3825217644_965fd6ff90_bby Beth Burrell

There are times I think I’d be happier if I cried more and laughed harder. Maybe this is just code for wishing I were an extrovert, but being the back-slapping, life of the party is not really what I’m after. It’s more that I want to be more open with the people who matter to me.

I keep learning what this means as I age and support my three children in their own emotional worlds. My youngest in particular has always been especially affectionate and generous with her feelings. She never hesitates to tell family members how much she loves them and her friends how much they mean to her. This is still a wonder to me.

Growing up, I had a very black and white view of emotion. I lumped emotional with irrational, and stoic with rational. I put my dad in the stoic box, and my mom in the emotional box, doing fairness to neither. Until I matured, a grayer world wasn’t an option. So I leaned toward rational, believing this made me stronger and more dependable. Maybe it did, but I too often held back emotionally in my relationships, forcing the people who cared about me to fill in the blanks.

My reticence was pronounced enough that when I first met my soon-to-be-husband’s large and gregarious Italian family, my mother-in-law joked that I seemed more from New England than from my native South. Ouch.

I’ve come to realize that like this example, we often we put people in two camps – those who readily express themselves and those who don’t. In their extremes, we have the gladhanders on one end and wallflowers on the other, neither of which anyone really strives to be. For the most part, people naturally fall all over the continuum of emotional expression, moving around depending on life experiences.

I always believed that containing strong emotion protected me from crumbling under the sheer weight of it all. I also could ‘get a lot more done’ if I stayed focused and somewhat detached. Moreover, I believed that it was better to spare my loved ones the ‘worst’ of my emotions, but of course that came at a price. Wasn’t the anger I tried to spare them also the affection I denied them?

As I’ve come to more fully know and understand my parents, and to know and love my kids, I’ve wondered if I might unlearn some of my behavior, not stifling what affects me most deeply. I’d survive, surely. But can I do it? Sometimes I imagine a force field around myself, making any change feel monstrously large. The risk of revealing my truest self to another person (and to myself), has always felt  too risky. Temperamentally, I’m not sure what I’m capable of and emotionally, I’m not sure what I’m ready for.

I’ve been thinking more about this lately because of a book I read, Tiny, Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed who in it, answers anonymous readers’ questions about love and life. In one chapter, Strayed responds to a man scared of expressing his love for a new woman in his life, following his divorce:

Withholding distorts reality. It makes the people who do the withholding ugly and small-hearted. It makes the people from who things are withheld crazy and desperate and incapable of knowing what they actually feel….Practice saying the word ‘love’ to the people you love so when it matters the most to say it, you will.

The book’s message is one of compassion and telling it straight, pushing yourself to be fearlessly honest with those you love – the surest path to intimacy. Short of that, we are fooling ourselves and them.

I know I can’t become more forthcoming overnight. But I can aim small – gradually telling the people I care about how much I do. Or as Strayed says much more extrovert-ly, “The best thing you can possibly do with your life is to tackle the motherfucking shit out of love.”


Image:  “The Monarch – Heard Museum Butterfly Exhibit” by Axel.Foley via Flickr.

This post originally appeared on The First Day.