Sensitivity is a virtue, not a disgrace.
I was seated across from my new boss, just 90 days into my new role overseeing operations and community for a professional network. I was trying my best to follow proper managing up techniques to express that I was feeling the crush of an Everest of work on my plate. It was just too much to expect one person to do. Pomodoro technique, reprioritization after reprioritization, logging hours on weeknights and weekends — nothing was moving the needle toward a place where I felt the role would be sustainable.
I had found long ago that it’s best for me to come into anything remotely resembling confrontation with a clear plan. And I had mine. On a four by six notecard was a clear definition of what I believed to be the problem alongside potential solutions listed tidily in descending order of preference. Grow the team and split the role. Recruit an intern. Reduce the scope of work for the next six months to better suit the capacity of our small team. Move tasks from my plate to his. And least of my favorite, but a realistic option nonetheless: admit I wasn’t the person for the role after all.
After my carefully crafted presentation, I leaned back in my chair ready to dive into problem-solving mode and work on the challenge together. His reply fell short of my expectations, “Well, we’re all overwhelmed and this is just the way it is. You just have to learn to deal with it.”
The hamster started racing on the wheel. My head filled with thoughts, a rapid fire of information. Ok, ok, ok, this is not on the list. What do you do? What would Sheryl do? You are strong. You are professional. Baited by exhaustion and fear, my work-is-misery story set in. You are failing. There is something wrong with you. This has to work or you will never work again.
My cheek registered moisture before my brain computed what was happening. Shit. I was crying. My brain catapulted into four alarm fire mode. Stop. Do not cry. Do not cry. Stop it. Hold it together. He will think that you are a liability. Do not cry. Do not cry.
My boss looked at me from across his desk. “Are you ok? This isn’t a big deal, it’s just the way it is. You don’t need to be upset.”
Get out. Move out of the space. It’s coming but you don’t have to be sitting here. “I need a minute. May I step out?”
“No. We need to talk about and finish this.”
His words cracked the internal dam I had so quickly cobbled together shattering it into a million pieces. The pressure of the buildup erupted into ugly crying and can’t find the shut off valve. He is clearly taken aback. I am frozen in my chair, my head and my heart somewhere above the scene watching the crash. We stay in this awkward silence for a few moments.
“Fine. Take some time to gather yourself.”
I bolt out of his office, grab my personal belongings and race the half mile from the office straight for home — it was past five anyway — weeping the entire way.
That night I am mortified. I play the scenario over and over in my head, looking for where I went wrong. What it was I missed in my planning. After repeating it for several hours, I settle on the problem: Me. And my crying.
The next day, I am the first to arrive to work. I started preparing things for the day, nauseous with anxiety and fear that I would be let go. As soon as I see him, I launched into an apology. “I’m so sorry I lost control of my emotions yesterday. I‘m sure I made you uncomfortable. You’re right. Everyone is working hard. I need to just try harder to be more productive.” He looked at me and I was certain he was trying to detect if I would cry again. A sigh escaped his breath. “I forgive you. It’s in the past. But it can’t happen again. It’s highly unprofessional.” He slowly walked out of the room.
I counted backwards in my head for thirty seconds, mustering every ounce of will that my face remain emotionless. I backed out of the room and headed for the bathroom. As the door surrendered a soft thud closing behind me, the tears began to fall.
People have found it appropriate to weigh in on my emotions since I was a small, awkward kid. In my keepsakes are a number of elementary school report cards in which teachers describe me as “bubbly”, “outgoing”, “considerate” and “kind”. But near those compliments also appears “Sarah is very sensitive” or “Sarah is highly emotional” in piercing blue ballpoint. Nearly thirty years later, my stomach still falls out at the recollection of receiving those remarks.
Make me laugh hard? My eyes laugh too. Touch my soul with art, dance, writing, music or any expression of the soul? My tears applaud. Invite me to bear witness to your humanity? Energy manifests physically across my face. Pain, loss or deep fear? Yours or mine, I mourn by crying. It is, and has always been, inescapable.
From the moment the idea of feeling too much was introduced to me, I have known it described me to a T. And I have known that I am ashamed.
For most of my life I have done my best to treat my self-diagnosed malady of over-feeling by ignoring, suppressing, denying and avoiding the existence or intensity of my feelings. Despite my best efforts: therapy, self-medicating with alcohol, pharmaceuticals — my feelings have remained. My efforts to quell my feelings progressively made them more inescapable, intense, and eventually combustable.
After years of trying to beat my feelings, I arrived at the conclusion that the best I could do was to apologize. Profusely. To employers, friends, partners, strangers.
The more I have apologized the deeper and deeper I have retreated into myself. Ashamed of feeling. Ashamed that I was not adult enough to be “in control” of my emotions. Convinced that something was wrong with me biologically that would prevent me from being a professional adult.
It’s been exhausting.
I’ve been seeing my current therapist for over five years now, off and on. I cry almost every time I see her. I sit on her couch, I swear I will not cry, and three minutes into the session, whoosh. Tears.
And every appointment, every $125 appointment, I tell her I am sorry. For crying. And every time, she waits until her eyes meet mine and says to me, “Sarah Jane, crying is just energy moving.”
Crying is just energy moving.
About three months ago as I hopped on my bike to leave her office, I swirled this thought over and over in my head, in tune with my pedaling.
Crying is just energy moving.
I stopped. A thought came from deep inside me. What if crying was just energy moving? What if there was absolutely nothing wrong with crying? What if there was absolutely nothing wrong with me?
Even typing it now, the air leaves my body, the idea so revolutionary after carrying my self-stuffed sack of over-feeling shame for so long. What if I am ok?
Feeling is strength, not weakness. Emoting is a gift, not a disgrace.
Crying is a signal fire from the soul. I am human. Crying is an invitation. Share in my humanity. Crying is an opening. Be in the presence of my true self. Crying is the body’s most natural release valve. It is a release or transference of energy in physical form. A miracle of humanity.
What a tragedy that we live with this notion that feelings are something we must learn to control, to compartmentalize to so-called appropriate times and locations. That we must build damns and perimeters on our humanity.
We love blog posts about bringing passion into the workplace. We hire pricey consultants to train our teams to practice empathy with clients and customers. We engage in elaborate exercises designed to to unlock creativity. Each of these are expressions of our humanity.
Passion, empathy, creativity: these are all manifestations of my truest self, my deepest humanness. My penchant for tears is intertwined inextricably with each. To ask me to deny my tears is to ask me to set it all aside. It is part and parcel. Selectivity is not an option.
Feeling with depth and intensity is not a detriment, it is a strength. A sensibility and awareness that is worthy of honor and respect, not fear.
I woke up this morning with a swell of feeling moving in my body. It moved through me as a warm and pulsing sensation. I could feel it stirring as I got dressed and made our bed, my morning ritual. My husband and son had been up for a bit and were out for a walk. I poured myself a cup of coffee and started down the street listening for tell-tale toddler giggles to guide me.
The summer sun touched my face. The beauty of the morning overcame me. The swell rose above the rim. I noticed my knee-jerk reaction as soon as it arose. Stop. Suppress. I looked at the thought. I held it for a moment, honoring its years of service to me. And then I gently placed it aside, clearing the way for my tears to come. They fell for but a moment. The energy moved through as quickly as it came — in its wake a palpable release. The swell had cleared and my heart was open, moving forward.
We have a choice. How do we react to feeling? Do we run and cover? Do we suppress and deny? Do we avoid and divert? Or do we dive in? Do we make room and hold the space — the unknown, complicated, new, awkward, uncomfortable space— for feeling, for being fully human? For ourselves, our family members, our friends, our colleagues, our fellow humans. Do we want to be fully human in every corner of our lives? Do we want others to be fully human with us?
For me, I no longer want to entertain these questions. The answer is yes. Scary, but still yes. I invite you to join me. To meet discomfort with compassion, fear with curiosity, the unknown with the potential for the miraculous.
This post was originally published on Medium on June 1, 2016.