When I first launched my career as a writer, I heard the phrase “thick skin” a lot.
“You have to develop a thick skin to handle rejection.”
“Criticism comes with the territory; if you’re thin-skinned, you won’t make it in this business.”
This worried me, because I’ve always been “thin-skinned.” I’d just learned how to hide it.
My mother was a crier: anything from a sad song to an offhand comment could set her off. She was also emotionally erratic and depressed, so for years, I equated displays of emotion with weakness and instability.
My dad, on the other hand, was a model of reserve, and I found myself emulating his cool exterior and stoicism…even when I was crumbling on the inside.
So while I spent my elementary-school years crying over everything from scraped knees to mean teachers, by junior high I’d developed a talent for making my face go blank when embarrassed or sad.
As I got older, high school and beyond, I often coped with difficulty by making a joke out of upsetting situations.
The truth was that I was afraid of strong emotion, and actually practiced detaching from it.
And eventually, it worked. As a young adult, I’d experience a sort of delayed reaction to sadness or anger: when something bad happened, at first I’d just feel numb.
Later – sometimes much later – in the privacy of the shower or during a vulnerable late-night moment, I’d start to grow angry or sad or afraid, but by that point it was sometimes difficult to identify exactly where those feelings were coming from, or link them to a particular event.
Not surprisingly, this led to a lot of fights with my husband that weren’t really about the thing I thought we were fighting about at all.
That’s all changed over the last decade, though. In fact, I seem to be losing my ability to suppress my feelings…or maybe just the desire to try.
At some point, I think I realized that the same part of me that allows me to really embrace happiness and enthusiasm is the same part of me that cries at commercials, and that I can’t truly experience one without allowing the other.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m naturally pretty laid-back. I still tend to react slowly to news, I still don’t like to argue or confront people, and I still use humor to get me through hard times.
But the more difficult feelings I avoided in my teens and early twenties seem to have risen closer to the surface, and have become harder to tamp down or cover up.
I cry easily now: watching commercials, listening to songs, talking about the people I love, when I feel misunderstood or regretful or embarrassed. When I get angry, I can’t help but speak out. I’ve become impulsive with physical affection around the people I like and admire, and in some situations, have even become the same kind of “hugger” that used to make the younger me uncomfortable. [Read more…]