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Learning To Feel

I’m ready to stop hiding from my emotions

“Hi, how are you?” the barista asks me, just as she asked the 20 people who ordered before me. I work at a Starbucks on campus, so I’ve been in her place and know the drill. She doesn’t really care; she only asked because it’s in the mission statement of her workplace and her boss is hovering over by the cold bar.

But still, I wonder. How am I?

The question plays out in my head more slowly than the time it takes her to snap out her Sharpie and write my name on a cup. I feel 20 different things and it’s not even 8 a.m. yet. But she doesn’t want to know that. She just wants to hear one word, followed by my order. So I give her that answer. “Good,” I say.

I’ve never been the best at talking about my emotions, which is ironic because, simply put, I’m too emotional. I’m too compassionate. I relate to and care about others too easily. It’s my superpower and my kryptonite.

But just as Clark Kent can hide his Superman identity, I can also hide my emotions. Not even my closest friends known the entire deck of my feelings; others joke that I’m emotionally dead inside. They seem to assume that I follow the same philosophy as most men and women my age: that it’s easier to use others than risk being used. It’s why we “focus on ourselves” rather than commit to or expend emotional energy on others. We think this allows us the luxury of having fun without getting attached or bogged down by anything “serious” — to have our cake, eat it, and not gain weight.

To be fair, I have tried to play this game. I once dated a girl who, despite being my perfect match on paper, was someone I was only emotionally rather than physically interested in. We decided we were free to see other people while at the same time treating each other as a “best friend” for the emotional stuff. In the other we each found someone with whom we could have late-night phone conversations and populate our Instagram feeds with the kind of pictures traditional couples take. I could walk into a room and automatically gravitate toward her.

It worked until it didn’t. She found someone else first. I realized then, as the credits rolled on our “relationship,” that I had truly invested myself in this faux-relationship. Its implosion felt like a divorce. Despite my best efforts, I ended up rooted to someone, then hurt and betrayed by them, simply because I assumed I could make our connection safe by creating an ultimately false sense of distance within it.

This experience weighed on my mind until I decided it was time to take a real emotional risk. I met someone who made me question my compulsion to always keep my emotions in check. My feelings for this person grew with each hallway interaction, subtle conversation, and misread text message. The same anticipation one feels when the disguised superhero is about to reveal his true identity to his love interest became my reality when I decided to put myself out there and admit my own feelings for this person. Instead of question marks, I wanted a direct, declarative answer.

I let the words tumble off my lips but soon found that the answer I received wasn’t the one I had expected or hoped for. That moment of vulnerability blew up in my face — I had been wrong. This wasn’t the moment when the straight lines of our lives merged into one, but a crooked, brief intersection: We were going in two different directions with our lives.

Whenever I had been faced with emotional situations in the past, I tried to push them down, bottle them up, and procrastinate processing those thoughts. It’s what we’re taught, after all: You don’t see men deal with emotions unless it’s through a country song. Men must have it all together, must be cool and unattainable. In college, men are only allowed to show enough emotion to keep women interested. It’s easy to be the “fuckboy” — to send a text, remind someone of how important they are to you, and then “forget” to text them for three days. Then, if emotions threaten to flair up, you squash them and treat the woman like she’s your sister, your frat brother, your last Tinder date. Ultimately, these men — no, boys — quickly run away from emotions because they’re too afraid of what it means to feel something. They’re too afraid of the surrender that vulnerability requires — specifically, the idea that surrender makes them less of a boy when, in reality, that’s the very thing that makes them a man.

It might seem like being that guy, that “fuckboy,” is easy, but it’s actually a lot of work to consistently manipulate your own emotions for others. Doing so made me feel like a liar — like I was betraying myself and the people around me. I’ve listened to my friends and sister explain the frustration they feel when guys refuse to express their emotions and have watched each of these scenarios end the same way. I no longer wanted to be the cause of that frustration.

I wish it were easier, that there was a way to only leverage my emotions for good — to inspire laughter, to liberate myself — rather than allowing them to complicate, blur, distract, distort, and confuse. Yet I’m learning that I can’t get rid of the anxiety, the curiosity, the hope, the confusion, the fear. I know that no matter how hard I try to suppress them, these feelings will inevitably pop up and aggressively bounce through my mind and soul like a bag of Pop Rocks. I’m trying to embrace the knowledge that my feelings may be confusing at first, but will make sense in the long run. Whether it means walking into or out of a relationship, an opportunity, or a situation, I’m trying to trust my gut and allow my emotions to factor into my choices. I’ve always thought emotions were my kryptonite, but I’m starting to believe they’re actually what will make me fly.

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