The Surprising Thing I Learned From Being 'Too Strong'

People spend a lot of time being told to be calm. The idea is so ubiquitous, it's presented in nearly every aspect of our everyday lives. We see countless books, tweets, movies, memes, statuses and television shows about keeping control of our emotions. We are bombarded by a chorus of "don't let him know he made you cry," "don't let her know it bothers you," "be strong," "just forget about it" and my personal favorite, "just ask like you don't care, and eventually, they will notice and then they will (insert objective here)"; which, by the way, seems a little manipulative. I can't tell if it's art imitating life, or the other way around. But somewhere along the way, true emotion got the boot.

So, why do we say this to each other? Or more importantly, to ourselves? Is it because we don't want to argue? Because we don't want to risk showing someone our true emotions? Because we are worried about feeling sad? Or maybe we a little worried to feel anything truly painful.

These phrases are tossed around today with such ease that they are now the new norm. We have come to a point in our lives where showing emotion -- or simply feeling it -- has been deemed unacceptable. We wear our stoicism like a badge of honor, and have trouble understanding someone who doesn't. When people are visibly upset, they are quickly labeled as erratic, overly-emotional or worse.

I am not immune to this "movement."

A few years ago, a friend of mine died. We weren't the best of friends and we didn't grow up together, but it was someone I knew for a few years. Someone I knew well. When I found out they died, I didn't cry. Don't get me wrong, I was sad. Very sad. Especially because I had spoken to this person two nights before it happened and couldn't wrap my head around the idea that they were gone. But I didn't cry. I felt empty, like a robot. I would stay up nights wondering what's wrong with me? Why aren't I crying? The guilt consumed me for not crying. I was extremely upset, even questioning how someone so young could have been taken so early. But still, the tears did not come.

And then I thought back to other difficult situations I had been facing lately. I finally realized I hadn't cried for a few years. I was constantly being told how tough I was. How strong I was for not getting emotional when a guy I liked would dump me. Or for holding it together at a funeral when a family member had passed away. Female friends would say they wished they could be more like me, strong. But I don't know if I was strong. I didn't feel strong, I felt numb. Cold. I was constantly validated for being reserved. But there's a thin line between being reserved and being repressed. Anytime a small wave of emotion would hit me, my first instinct would immediately be to hide it. To laugh it off or have a drink. After all, it was what I saw all day long. Everywhere I looked.

From a small age, we are told to stop crying, to act more maturely. "Act like a lady" or "be a man." Grow up. But when did being a grown up mean being unemotional?

I wasn't the only one in my life acting this way. As we reached our mid to late twenties, my friends had taken on new temperaments too. The older we got, the more detached their emotions became. I started to miss them. I grieved over the ambiguous loss of my once charismatic friends. But I couldn't blame them. It was the world we lived in, and we all knew we stood the chance of being eaten alive if we weren't too careful.

Now, don't get me wrong; there are obviously places and situations in which our emotions should remain checked, such as the work environment and school. But if you're out to dinner with your best friend and you just had a horrible day, it's OK to stop repeating how "fine" you are.

A few months passed, and I finally cried. I was out at a bar, feeling particularly low and I left to go home early. The second I got into my car, I broke down. I cried for what felt like an hour. I cried about my friend's death, I cried about where I was in my life, I cried for relief. When I was finished, I drove home. I never told my friends it happened.

Over the course of the next year, I realized I couldn't live like this anymore. I couldn't be on point 24 hours a day. I had to make a change. I started being honest with myself and others about when things bothered me. I stopped dating men who enabled my detached personality and started looking for someone I could be relaxed with. I stopped constantly trying to gain the upper hand in every situation in life and just actually started to be myself.

I'm still not 100% there yet. There are still moments when I want to flee, to close everything off and prove how strong I am to the world, even though and the end of the day it really doesn't matter. I'm not sure any of us are being graded on how tough we are. I think we could all use a breather from trying to be perfect, and just be ourselves a little more often. And yes, I know I sound like an after school special, and for that I'm sorry, but I don't think repeating, "Smile, so no one knows you're crying," is really doing any of us any good in the long run.