If the last few weeks have taught me anything, it’s that age hasn’t made me any more thick-skinned. However many years in the world I live, very little prodding can be enough to bring me to tears. Happy, sad, stressed, angry – my eyes start to prick, a lump rises in my throat. Add in hormones and I’m a full blown mess of tears, puffy-faced and panda-eyed as my eyeliner slinks away.
I wrote these words in a blog post back in August 2016 during a particularly stressful time, because I felt (and still do feel) that crying can be hugely stigmatised, as can not crying in certain contexts, and that our culture enforces weird expectations around this. For example, absolutely don’t cry on public transport, but make sure you do cry at a funeral (never mind that the tears on the bus could be for the very same reason; the context isn’t appropriate).
Since writing that post two years ago I’ve continued to be told that I need to ‘toughen up’. In the world of work particularly, the ideal we should all aspire to seems to be one of iron-clad, impenetrable doggedness. Be thick-skinned, don’t let emotion rule you and hurtle on through each day’s challenges without letting stuff ‘get to you’. Does this sound familiar? The more I’ve thought about it, this attitude seems so patriarchal, and by that I mean that it overlaps so much with stereotypical masculinity. Showing emotion has typically been seen in the past as a female trait, a view which is in fact so harmful to both women and men (the effect this has on men’s mental health in particular is a huge topic, but that might be a post for another day). I’m not just talking about crying – some of us are cryers and some of us aren’t – but rather about each of us being able to process and share emotion in the way best for us, without feeling like it has to be bottled and repressed.
More and more I think, companies are not only becoming better aware of mental health but also more open to different approaches and ways of working. That said though, my own work and life experiences to date have generally enforced the stereotypical approach I’ve written about above, and have often made me feel that my emotional sensitivity is a weakness and a barrier to progression. I suppose it’s something I’ve always tried to fight against rather than work with. What I failed to focus on was all the positive stuff, like that I have deep empathy for other people, read situations and moods quickly, feel things deeply and have a vivid imagination. So yes, I’m a crier and I’m sensitive, and that’s okay! Not only that, but this is something innate to me, and is to be cherished, not fought against. Finally in my late twenties, I’m able to recognise that.
But surely it makes life easier to be tougher? Don’t we need to learn how to cope with negative situations? Absolutely, but I really think that the way we go about it is often wrong. Rather than trying to ‘toughen up’ or develop a thicker skin, I think that what we want to work on is resilience. That means focusing on how we recover and bounce back from problems or experiences, rather than expecting for them to never affect us in the first place. I love that at the school I work at, resilience is one of the core values: “We always learn from our mistakes and keep trying until we achieve our goals” and to me that’s something not just to learn as children but to develop our whole lives.
I’ll never be ‘tough’ the way that some people have wanted me to be and that’s okay. I’ll probably always feel things deeply and be emotionally reactive, and that’s okay too. Because the more we’re aware of how our brains and bodies work, the more we’re able to work with them and be the best version of ourselves, accepting all our tendencies. What’s something you’ll never be?