I have a dilemma. I often hear that learning how to express my emotions will help prevent mental and physical health problems in the future. Being naturally hesitant to feel things deeply, it’s important for me to overcome the fear and just do the exercises necessary to better my emotional health. Intellectually, I get this. But when I finally overcome that road block and pour my heart out to someone I think I can feel safe with, I often receive some kind of negative backlash in return. Sometimes it’s not that bad, sometimes it’s really fucking bad, but either way it’s a dismissal. It hurts so much more when I feel wounded, try to express that, and then get another wound as a response. It sucks.
But I keep trying, and last year I’ve had one experience where I successfully purged my emotions in the presence of someone else. So I guess that’s progress. But why has it taken so long for one, solitary success to emerge among numerous attempts over the years? This is a really complicated question for me…mainly because I don’t really know the answer and probably can’t ever know.
My guess is that it has to do with some particular label that has been placed onto me. But everything after this sentence is purely speculation. Three possible reasons I’ve contemplated:
- I have old, childhood habits.
- I have a constant bitch face.
- My race is seen as aggressive.
Anger taints my childhood. Tension detonated into daily outbursts of hate. Anger shielded me from emotional and psychological abuse. After I was emancipated at 16, I thought that everything would get better.
Instead, PTSD possessed me for the remainder of my teen years. So for an entire decade of my life, people constantly called me hot headed, bitchy, and ‘that kid with an attitude’. Yea, my bad attitude was massive and fierce like a Komodo dragon in feed mode. I was fresh off the emotional battlefield and therefore in a vulnerable place. Anyone was bound to hurt me like my grandmother did, so I needed to be prepared at all times. I kept anger as a shield out of habit.
But just before I turned twenty, I made a conviction to stop the bullshit. It was time to stop reacting so sharply and negatively to every little thing people said. No one had intentions of harming me. With every anxiety comes a small granule of narcissism.
So I tried my best to start morphing my negative inner monologue into a positive one. My first goal began with self love and confidence. I would work on that until I felt relatively comfortable. I tripped over bumps and regressed a few times, but I finally made it to that place. The lashing out significantly reduced! My inner anger decreased dramatically! I accomplished so much growth every year and inner peace settled in for the long haul. I felt so proud of myself.
But one thing didn’t change much. Outside of me, I was still perceived to have a bitch face. People thought I wanted to fight them. And the second I opened up to someone and started showing the slightest bit of emotion, they would tell me to watch my tone even though I wasn’t angry.
What was happening?!
With all of the work I did, I saw incredible improvements within myself! But others, strangers who didn’t know me, were only hearing my voice for the first time. They didn’t know how much worse my attitude was five years ago. They had no idea what an actual bitch I could be. They just perceived me as a bitch when I had my nice face on. I couldn’t understand my error. But then I learned a bit more about personality theory.
The INTJ death glare
So apparently I was doomed to fail straight from birth. What others perceived as a threatening face happened to be my thinking face. And for INTJs, I guess we just look particularly menacing when thinking? So my next step after learning this was to create a habit of pushing my eyebrows down. I realized that they were almost permanently creased, and it took a lot of effort and mindfulness about the position of my eyebrows. When in social situations, I would rub my face while ‘yawning’ just to check for the muscles that were tense and not relaxing on their own. I tried to make face muscle awareness a habit, and I ended up accomplishing it.
Deflation of emotional outbursts? Check. Socially acceptable face handled? Check.
Hooray! Now I’m likeable and exhausted!
I achieved a social mode for meeting new people, and a slightly relaxed mode for when people meet up with me more than five times. With social mode, I expend a lot of energy being fake, and I also beat around the bush a lot because straightforwardness is not a social virtue; however, I’ve learned that it’s my job to disarm people and make them feel comfortable. More often than not, they won’t take the time and effort to try and understand me. Perhaps you think I’m not giving people a chance, but I’m not saying this out of a vacuum or a biased belief. This is from experience.
The black mask of strength
The second I slip up on my mask and show any kind of emotional vulnerability, 99% of the time I’m met with backlash. Whether I’m trying to ask for help of some kind, or a shoulder to cry on, I recall very few positive responses.
“Behind the Mask of The Strong Black Woman” spells this out in very clear terms. Black women are encouraged to be strong and to endure anything without complaint. We must be the ones to overcome anything. Our feelings are rarely valid. Can you see why ‘strong’ is one of those debilitating stereotypes that seem positive at first glance?
Now, I can’t say that every backlash is the result of ‘unquestionable racism’ or anything since other things might be going on with the other person I opened up to. I will say that by far, I have not been able to safely express a large range of emotions at all. Too excited or happy, I’m then loud and disruptive. Sad and frustrated, I’m then whining about nothing. If I start to reach out for help, I get told to stop taking out my frustration on others and to stop asking for handouts. It’s as if black pain is not important. Solve your shit alone. Don’t ask for emotional empathy. Go find someone else who cares.
Because of this part of my past, I related to several portions of an article about male emotional dampening. I find it incredibly sad what men go through when they aren’t able to express their pain in safe ways through healthy outlets. I think that when half of the population suffers in silence, it doesn’t contribute to the health of the collective human psyche. Not only do the vast majority of men suffer in silence. I think that black women are also encouraged to not feel anything. I’m not saying that our experiences are exactly the same, but I do think that there are common threads in our experiences.
So black women’s emotions are seen as threatening and discomforting – a.k.a. angry – because of the ‘strong’ stereotype and the expectations that come with it. INTJs are perceived as angry when we’re simply thinking or speaking in a straightforward way. Plus, I’ve rarely smiled between the ages of 10-19. So in conclusion, it seems as though if I’m just “fine”, I keep my face as deliberately relaxed and smiley as possible, and I’m saying positive things only, then I can make “friends” easily on an incredibly superficial level. But if I actually have a problem, you know, like a human being? Tough luck.
So even though I want to challenge myself by stepping out of my comfortable shield, I’m often quickly discouraged. Maybe it gets better as we get older? In that case, I’m totally looking forward to life at 80+.