The art-adorned walls of Philadelphia’s The Barnes Foundation Museum feel like they’re closing in around me, so after our docent tour of works by El Greco and Picasso, I say to my boyfriend, “I’m going to step outside and get some air.” I keep my statement simple; I don’t want to worry him with my nausea or to simply disappear.
He looks at me pitifully before snapping, “I’m going to look at paintings.” His cutting tone makes me feel like a failure of a human being, and that I’ve now ruined our weekend getaway. I manage to make it to the bathroom before bursting into heaving sobs, tears streaking my face. My nausea has given way to this extremely primal reaction. I’m not sure whether to be grateful for the mirror in the private stall as I try to catch my breath.
This is not an unfamiliar scenario. While my boyfriend does have the ability to make me laugh so hard I pee my pants, the major fault line of our relationship boils down to this: My emotions live right at the surface of my skin, so close they often feel visible to the naked eye, while his are so deeply buried I sometimes wonder whether he can even access them at all.
One reason I was drawn to him is he’s far from what I’d ever call a “typical straight guy,” but in the emotional arena, he can be as closed off as a person can get, making figuring out his feelings like navigating a deeply personal scavenger hunt without any clues. Yes, I’ve seen him cry, but my tears are like Kryptonite to him. I get the impression he’d do almost anything to avoid them, and on a fundamental level, can’t understand them. My tears speak an emotional language he’s never learned how to translate.
The problem is, that’s how I’m wired. I would have to be an Oscar-worthy actress to stay stiffly composed when inside my world is collapsing. I’m not crying “at” him, or even for him, and I too would do anything to avoid showing him this side of myself. I define myself as a highly sensitive person, according to Dr. Elaine Aron’s self-diagnosis test, in which I answered 16 questions affirmatively. I’m extremely attuned to what others are feeling. I have trouble enjoying myself if someone I care about is unhappy, and if, as was the case at the museum, they’re unhappy because of me, I want to do all I can to fix the problem.
Crying is not an activity I enjoy doing, for the most part. Happy tears during a wedding, or even sad tears at a funeral, or embarrassing ones watching a sappy commercial, I can live with. These feel like socially appropriate tears, ones even the most stoic among us can understand.
But outbursts like the Barnes one make me wish I could start this life over with another person’s brain. Those weren’t soft, pretty tears gently trailing down my cheeks, able to be removed with a simple swipe of my sleeve. They started from deep in my chest, rising up and out, shaking me so I had to cling to the sink lest I fall to the floor. I watched my face crumple, grateful for the luxury of privacy, as I waited it out. Eventually, I was able to take a breath without shuddering. I splashed my red-rimmed eyes with cold water, patted dry, and escaped into a nearby garden for some deep breaths. I was aware that my reaction was out of proportion to his words, but unable to stop it.
Three years ago, I got the word “heart” tattooed on my left inner arm. I wanted a highly visible symbol that following my heart was the right thing to do after a particularly ravaging breakup. I’ve come to see it, though, also as an in-your-face truth-teller; I am someone whose heart, and all its attendant emotions, are literally on my sleeve, so my sensitivity shouldn’t come as a surprise.
While I do believe I’m wired to cry easily, I’m also fully aware that as a woman, I’m also part of a group who’s culturally coded as crybabies. As a feminist, I hate falling right into one of our culture’s biggest stereotypes about women: That we are too sensitive, that we cry in order to manipulate men, that we can’t stand up for ourselves.
Also as a feminist, though, I believe we need to value what our tears and those who engage in them are telling us. When I cry, I’m no longer thinking rationally, but letting myself do what my body insists I do in order to get past whatever is prompting my tears. I’m also attracted to this quality in others, particularly in women. When I get a crush on a woman, it’s almost always because she too has a “soft center,” her vulnerability accessible rather than buried under layers of posturing. I used to credit these crushes to my bisexuality, parroting the party line that “gender doesn’t matter,” but that’s not completely true. The women I’m drawn to are ones who don’t try to hide their tears, fears or any other emotions deemed pesky or inconvenient by mainstream society.
I don’t mean to imply that women are “naturally” more in touch with our emotions than men; I don’t believe that for a second. Instead, we have simply made more space in our lives for a wider range of feelings than most men allow themselves. When I ponder the kind of woman I’d like to be, the kind of woman I hope my daughters–should I be lucky enough to have them–will become, I think of someone strong, fierce, and powerful, but who doesn’t have to give up any of her emotional intuitiveness to attain those qualities.
My mother shares a similar disdain for my tears as my boyfriend. A few years ago, we traveled together to Switzerland. I was hesitant about so much nonstop time with just the two of us, but wanted to have faith that we could make it a whole week without fighting. We almost did, with me biting my tongue over what felt like her repeated undermining. When I exploded, it was messy. I sat across from her in a cafe, threatening to leave. She in turn got angry that I was crying, which of course only made me cry more.
What those who aren’t highly sensitive don’t understand is that tears are not a weapon being wielded at them, but an emotional defense mechanism. When I try to stuff them down, they boomerang back, manifesting in another form. Sometimes that’s a panic attack where I can barely catch my breath, sometimes a lethargic depression or listlessness. Just as when I’m nauseous I can’t think about much else than how to rid myself of the nausea, the urge to cry is involuntary.
Even though in the moment, crying feels like a breakdown of control, for me, it’s actually a way of regaining control, of going to a defenseless place in order to build myself back up. As Jewel once sang, “I’m sensitive and I’d like to stay that way.” Me too.