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 performance—and 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 far—so 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.