I haven’t always listened to my emotions. In fact, there was a time I suppressed them.
I grew up in a household of boys, my poor mother and I alone in the chaos of male destruction. But as much as I revere my mother, I was a daddy’s girl. Besides the whole Oedipus complex, I’m starting to understand why. My mom was rational, and my dad, like me, was emotional. But since he was a man’s man, he never showed it except when he became angry. My dad was the type of man to have teary eyes at the end of movies like It’s a Wonderful Life and Armageddon, but only if he was alone.
The first time I saw my dad cry was when I was ten. I followed him into the basement. We had just returned from vacation, and we came home to a dead dog. The Yorkshire Terrier was 12 years old and had gotten his collar stuck in the holes of our picnic table in the backyard and choked himself to death. His name was Tiger, and he had been my dad’s wedding gift to my mom. My mom had wanted to put the dog in a kennel while we went camping, but my dad decided to keep him at home and have a friend come by after work each day and take care of him. When we came home to a funeral (the dog was rather loved among our extended family), my dad felt responsible.
So when I went downstairs and saw Tiger’s motionless body in a cardboard box, I couldn’t make the connection. This wasn’t Tiger. It was just a stuffed animal that looked like Tiger. But when my dad saw the dog, his guilt overcame him, and he started choking on his own sobs. I ran back up the stairs then, terrified. I’d never seen my dad lose it like that, and I vowed I would never do the same.
I wanted nothing more than to emulate my dad, and like him, I never cried in public, never showing what I considered “weakness.” In fact, I detested everything that encompassed me. I excelled in subjects like English and struggled with math and science. But that didn’t mean I focused less on these subjects. I actually focused more on them, determined to excel at something I wasn’t “naturally” good at. This only fueled my unhappiness and emotional demise.
By the time I entered high school, I had mastered the art of suppressing my emotion. Little did I realize that this was unnecessary at an all-girls’ school. Everyone around me was emotional, and because I remained stiff and disconnected, I was actually the oddball. I remember one time in theology class, we watched Steel Magnolias. Everyone was crying by the end, and I tried to think of anything that would help me “join the club,” even the thought of my parents dying, but nothing. Not a tear. I was numb. And then I smiled.
I was a young woman who could suppress emotion. I felt like I could go somewhere in the world. My emotions would no longer cloud my judgment. I could look at Steel Magnolias from an analytical point of view not a personal one, and people would listen to me because I would sound strong and credible. I would be devoid of personal interference. Of course, at the time, I didn’t know much about the disease that contributed to Shelby’s death. I even remember my mom commenting on the film, reflecting on the fact that a parent should not have to bury their child. In a mere five years, I would be diagnosed with that same disease.
But before my numb emotions had to deal with that realization, I began college, and in psychology learned again about the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator personality inventory. It tells you your preference for each of four pairs (sometimes the gap is small, and you may have equal preference for both):
- Extraversion or Introversion
- Sensing or Intuition
- Thinking or Feeling
- Judging or Perceiving
I had taken it once in high school and scored the following results: INFJ.
Here’s how Myers-Briggs defines it: Seek meaning and connection in ideas, relationships, and material possessions. Want to understand what motivates people and are insightful about others. Conscientious and committed to their firm values. Develop a clear vision about how best to serve the common good. Organized and decisive in implementing their vision.
But by my sophomore year of college, I scored a slightly different result: INTJ – Have original minds and great drive for implementing their ideas and achieving their goals. Quickly see patterns in external events and develop long-range explanatory perspectives. When committed, organize a job and carry it through. Skeptical and independent, have high standards of competence and performance – for themselves and others.
The difference between a “T’ and “F” was huge for me. It meant my emotions no longer defined my personality (although as a psychology student, I also knew how to skew the results, but I tried to be as honest as possible). I scored the result I wanted for myself, the one I respected most. My sophomore year of college turned out to be one of the worst years of my life.
I lost interest in my usual passions. I stopped participating in extracurricular activities. I lost focus in school and questioned the point to my existence. I began participating in certain frowned-upon activities just to feel something. I was numb. They call this the “white person’s disease,” and I admit if I hadn’t grown up in middle-class America with a good education, a supportive family, and financial security, I may have learned to appreciate things a little more. But as it was, I questioned what I saw as this societal routine: get an education, get a job, get married, have kids, and then retire. It didn’t seem appealing to me.
When I admitted to this to my college therapist, she asked me to make a list of all the things I thought were worth living for. Instead, I made a list of all the things that should be worth living for, but weren’t. I rationed that there was no point to my existence. I was such a small entity in this universe. My impact was minimal, but before I planned out my exit, I heard a screaming voice inside me. My emotions. Feeling. A heartbeat. Something was fighting for me to live, to keep discovering, and to change my path if this wasn’t working.
But my emotions were the ones that started this whole “depression” thing, I rationed. Why would they care about living? Because my emotions were me. They are what help me empathize and connect with others. They fuel my writing and my drive. They keep me moving because they give me purpose and a sense of happiness. My rationalizations only help me reach my goals. I need them both because without each other, there is no point.
It was like an avalanche cascading on my world. My emotions flooded my two-person dorm room, and I felt relief for the first time in months. I cried so hard I didn’t think there was anything left. It took more than a fortnight to release the years of bottled emotions I carried. But by the time I was diagnosed with diabetes a few years later, I didn’t ration away the point to my existence. Instead, I carried on because I felt even with this new struggle, there was something to learn and overcome. There was something worth moving on for.
I never took the Myers-Briggs again. I don’t need an inventory to tell me who I am. Nowadays I actually get along better with my mom because she is the opposite of me. She listens and understands, but her emotions never get in the way. Mine always get in the way, but she helps me understand them.
My boyfriend says sometimes, I’m too emotional, and I agree. I wish I can bottle up those feelings and control my reactions, but then I remember the consequences. My boyfriend also says it’s my emotions that have kept our relationship together. They are what helped us grow through long distance and come back together again.
So now when I cry, I let those tears fall, wetting my clothes and then evaporating. They are part of the healing process, and by accepting and acknowledging those emotions, I am more than just a robot, I am a human being.