cn: mental illness, emotions, shame
You are a teenage girl, and you are experiencing all the dramas and heightened emotions that they told you would come. They tell you that you will grow out of them and that with time you will stop feeling so violently. But
You do not learn to deal with your emotions because you are not taught; instead, you learn, through pressure and shame, to suppress your feelings, and then you’re 19 and almost not a teenager anymore, and all those bottled-up feelings explode and explode in fits and in bursts and then one day you try to fizzle out.
The only emotion that it is acceptable for you to feel is happiness, and if you feel anything less, then you must feel ashamed for it. Because you have a great life, god, don’t we all just wish we could travel back to our untroubled youths, don’t you know that there are far bigger problems than yours, so you’d better pick yourself up and enjoy the BEST DAYS OF YOUR LIFE.
Don’t cry, don’t complain, don’t be cross. Don’t be a spoilt, moody drama queen.
anymore. But you’re not a grown-up either, so don’t think you’ve got any real problems yet.
They tell you this day in and day out, but maybe one of those days you notice that you don’t actually feel fine 100% of the time. Therefore, you might conclude, there must be something wrong with you. But not that wrong, because – no real problems yet, remember? Teenage girls don’t have depression, anxiety, eating disorders, bipolar; not even fears, heartbreak, stress. Teenage girls just have hormones.
You’ll grow out of those, they say.
Meanwhile they’re teaching you about periods and PMS, so if you do find yourself feeling less than fantastic once you are grown, it’s just those pesky old hormones again.
Meanwhile, some of them are your mothers and aunts and teachers who are going through the menopause, so if they snapped at you earlier, that’s right – hormones.
MEANWHILE, they’re teaching you about feminism, how men dismiss women for being too emotional for the workplace. They teach you that the way to smash the patriarchy is to be as hard and steely as the men in the boardroom. They teach you that you, teenage girl, can do anything your male counterparts can do, because you will become just as capable of leaving your unprofessional emotions at the door. You will not be sensitive to your feelings; you will be rational, because the two are mutually exclusive, so you’d better start practising now.
They tell you all of this and more. But what they all fail to acknowledge and admit is that being a teenage girl is hard. You are faced with a thousand contradictory messages at once, so that by the time you’ve grown up, those messages have become so instilled in the standards that you hold yourself to as a human, that you continue the cycle and pass them onto the next generation, because you have long forgotten that it is all b u l l s h i t.
I’m in my twenties now, and when I think back at my teenage years, my first instinct is to think, god, I was so happy, all the time. Things were so simple and life was so good. Some funny nostalgia bug has led my friends and I to dig out and share some old diary entries from school days, and some of them are so sad and full of self-hatred – it makes me want to go back in time and give younger us a massive hug. A lot of the things we read back came as a surprise at first – how had we forgotten that we’d felt so bad, and how had it never been addressed as an issue? A few of my entries screamed anxiety, and I could see the seeds of thoughts that would eventually ripen into depression. Sometimes I even used the same phrases or imagery as I do now when describing my worst bouts of mental illness. (Maybe I’m just unoriginal).
The point is, at some point in early teenagerhood, something compelled us to feel shame and embarrassment over any negative emotions, whether they were trivial or more concerning. That meant we couldn’t share them with our friends, so we didn’t know that they were feeling the same. We wouldn’t even admit them to ourselves, locking them away in our minds, away from the reaches of our memories when we now look back at those rosy days.
At some point in early teenagerhood, something compelled us to feel shame and embarrassment over any negative emotions.
There were definitely many happy times – I had good grades and fab friends and family. School was generally a positive environment for me, and I know I’m lucky in that respect. But I think that my very high achieving all-girls school (which I did love, don’t get me wrong) encouraged us to reject any stereotypical traits of a teenage girl. This in itself, is no bad thing. However, it had the unintended side effect of engendering a subtle and unhealthy culture of shame around any negative emotions that typically trouble teenage girls. We were afraid to show disappointment or complain, because we were supposedly better than that – we were smart and had substance, so we shouldn’t waste time on feelings when we could just. Get. On. With. It.
Again, not saying that my teenage years were the greatest tragedy of the modern era (although my fringe circa 2008-2014 may strongly disagree). I’m perfectly aware that many of the things I was stressed/distraught/furious about were, in the grand scheme of things, fairly petty and downright laughable.
But – and this is the thing that is so hard to grasp – that does not mean that I did not feel stressed/distraught/furious.
You know what I mean. For example, remember all those times you were stressed and someone helpfully advised ‘don’t be stressed’ – how many of those times did that actually make you less stressed?
Or when something tiny is driving you up the wall and your companion says with a grin ‘Wow, you’re so ANGRY, why are you so ANGRY? Just CALM DOWN,’ and instead of calming down, all you can do is scream ‘I’M NOT ANGRY’.
Forgive me if I’m wrong, but you do seem a little angry. And it seems that your advisor’s wise counsel and your loud denial have done little to quell your anger; in fact, they’ve probably incensed it.
Denying a feeling doesn’t stop you from feeling it.
As with many things in life (acne, to do lists, elephants), ignoring something doesn’t mean it ceases to exist. Denying a feeling doesn’t stop you from feeling it. It just stops you from processing and expressing it in a healthy way. You deserve better than this – how you react to something emotionally is an expression of who you are at this moment in time. By refusing to acknowledge how we feel, we refuse to acknowledge a part of ourselves.
Ignoring and losing out on that emotion and that part of ourselves is a shame in itself, but that’s not even the worst of it. As I said, denying the feeling doesn’t extinguish it; it just pushes it beneath our everyday thoughts, in a permanent store of suppressed emotions. And just as being told to calm down makes your anger louder, those feelings, which have been denied the chance to come out into the open, will burst out and make themselves heard eventually, and they will be much harder to deal with after they’ve been stewing away for however long.
That’s not to say we are completely at the mercy of our emotions, and that we can’t change how we feel or who we are. But the first step is acceptance, otherwise we have no starting point from which to change.
That means accepting all your feelings, no matter what you think their source is, even if their source might be hormones. Invalidating feelings just because they might be caused by hormones is completely ridiculous. Sure, maybe I’m a little more teary when I’m menstruating, but you telling me it’s PMS doesn’t mean those feelings don’t count. If it did, every woman on earth would have to write off a quarter of their life, one week every month, as invalid human experience.
See what I mean about bullshit?! (Coincidentally, I am on my period at the time of writing, but TRUST me, I’ve been very pissed off about all of this for a very long time).
And anyway, correct me if I’m wrong – I’m no neuroscientist, but don’t most emotions involve different chemicals buzzing round our bodies? So maybe this invalidation of women’s feelings based on their hormones is less about body chemistry and more about sexism?
Speaking of which, sexism is another thing that many men (and some women) will ridicule you for feeling anger over. And as I said earlier, feminism was often taught to me as a lesson in how women aren’t too emotional to succeed in work, because women can separate their emotions from their business just as well as any man can. Again, we are fed the idea that suppressing our emotions is the key to success. When in fact, in my opinion, allowing yourself the vulnerability of being in touch with your emotions in all areas of your life is one of the greatest strengths you can show, whatever gender you are. Women aren’t too emotional to succeed at work, because emotions are a strength that enable success at work, and in the rest of life too. I hate the idea that business decisions will be derailed if they are clouded by emotions – that kind of thinking is what puts profit before sympathy for co-workers, concern for the environment, and disgust at exploitation in sweat shops. I say, bring your emotions into work, and maybe we can all feel a little prouder at the world we are working to build.
We are fed the idea that suppressing our emotions is the key to success, when in fact, allowing yourself the vulnerability of being in touch with your emotions is one of the greatest strengths you can show.
We are failing our girls by denying their emotions. We think we’re building resilience when we tell them to get over it, that we’re teaching them perspective and self-awareness when we say it’s not worth getting upset about. But instead of building strong women, we are knocking them down from the inside. They are stuck in a paradoxical dead-end – we’ve trained them to reject their negative emotions as stupid, without teaching them how to process and regulate them to give them half a hope of feeling something better. We have abandoned them in this lonely state of emotional helplessness, feeling like it’s their fault, self-blame feeding into self-contempt, and we’ve made it impossible for them to reach out because we’ve already shown that we won’t listen. It is disgraceful and unhealthy and it paves the way to mental illness.
Hearing pure, unfiltered teenage angst makes us uncomfortable because we are so used to muting our emotions. Accusing them of melodrama allows us to justify all those times we were too afraid to confront how we felt ourselves. I’m not saying we need to be upset at everything that tormented us as teenage girls, but we owe it to the women of the future to learn from them, and remember that we used to feel every moment that honestly. That’s not where we stop, of course – after acceptance comes the hard work, of learning healthier thought patterns and behaviours that will finally allow us to say ‘I’m fine’ truthfully.
I’m going to write more on what I’ve learnt about dealing with emotions in another post. But for now – if you are a teenage girl who is furious at the injustice of not being allowed out by your parents, or terrified of how other girls will look at you, or even just a little bit annoyed at your friend for sitting with someone else at lunch – go ahead and feel it all. I will openly admit that I used to feel all three quite often (and still do, to be honest). Nobody gets to tell you that they are stupid feelings or stupid reasons to feel them. And nobody gets to invalidate those feelings based on the fact that you are a teenage girl.
If you are or have been a teenage girl (and also if you haven’t), let me know in the comments – have you ever felt ashamed of how you feel? Why do you think we send these messages to young people, and how can we do better?
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