to accept. It makes a HUGE difference.

lupineline

I really like the idea here of "muchness," and have often -- and still fear to some degree -- being "too much" in so many capacities (both in positive and negative ways). But I think the fear of "too-muchness" is ebbing away each day, and is being replaced by acceptance, freedom, and the knowledge that if I am actually too much for someone else? Well, good. They are not one of my people, and better to know that sooner rather than later. Better to know that than to compromise who you are and who you have always been and what actually makes you, you.

May we not lose our muchness to a vast and flat plane of apathy, of ordinary.

karenology

@lupineline I love your last line so much I want to print it on t-shirts and wear it every day

antilamentation

I like this very much.

And also, if this were on a t-shirt, I would probably buy it: "Uninhibited feeling in no way indicates one’s predisposition to taking shit." Well said! :)

Rachel Vorona@facebook

@antilamentation Ha! Thank you!

Taffeta Tampon

I don't know. I don't know. I have lots of emotions, but I am not prone to outbursts in public. I've definitely been on the receiving end of some male shade for even APPEARING as though I may. (Let's not get started on presenting normally but being told to "calm down" all the time regardless.) However, some of my closest friends have "muchness" as well, and are always apt to cry, etc. in certain situations. It isn't inherently credibility-destroying to do this, to my mind, yet sometimes it forms a real, practical barrier to actually getting anything done. We've been in car accidents, dealt with police, been mugged in public, and had to rush friends to the hospital before. And to be perfectly honest, some of my friends are perfectly useless in these situations because they cannot, as you say, "keep it together" for long enough to act. They simply sit there crying, often together. I don't think this makes them lesser than anybody else, but it can be frustrating for me. Once we were almost arrested as a group for trespassing because we were ordered by a security guard to leave a private neighborhood we'd been visiting. We were all in the car leaving, when an argument broke out and one of the girls got so upset that she opened the door to the moving car, jumped out, and began, weepingly, to run down the street. This attracted the attention of the off-duty cop who guarded the area, and he ordered us to leave or be arrested. The problem was she couldn't get enough of a grip on herself to let us "catch" her, so to speak. Things deteriorated quickly. This is just one in a long series of stories I have like this. Yes, muchness is an asset a lot of the time. But sometimes, it's time for business. And you need to pull yourself together.

Rachel Vorona@facebook

@Taffeta Tampon I hear what you're saying. I certainly would not argue that an emotional outburst is always the most productive way to solve a problem - or to handle the sort of intense circumstances that you describe in your comment. I'm thinking about the bigger picture - about the sort of privilege stoicism seems to get in so many situations. I think it is important to recognize the extant demands on people who are highly emotional and professional. Of course we all have different demands on us, depending on how we navigate the world. But I've noticed a larger cultural anxiety around public displays of emotion, and I think that is something we need to combat. It seems to me that, frequently, demonstrating emotion is conflated with the inability to act, be effective, etc. And while there are always exceptions, I think that is an unproductive generalization.

Mashenka

I think it's interesting to think of the "muchness" manifesting itself the physical body too - as in women feeling the need to make themselves physically smaller, to take up less space and therefore have less physical "muchness".

Rachel Vorona@facebook

@Mashenka Absolutely. That's a great parallel.

277207424@twitter

Hmm. I like this, and I love the term "muchness" and your way of looking at that movie. But I have to agree with Taffeta Tampon (weird sentence to write). There is a time and a place for obvious emotion. I just graduated in film studies and there was a woman in most of my classes who would cry and gasp at the movies we watched in classes. I myself am pretty squeamish about violence in movies and I often cover my eyes, which I know irritates some people (like my boyfriend, who I then have to make explain what I just missed). However, this woman would full on EXCLAIM when startling things happened in the movies, and would start audibly sobbing during sad-ish films. I'm sorry - it's cool to have emotions, but you really do need to regulate them at least a tiny bit in professional or academic settings. Her outbursts were distracting and made me worry for her, rather than paying attention to the movies I was supposed to analyze. I'm all for supporting one another in vulnerable moments, but if it's happening on a regular basis, "bearing witness to your wounds" impairs MY ability to focus and get things done.

Rachel Vorona@facebook

@277207424@twitter You're bringing up a really important point with the example of film screenings. We do not exist in vacuums, so what we do--and by extension what we feel--affects others, sometimes in troubling ways. It raises the question of how we remain true to ourselves while still being mindful of and sympathetic to others. And that can be a very complicated thing, largely shaped by context. Thanks very much for this comment - I've been thinking about it.

mistersister

I don't think men are judged less harshly for being emotional in public…in fact I might say the opposite is true. Men are expected to be stoic at all times, in all situations.
Imagine an adult man crying at his desk after a presentation goes horribly wrong. Imagine how harshly people would judge him.
I say this as a pretty emotional man, who was an extremely emotional child. It was hell. I couldn't even express sadness around my family, let alone my peers, teachers, etc. I think there are more emotional guys than one might think, they've just been hiding it longer.
Emotional expression, particularly of the sad sort, just makes people uncomfortable whether it's coming from women or men. People can still tell when I'm upset, I can't hide it that well, but I've learned to tone it down and even to joke about it…because in the end I don't want to make anyone uncomfortable, even if it means not fully expressing myself.

Rachel Vorona@facebook

@mistersister I'm so sorry that you've had these experiences. If this had been a longer piece, I would have spent time on how these sorts of social regulations on emotion are shaped by gender, sexuality, race, and so many other categories of identity. I think being emotional is especially problematic for women precisely because it is what is expected; certain behaviors confirm certain stereotypes. But men absolutely have all sorts of challenges surrounding emotion too - and more and more, there seems to be a really difficult expectation that men simultaneously be sensitive but tough. Show a little, but not too much, and make sure that you compensate by being a badass in other ways. That's another issue we need to face as well.

lyzl@twitter

I love this. I think I'm raising a little you. Today she cried bc I refused to wear something not black. Anyway. I think part of my reason for hiding emotion is because all too often it's used against me. Students (I sometimes teach) see it as a sign of weakness and assume that they can exploit it. Employers use it as a reason to dismiss you. But I do understand the power of muchness and bearing witness. I sometimes volunteer at a woman's shelter where tears there have meant so much to me. Also, yay for Leslie Jamison and you.

Prince Cocodu@facebook

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