Why is it that we humans have such a hard time expressing our feelings – in the moment, as we feel them, to the people we desperately wish we could express them to?
I just watched a sweet Netflix movie that recently came out, To All the Boys I’ve Ever Loved. Depending on your taste it might make you want to throw up a little or feel more depressed or feel more lovey-dovey about the world. I would say that, like most romantic comedies set in high school, it made me feel lovey-dovey; a little sad when it ended. Perhaps it’s because that time in my life held a certain hopefulness in it about love; one that I find it a bit hard, sometimes, to get back in touch with. There is something so fun about sneaking around, or fantasizing about it, and having those quintessential crushes that never quite materialize but hold so much power in your heart and mind that you just KNOW if that person only somehow indirectly found out how you felt you might have a shot at a sweet, rom com-worthy romance. Right? But you would never tell them you thought they were sexy because then you would be deemed a total freak and the entire school would think you were untouchable (this extreme thought might be slightly skewed by the insular experience of boarding school..).
In the movie, a shy, happy-to-stay-home-and-watch-a-move-on-a-Saturday kind of girl (like me!) has a box of letters that she has written to the objects of her massive, gut-wrenching crushes over the years.. that she has of course never sent. And I will not spoil the movie for you – go watch it, it’s adorable – but basically it plays with this theme of saying how you feel; why we don’t; what the worst thing that could possibly happen might be if we did…
The only way that one could initiate a relationship in my high school - and I will get off of the high school theme soon - was to somehow get close to them in the sweaty mosh pit of a high school dance, rub your body up against them, and hope that they responded well. And that might lead to a hook up which might lead to a number exchange and texting and further hookups and then some semblance of a relationship - of course, I assume, with all of the lovely conversations and moments that came along with it. Anyone who went to high school with me and actually managed to pull off a relationship there is more than welcome to correct me if I am wrong. I stuck to the sidelines at high school dances and avoided boys like the black plague.
UNTIL… I had a horribly awkward first kiss experience that I would love to tell you about in person sometime. And THEN. My senior year (yes, everyone, I was a nun in high school), we had a Sadie Hawkins dance. And I decided to ask the boy I had had a major crush on for several of my high school years. Like, we had never had an actual conversation but somehow I pined about him (because all crushes are deluded fantasies, my friends; I know this now. Though who knows, maybe we’ll get married someday). I just thought he was SO cute and SO cool and WHY DIDN’T HE KNOW THAT I EXISTED??? Very typical. And so we had a Sadie Hawkins dance, which is where the girls have to ask the guys to be their dates; and I decided that I was going to be a brave cookie and ask this boy to the dance. And so, on a Thursday afternoon (I really don’t remember what day of the week it was), when he had his art class right next to my art class, I wrote him a cute little poem asking him to the dance with a little box to check “yes” (or no) and I made someone messenger it over to him – and he checked YES with a little smiley face J. And I was so excited but so nervous and then we went to the dance and I don’t think we really talked that much but we danced a little and had fun and he walked me back to my dorm and kissed me and I still hold that dearly as one of my favorite high school memories.
It was memorable because I felt brave. I felt like I got what I wanted. And even if my hopes and dreams had fallen short that night, I think that just sending that note was enough – showing a boy I got butterflies about that I liked him and wanted to hang out, in the cheesiest way possible (which is usually how I like to do things, when I’m in my element).
Maybe men get to feel self-actualized in this way more often, since they’re the ones who are expected in our society to make the first move, to ask the woman on a date, to say ‘I love you’ first, to chase and fight for us as if we’re little damsels in distress who can’t make our own decisions. But I’m also not sure that’s the case; one could argue just as strongly that men have a harder time, on average, expressing their feelings – they’re brought up to believe that it’s unmanly to do so; that to show what is truly going on on the inside would be to give up a precious exterior layer of protection, safety, ego. (I am not saying that no women share in this problem.)
I was in a relationship recently where, looking back, neither of us were willing or able to be vulnerable with the other in the ways that would have been necessary to make it work (obviously – we are now over). In the beginning of our relationship – the honeymoon phase – I was so obsessed with getting to know him and making him like me (not in a creepy deliberate way.. in a my bad side was at bay because subconsciously idk what was happening but ya know – brain chemicals/hormones) that I wasn’t aware of my own feelings or needs. And then as my own needs and feelings came into the picture, I wasn’t able to be vulnerable and direct about them. I wasn’t able to tell him, without being accusatory, when I needed him to be a little closer and more present – instead, I accused him of being distant because that felt safer than saying that I missed him or wanted to see him. I wasn’t able to tell him when I was feeling super gaga over him, either, because that felt vulnerable too; I loved him months before I told him I did, and I waited because I thought he should be the one to tell me first. I could express my feelings for him in letters, or when I really worked up the courage to, but I wasn’t able to be spontaneous about it, to let my intuition guide me and to just say how closely I wanted to hold him through the good and the bad feelings – it felt so much easier, when things got hard and complicated, to push him away.
Our society tells us to push away our feelings so that we can move on to the next thing. The next hour of work, the drinks after work, the party this weekend, whatever other PLANS we have that keep us moving through life as if we’re on some kind of hamster wheel. SLOW DOWN. It is important to feel our feelings, to take time to feel our feelings – because if we don’t do that – if we push them down into the crevices of our soul – they will turn into big scary monsters and come back to haunt us in the strangest of ways. They might even haunt our offspring. The only way is through. Through the feeling, not around it. It will pass more quickly than you think. All of my Buddhist and mindfulness training has taught me this – and those people have some years of wisdom behind them.
I feel similarly about expressing feelings: if we don’t express what we’re feeling to the person we need to express it to, it will become a big scary ENTITY that we will have to dodge and avoid and run away from at break-neck speed UNTIL. One day. It catches up to us and we have to do something about it – and if we’ve been running away it might tackle us and our reaction might be very, very ugly. As mine have tended to be. I’ve spent the last six months sending angry text messages to my ex, because I never expressed my true, in-the-moment feelings to him when we were together. And I am a very peaceful person. Well, my twin sister might disagree, but most people would say I am pretty peaceful, for the most part.
This takes bravery. A life well lived takes so much bravery. Writing a poem to your crush, or jumping into a beautiful, ice cold lake in the morning in some foreign land you’ve taken yourself to takes bravery. We are subjecting ourselves in these moments to possible unpleasantness. But these are the moments we’ll remember – and you will probably never see that lake again, so dive in while you can.