Fearing to be Emotional

Reading Time: 5 minutes

By Yeo Jia Qi (15S03H)

We’ve all had that feeling before. When we follow the lead of perhaps a Councillor in shouting school cheers while watching our fellow schoolmates fight for glory on the sporting field, and find something stuck in our throat, something that prevents us from shouting at the top of our voices, something that we struggle to overcome. When we sit in the cinema and hear a touching or heartwarming line, intentionally scripted to be as impactful as possible by a scriptwriter we will never meet, and find ourselves trying to swallow back the tears welling in our eyes, as though in the darkness, others could see them. When we listened to Principal Mr Chan sharing his recovery journey from colon cancer, we laughed at his jokes about his ample girth, the usefulness of national campaigns, and swimming in the RI pool; but when he came to the real, raw and painful parts of his narrative, the fear of not waking up from the operating table or the turmoil of learning to cope with his diagnosis, surely at least some of us must have felt some discomfort.

That discomfort will obviously not be experienced by those who are simply apathetic. Feeling discomfort is also understandable if we try to fake our feelings. But for those of us who care, but make daily decisions to conceal or bury our emotions, I believe we simply fear to be emotional. Some of us choose to ventilate our emotions in private in the pages of diaries. Others do so on public social media. But in physical, face-to-face interaction, an uncertainty about what emotions can be expressed appropriately perhaps creates an unconscious need to control our anger, fear, sadness or empathy.

I believe, however, that it is not as simple as that.

What is wrong with being emotional? Put another way, is the only emotion we can display freely and with complete ease in society, without having to first worry about having to tone down or ‘keep calm’, happiness? We are taught to be responsible for what we say, but since we cannot be responsible for something irrational like our emotions, is our fear of emotion due to a fear of having to assume responsibility? I am inclined to think otherwise. Even for happiness, the one emotion that is positive when shared, to which no responsibility or shame can be attached, there is a fear of happiness. It is the insecurity we feel when we are happy, the irrational belief that soon something terrible will happen to ‘balance out’ our happiness, the resignation encapsulated in the expression ‘all good things must end’. Even though there may be no need for us to be responsible for our emotions, we somehow fear displaying them, and because of that, somehow, we feel there is something wrong with being emotional.

One emotion we are all taught to control is anger. After ‘anger’ probably the next word that comes to mind is ‘management’. The link is taken for granted. It constructs a social norm that expects us to ‘manage’ our anger, which is simply a more palatable way of saying to not show it. And this holds even when there are genuine reasons to be angry or to be upset about matters that go against our principles and values. Anger is portrayed as a sign of impulsiveness, with anger management then naturally representing maturity. In our society we are expected to be rational and controlled, to protest and express dissenting or dissatisfied views in moderated feedback forms, as though there is something wrong with simply feeling genuinely upset about something.

Take self-pity, for example. I have been told in my face that I pity myself excessively, and that I do it to seek attention. The assumption taken for granted is that everyone has the mental strength and sufficient self-confidence in our positive attributes to negate the insecurity that comes from being genuinely upset with our flaws. But I believe self-pity enables me to appreciate my strengths and weaknesses, and be grateful for what I have, while pitying myself for what I don’t. I will not apologise for publicly being genuinely upset about myself, because I personally believe it is a strategy that helps me manage my own emotions, which include sadness.

Sadness, when bottled up, means no one knows and you suffer in silence. Yet rather than talk about it, whether to counsellors (perhaps at the Raffles Guidance Centre) or trusted friends, most of us prefer to keep the root causes to ourselves. Perhaps not everyone trusts others to keep their secrets. Or it could be that desensitised to sadness, or in fact strong feelings about anything, we manage it by trivialising it as the day-to-day fluctuations of the ups and downs of life. This is dangerous because it creates a feeling of disempowerment. Day-to-day emotions may be trivial, but not all emotions are, least of all those triggered by genuine problems or issues we really believe in.

So we fear being emotional. Despite accepting that we cannot be always cool and rational, that we all have flaws we try to correct, play down or hide, we fear to display the emotion that demonstrates those flaws. But it is a matter of perspective. A display of emotion may mean owning up to yourself, dealing with problems that only you can deal with. It may represent honesty and a willingness to share one’s life experiences, something that Mr Chan perfectly proved in his talk. It is important because it can and does provide the impetus to galvanise others into action and channel passionate anger into providing mature, constructive criticism.

Because we numb our emotions, or ignore them until they fade away, I believe we lose the ability to truly care and truly believe we can make a difference in the world around us. We fear emotion not because we do not want to face the world, but because we are not ready to accept ourselves for what we are – emotional beings, because our school environment and our society have developed norms of controlling and detaching from emotion, norms that we involuntarily try to adhere to.  Perhaps this is due to a respect for others’ lives that makes us reluctant to affect them with our own emotions, or the idea that public displays of raw emotion are tantamount to public self-shaming, which then makes us feel vulnerable. Or perhaps we stereotypically believe that emotion distracts us from rational, reasonable thoughts and coldly, detachedly analysing the issues that trouble us; that the only way to properly live is to cease to truly feel.

I feel that the artificial boundary we construct between emotion and reason is a false dichotomy. Speaking to youths impromptu at the University of Santo Tomas on January 18 during his visit to the Philippines, Pope Francis lamented that “today’s world doesn’t know how to cry”, remarking that “when the heart is able to ask itself and weep, then we can understand something… certain realities of life we only see through eyes cleansed by our tears.” You should not be afraid to be emotional, because it may help you discover yourself as an emotional person, and better understand those who are more publicly emotional, because they may simply be trying to keep their own house in order. I genuinely feel we should better appreciate the central role emotions play in making our lives more meaningful. We should bravely face up to them and seek to understand them, rather than conceal them when they are genuine, out of a fear to be emotional.

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