I grew up in a very emotionally expressive world. My friends were emotional, my family was loving, and I cried. Often. I was always taught to express my feelings, to not bottle them up, to “talk about things.” If you can’t tell, I’ve been in therapy since I was 14. The expression of emotion felt incredibly natural to me – whether it be laughter, joy, anger, sadness, you know, the whole range of sh*t we feel as people, it all just felt right. I didn’t mind letting everyone know how I felt, all the time. I was a firecracker, an explosion of fierce emotions, and I didn’t feel insecure about it for a single second…until I got to college. College was the first time I was told I was “too sensitive,” “too much,” and “too emotional.” It hit me like a bus (are these jokes okay after George died on Grey’s Anatomy?) All of a sudden, I was embarrassed of everything that made me, ME. My ability to feel, express how I feel, and understand and empathize with others was no longer a strength; it was an incredible weakness, one that burdened the people around me and frustrated my boyfriend. Overall, I learned that emotions are unwelcome at an Ivy League institution. They are weak and irrational. They are unfocused, and here, there is no tolerance for anything but laser-sharp, cold, calculating drive. College has taught me this: in order to succeed, in order to get what you want, in order to get anywhere, you can’t let yourself get off track. How am I supposed to get a job this summer if I spend 10 minutes crying over my ex? Will being angry at his new girlfriend affect my grades? If I let myself feel insecure, will that affect my trajectory to the top?
Crying is now reserved for the shower, and I haven’t been angry in three years. I was told that being angry is a waste of my time, and I haven’t felt rage since I stepped foot on this campus. Not because people don’t make me angry (they do, often), but because there’s no space to vocalize it. Anxiety, if it’s not about work (and especially if it’s social), is not expressed. Feelings have been rendered outdated and immature. They have been reserved for the direst of situations. Unless someone dies, do you really have a reason to be crying? Do you really want to risk not doing well on your finals because your boyfriend broke up with you? Get over it. Take an Adderall, go to the library, and forget about it. You’re a grown up now, so act like it.
This morning, I received a text asking if I was in my ex’s bed. I wasn’t. It was some other blonde girl. For just a second, I felt my heart drop into my stomach, sick at the thought of his hands touching someone else (AND a blonde? Ugh). Then I realized: I don’t have time. I have a 20-page term paper due tomorrow. I can’t think about this. So instead of crying, I laughed. I laughed because I needed to feel something, and sent the text to my group chat with the message “OH MY GOD LOL.” No one asked if I was okay, because why would they? I’m totally fine. Doesn’t my text show that? I am completely, utterly fine, because I have to be.
Being fine means being numb. Being “fine” all the time means you aren’t living. And pretending to be fine means you’re not being honest with yourself. All I want to do is sit in my bed and cry. I want to let it out, and I want my best friend to be there to tell me it’s going to be okay. But it won’t come, because I have told my tears to f*ck off for the past three years. I forgot how to let myself feel. I am an adult now, and apparently, adults are supposed to feel nothing. We’re supposed to keep it together all the time.
Pretending to keep it together all the time creates tangible repercussions. A 2018 study found that one in three freshmen reported mental health problems in the past year, which corresponded to a 0.2-0.3 drop in GPA (Bruffaerts et al., 2018). Not only does anxiety overwhelm our lives, it actually negatively impacts one of the very things we are so anxious about. Instead of seeking help, we let the anxiety fester. We keep it to ourselves. We keep pushing until we can’t push anymore. And in the end, we only hurt ourselves (and our GPA). My university, Penn, received a grade of D+ for mental health policies in a 2019 study conducted by the Ruderman Family Foundation. This was the highest ranking of the Ivy League Schools. Yale was the lowest, receiving an F. This culture of silence is widespread. We don’t cry. We don’t feel, because we aren’t allowed to. There is a horrific lack of attention, conversations, and resources dedicated to mental health at Ivy League institutions.
Maybe emotions are childish. Maybe there is no room for them where I study. But, if being an adult means being disenfranchised from talking about feelings, the centerpiece of the human experience and the groundwork for all connections, then I wish I had never grown up. All I want is to be a tantrum-throwing child again, but I can’t think about that right now. I have a term paper to do, remember?