“Thank you for sharing,” the class would say in robotic unison. The disgruntled student would then proceed to sit down back in the circle and await the next brave soul to share their feelings aloud with the class.
Yes, this was how we spent every Wednesday afternoon in my fourth-grade classroom. Sitting cross-legged on the faded navy carpet by the windows, we, at the young age of 10, became accustomed to bearing ourselves and our feelings in a way that many college students, and beyond, are incapable of. We would sit and practice this open form of emotional expression and receive an automated but valuable sense of validation from our peers.
As I eventually graduated past this judgment-free haven, I grew to understand that this candidness about how we feel is frowned upon. We live in a society in which emotional expression is a sign of being incapable, or something burdensome for those around us. We are expected to operate under a guise of happiness and positivity and feel obligated to apologize for anything else. Personally, I have become so accustomed to following my emotional tangents with the phrase, “I am so sorry,” instead of taking the time to acknowledge how I actually feel.
As college students, this detrimental attitude toward showing emotion has been amplified by the hyper-connected, high-stress environment we find ourselves in. We are always expected to be prepared and pleasant and to put our best face forward. We are expected to operate as young adults — assertive, driven and willing — and failing to be anything but would deem us incapable. This amalgamation of great pressure and societal expectation has created a stigma around being anything but one who operates on a solely positive autopilot.
Has emotional expression become synonymous with weakness? Yes. Wholeheartedly, I would argue that it has. What if we were to say that we actually were not okay when someone asked? Would we become initially embarrassed for stepping into taboo territory, or immediately apologize? What if crying became something to be proud of? What if it became an emotional release instead of a sign of vulnerability? This is not something there is a general cure-all for, as it evidently has larger societal implications. This fear of being vulnerable exists in all avenues of my life.
The other night, a friend of mine broke down with tears welling in her eyes because of the pressure she feels regarding what she wants to do with her life. Instead of allowing herself to wallow and then begin the process of validating her feelings, she apologized to me, the consoler. In class, coincidentally on the same day, my professor shared an anecdote about how a presidential hopeful in the past faced dismal numbers after being crucified in the press for allegedly crying during a public address on an incredibly personal subject. This reticence to show how we feel due to fear of breaking social norms or facing societal ridicule has taken a toll on our collective emotional wellbeing.
As a new semester takes hold — accompanied by stressors and pressures old and familiar — I bring a personal challenge to the table. Despite believing New Year’s resolutions to be absolutely pointless, I find now to be the time more than ever to work toward individual change. I challenge myself to be okay with discomfort; to allow myself to be upset; to show that maybe I am not always the passionate, attentive individual that students at the University of Michigan are expected to be. Yes, crying in the UGLi may be considered taboo, but so what? Sometimes I do not have the will to keep everything all zipped up — waiting to be expressed in a grand, incredibly private, outpouring of stale emotion. I challenge myself to challenge those around me as well.
I am not going to blatantly share how I feel to anyone I meet, but work to become comfortable with the discomfort and break the mold that society sees fit for us. I want to change the conversation around expressing how we feel, from something that is considered a weakness to just something. I want to change the conversation from every second thought being inherently apologetic, to accepting. I challenge us all to shift the dialogue surrounding emotional vulnerability from an “I’m sorry,” to a “Thank you for sharing,” as that’s how it should be.
Samantha Szuhaj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.