This past year and a half I’ve allowed myself to be vulnerable, which, if you know me, it has been quite a difficult task. I’ve been successful in building an impenetrable wall all these years making it a laborious endeavor to puncture through. As I began to tear down that wall, a lot of goodness and positive energy seeped through, and I finally understood how it feels to unconditionally love and trust people. But with those feelings of happiness, also came a new level of anxiety and fear.
“I didn’t know why I was going to cry, but I knew that if anybody spoke to me or looked at me too closely I’d cry for a week.” – Sylvia Plath
I’ve always been a shy and timid person. It’s taken me a long time to accept that my shyness is just part of my identity, and not necessarily a birth defect. But unlike natural shyness, where once the person with this trait grows to know and trust the people around them and is able to open up, I on the other hand also struggled with social anxiety disorder. However, this was never diagnosed when I was younger, so for all I know I could have just been a severely shy person (if that exists?), but what I do know is that the thought of extended periods of social interactions with a group of people conjured feelings of unease even as a youth.
I first became aware of my alleged anxiety when I was in the third grade. When I look back at that point in my life now, I have a feeling it started when my family moved into a new city and I was left to adjust to a new environment and people. But adjusting to change is something that I’m well aware is a challenge for me. The changes happened so fast that for literally the next year, I cried at school every other day.
I hated having the spotlight on me, so being the new girl in class was a nightmare. I was amongst classmates that had been in classes together since preschool, with fully-formed relationships, years of memories and weekend gatherings filled with extracurricular activities. I had no one and that feeling of loneliness was apparent every day. I cried at almost everything that affected me in the slightest way. In class, my teacher was notorious for picking on students that never raised their hands, you know because that was the only way to gauge active participation. “Luann, do you know the answer to that question?” “No!” I would say, eyes brimming with tears. I was the quiet, reserved, and emotionally explosive girl in class. Few dared to hold conversations with me that lasted longer than a minute. I couldn’t blame them.
One thing I remember vividly from those times is how awkward my constant show of vulnerability and sadness was for my classmates. Some would take one look at me and quickly turn back to their assignments in front of them, hoping that my sniffles would fade into the low murmur of the class. Others would look at me with eyes filled with concern, a slight nod that said, “I’ve been there” and would resume to gossiping behind my back over what I was crying about now. “Is she stupid or something? Does she ever study? Is she crying over a boy? Does she want her mommy? Does she really have to cry all the time? What’s her problem??” I’d hear them say.
I gradually, but eventually, grew a bulletproof wall that shielded me from trusting and getting close to anyone. I cried less, and smiled more, and realized quickly that those who smiled often became popular. Nobody liked a sad girl, a Debbie Downer or a Negative Nancy. Those girls never had any friends. I started to open up little by little, but only enough to allow the company of friendships that would only last until the novelty of my sudden popularity dwindled. I joined dance team, color guard, and the ultimate elite popular group at my high school, Varsity Song and Cheer. Throughout these years, I only cried a few times, always finding the energy to swallow and stuff deep down within me the urges to burst into tears. I wasn’t going to allow that crybaby to emerge anymore.
Now that I’m entering my late twenties with almost a year of therapy under my belt, I have come to recognize and embrace the suppressed crybaby within. What I once thought was a glitch, and a hindrance in my ability to connect with others, I now see as a crucial part about myself that allows me to connect with others. My ability to cry, to feel something so moving and powerful, whether in a meaningful, thought-provoking way, or in a empathetic connection, my allowance to be completely and utterly vulnerable has taught me more about myself than anything else has ever.
This aspect about my identity dawned on me last Thursday at a work event. After a long day of events hosted by the non-profit I work with, at the big celebration that night when our staff was introduced, my name was excluded from the announcement. I know, because I was recording the executive director at that moment. A number of things crossed my mind, many of which include a string of nonsensical expletives, but what ultimately stuck with me was this searing pain, burning in my throat. The Crybaby Syndrome was not a condition I wanted to make known in front of my coworkers and supervisor — no, I had worked way too hard to keep that part of my identity discreet. But as I continued to watch the ED talk about the enduring strength of the organization’s employees, interns and volunteers, I vividly remember walking up to my supervisor and told him, in a shaky but clear voice, “He forgot to acknowledge me.”
I cried in the bathroom. I cried in front of all of my coworkers, huddled in the corners of the event space and then outside of the restaurant. I hid my face from the crowd inside, ashamed of how much of my vulnerable self I allowed others to see. With this outpouring of emotion, I was also exhausted, delirious, and dealing with lingering frustrations from that day — so it’s safe to say that the failure to acknowledge me was just the cherry on top to what was already a mounting pile of shit.
Not that long afterwards, my supervisor immediately told the ED of his error, and in an attempt to salvage whatever trust I had left, he made a separate announcement to acknowledge the work I’ve done for the organization such as, the work that I’ve been doing for a year now. I don’t know if I can accurately express the sting of being neglected and forgotten by management. I think the closest description I can think of is… shitty. It feels shitty. But that night I cried two times. Once when all of that initially happened, and then the next time, when I felt the surge of love and support from my direct supervisor and coworkers. I’m even crying right now just thinking about the warmth I was provided with so quickly afterwards. It’s a warmth that is foreign, but strangely, feels familiar at the same time. By the end of the night I wasn’t ashamed at the fact that I cried in front of the staff, because the tears are what ultimately brought me closer to them.
I am still working through the conflict of allowing myself to cry when I feel it coming. But no longer am I ashamed to cry when I watch a commercial that moves me (Yes, I cry when I watch commercials, which I qualify as a really damn good commercial), or when I hear a baby crying, or even when I am reading something depressing – acknowledging that I have Crybaby Syndrome and that it is in fact, a very big part of me, is just the beginning of my journey to self-fulfillment and self-actualization.
Cross-posted from Brown Girl: (De)colonized.