Learning to name how we really feel—not for dramatic effect but for the sake of clarity—is a powerful tool.
It’s also not one that comes easily to many of us. In a culture that generally equates strength with a lack of effusion, embracing vulnerability can feel almost subversive.
I’ve always been one to put on a brave face.
I’m not sure I’d call it a mask. I did, however, purposefully and almost systematically shift my own less-than-good feelings aside, because I felt an urgency to keep going, to make sure everything was running smoothly.
Maybe you can recognize yourself here. Have you ever seen yourself as “the reasonable one”? The person who acts like the glue in your family, at work, in your group of friends? The responsible one who can square their shoulders in front of any challenge because, well, someone’s got to do it, right?
Soldiering on became a way of life.
You know how we say that we can’t control our circumstances, only our reactions to those circumstances?
In my desire to exert control over something, anything, I took that idea of “controlling my reactions” to mean that everything had to be ok. Unknowingly, I stopped paying attention to what I really felt. It just had to be ok.
Despite my best intentions, I kind of created a persona for myself—super-mom, super-wife, super-employee, super-daughter.
Just reading this list makes me unbelievably tired.
Because of this, if at any time something went less right—or if I had a bad day (because that happens, right?)—or if, for any reason, I couldn’t fit into that super-me costume, the fallout seemed pretty dramatic. Definitely out of proportion.
It always puzzled me: when others had bad days, people wouldn’t react all that much—they were only human after all!
But when I had a bad day? I suddenly had to face a lot more disappointment than the average joe.
And that angered me to no end!
Couldn’t people recognize that I was doing everything right about 95% of the time? How dare they come down on me for anecdotal occurrences of being less than perfect?
Consequently, I worked even harder to hide that imperfect 5%. Sadly, by acting from fear of betraying my persona—which I though others made clear I wasn’t allowed to do—I was actually betraying myself.
Instead of setting proper boundaries and cultivating authenticity, I added a couple of steps to my own pedestal, and became increasingly weary of sharing what was going on inside.
When people say “I don’t know how you do it!”, they’re often pushing you at arms’ length. It’s a self-perpetuating culture of martyrdom.
You know what? I played that martyr game.
It’s not fun.
There is honestly nothing pleasant about it. All it does in the end is abolish connection. Not only connection to others but, worst of all, connection to oneself as well.
By stuffing my feelings in, and doing all I could to shrug them off, to neutralize them, I was discrediting them. Why were my feelings less deserving to be expressed than those of others?
See, something happens when we work on stuffing down our emotions: they don’t disappear.
Surprised? I didn’t think so.
I won’t go as far as saying that they fester, but they certainly… infuse. And they mix with whatever else is down there. The cocktails thus created can reappear at unexpected times, and in unforeseen combinations, sometimes much thicker or more corrosive than we’d like.
A few years ago, I had a tremendous wake-up call: I had agreed—completely out of martyrdom—to a personal and professional arrangement that greatly upset me.
Did I draw a line in the sand? Did I voice my misgivings? Did I give my emotions due credit?
Of course not! I was on my pedestal, remember?
So I put on my brave face. And I suffered.
Over the course of the several months it took for the whole situation to play out and reach a critical point, it hit me at some point: No one is going to guess how you feel if you don’t name it yourself.
And so, awkwardly, it began.
It wasn’t the product of extensive mindset work. It wasn’t a conscious effort to lean into vulnerability either.
(I’m not even sure I quite knew what vulnerability was at that point, and whatever it was, I for sure was equating it with weakness.)
It was simply an effort born of the overwhelming realization that inaction from my part would likely result in the anihilation of the relationships that mattered the most to me. That, more than anything else, is what spurred me into action.
Through openness and vulnerability, our relationships can only become stronger.
It can mean hard work, lots of time spent leaning into discomfort, words catching in our throat and even some ugly cries, but we can’t expect our relationships to grow if we tiptoe around the way we really feel.
By baring our soul, we give others the chance to see and to love who we really are, and give our loved ones the unspoken permission to do the same.
Openly expressing how we feel doesn’t mean wallowing in drama. In fact, many recent studies suggest that it’s quite the opposite: by naming how we feel, we are better equiped to move through our emotions, instead of remaining stuck in them.
The risk of creating the corrosive emotional cocktails we talked about earlier is definitely lessened!
Granted, by dropping the act, we’re likely not to be everyone’s cup of tea. That’s fine. I think I’d much rather be surrounded by potentially fewer people, but people who adore me for who I am, rather than by a large group—kept at arm’s length—who may simply like the image that I’m trying to project.
I had the opportunity to put this into practice again recently.
I was asked to weigh in on—again!—a personal and professional arrangement which would have compromised a lot for me and my loved ones. I can guarantee that, a few years ago, my answer would still have been along the lines of Whatever, we’ll adapt, we’ll make it work.
Except I know better. Now, expressing how I really felt wasn’t easy, by all means. If I can find any adjective to describe it, it was definitely more akin to excrutiating. But definitely less painful—and tremendously more freeing—than refusing to acknowledge how I really felt, and having to live with the consequences.
I leaned into the discomfort of my own vulnerability, mustered the courage to speak up, chose my words—again, not for any dramatic effect, but for the sake of clarity—and let my feelings be known.
Because my feelings are just as deserving of being expressed than those of others. And because I can’t expect anyone to guess my feelings if I don’t name them myself.
As much as we are loath to admit it, the walls that we build in order to keep up appearances are indubitably erected on a shaky foundation. If we want our relationships to thrive, they have to be rooted in truth and trust.
If we want to build—or rebuild—on authenticity, we’ll probably need to tear down those walls. While this remodel will be uncomfortable at first, we are guaranteed to create an airier, more agreeable space in the end.
How about you? How comfortable are you with expressing how you really feel? Do you ever feel the need to live up to a self-constructed persona?