On emotions, vulnerability, and strong women

There are certain subjects that seem to me strange to write about, and emotions is one of them. This is probably because academia in general prefers hard, empirical subjects. But I think it also has to do with a certain private/public dichotomy that works to make us think that talking about how we feel is something private that should not be done in public – as though we are not emotional beings once we are out in public.

The last few months have been particularly difficult for me. I’ve been juggling different responsibilities, changes, and problems and this past month everything has started to seem very overwhelming. When this happens I start to frantically look for the “WHY” so I can somehow attempt to fix things. This search usually leads to over-analyzing and over-thinking the past and the present, and instead of giving me something concrete to change about myself or my situation, it gives me even more to be upset about.

I eventually – after a lot of over-thinking – came to realize that there is one pattern that keeps repeating itself that has been particularly debilitating. And that is the distinction between what “is” and what “should be.” I find myself constantly, when I’m upset about something, thinking: “this is how things should be instead.” But even worse than this, is the way in which I apply this logic to my own emotional reactions. Say there is a setback in my PhD work, or a I have a fight with something I care about. My instinctive response is almost always: “I should have reacted this way” or “I shouldn’t be feeling like this.” I shouldn’t feel this upset or this angry. I shouldn’t be this dependent on this person. On the one hand, I realize that the way we feel emotions – which emotions and to what extent = depends on many different factors, including our family histories, our values and beliefs, our gender, and so on. We are socialized by many different things to feel certain ways at certain times. On the other hand, my intense sensitivity to this fact – that emotions are constructed and somehow not “real” has made me unable to have emotional reactions without feeling guilty about them.

I started to think about this from the perspective of feminism, and how as men and women we are taught to feel certain things. And this is where I find the disjuncture. As a woman I have supposedly been socialized to be fine with expressing weakness, vulnerability, sadness, and so on. It is somehow okay for women to display emotion and vulnerability. But in actual fact, because I am a woman who is in academia, who is a certain age, and who is seen as strong, it becomes difficult to balance the right type of emotion with the persona that I am seen to embody. This balancing act creates tension, not necessarily between me and other people, but between me and myself. It is this tension that creates the guilt when I do find myself reacting in ways that I see as out of sync with who I embody. When I do find myself expressing vulnerability, sadness, or weakness I am always the first person to get angry. This anger may be directed at myself (followed by guilt) or may be directed at other people whom I see as incapable of “being there for me” in the way that I need them. In actual fact, it is more likely that I am directing my own anger and disappointment about myself towards other people than actually feeling that they are not there for me. It is my own failure to support myself that I am angry at.

Given the focus in feminism on how society polices women and creates the confines within which women can feel or act, I have found these last few months fascinating because they show the ways in which these confines are not simply out there in public, but are recreated within us. Depending on the type of woman we are, we recreate the limits of emotionality and behaviour within ourselves, except this time it is us judging and delineating. I can’t let myself feel something without asking if it is legitimate. But this legitimacy is conferred by a host of complex power dynamics both within and outside of me. If I am angry, I ask if I have the right to be. If I am sad, I ask if I’m over-reacting. And if I am sad for days, weeks on end I start to panic at my lack of self-control or my inability to get things together.

There is something to be said about people’s responses to vulnerability, because I think they shed light on why we so often police or turn away from ourselves when we feel vulnerable or weak. Seeing someone else’s vulnerability reminds us of our own; seeing someone else’s weakness does the same. Because we are not taught how to deal with vulnerability or weakness in a productive way, when we come face to face with it in ourselves, we turn away quickly. Last week two different female academics that I look up to, one two separate occasions, wrote posts about personal disappointments in their lives that had upset them. I was surprised, initially, not just because social media is usually a space where people construct a persona that is happy, positive, successful, and so on – i.e. a persona they would like to embody. But also because it is rare to see strong women, in academia, who are older, express vulnerability. The responses to these posts were beautiful, and they reminded me of what a dear friend told me once: “When you are open with someone, they will be open with you – when you are vulnerable with someone, they will also be vulnerable with you.”

And this is my ultimate conclusion. The anger and disappointment I feel about certain life choices, about things that have happened in the past are enough without me adding the anger and disappointment of my emotional responses to these choices and events. I think at some point, strength is nothing more than the ability and willingness to confront emotions without questioning or turning away from them.


3 thoughts on “On emotions, vulnerability, and strong women

  1. Helene Thomas

    I love this piece Sara. I love it because it’s honest and authentic. I love it because it’s vulnerable and brave. I love it because I could feel that you were sharing ‘you’ .

    1. Thank you so much Helene! This is the first time I’ve written a piece like this, and it was hard. At the same time, it made me think through what I was feeling and that always helps. Thanks again for your sweet comment 🙂

  2. This is such a lovely piece, thank you.

    If you haven’t seen it, Brene Brown did a TED Talk on vulnerability – it is the heart of connection and disconnection. We fear vulnerability and it can make us turn away from opportunity or push others away; we can embrace vulnerability and it can embolden us to opportunity or let people in…. I really relate to this concept.

    I enjoyed your piece – especially this ” Seeing someone else’s vulnerability reminds us of our own; seeing someone else’s weakness does the same.”. I found this to come home to me particularly since I became a mother. “Distress tolerance” and recognising needs in others….

    Anyway, lovely read.

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