I’m a crier. I have been since senior year of high school when I realized I was experiencing the “last” of everything. The last lunchtime conversation. The last Yearbook class. The last prom planning meeting. (Sidenote: Is it any surprise that I ended up in student affairs?) My combination of deep sentimentality combined with empathy means I not only feel all of my own emotions, but also pick up and internalize the feeling of others in the room. Additionally, I like to say that no one should ever have to cry alone. This means as soon as I see one person tear up, I’m as good as gone. A dear friend likes to say that I have a glass heart. Easily chipped and broken, but simultaneously admirable and beautiful.
I’ve cried my way through graduation ceremonies, weddings, commercials, religious ceremonies, end of the year affirmations, a particularly powerful Broadway song, kind notes from students, sorority initiations, and more. Last week I found myself on the verge of tears during our department’s leadership class. I co-teach this class of newly hired student staff members and was on a panel of Resident Directors, Resident Ministers, and an undergraduate Assistant Resident Director talking about working with professionalism. One of the incoming student leaders asked us to describe our motivation for our work and how we know we are making a difference. First, what a great question! Second, I immediately felt the lump in my throat start to form and the butterflies in my stomach start to flutter. I knew tears were eminent so I deferred to others on the panel. I was fine until Gigi, the Assistant RD started talking about the support of her team and the growth she’s seen from them. She couldn’t get through the next sentence because she was so moved with emotions, and me being the sympathetic crier, immediately started to well up. There was a bout of nervous laughter from the crowd, which so often happens when truly authentic emotion is observed, and I immediately started to apologize to the group.
I tried to laugh it off, to defer the emotion of the question and to make light of the moment. I apologized profusely and saw the nervous looks from my students who just realized that their instructor was maybe also a person. My coworkers deftly moved the conversation along and we didn’t discuss the break for emotion any more. I sucked the tears back into my red-rimmed eyes and tried to forget it.
A few days later Sue Caulfield, Kristen Abell, and the Student Affairs Collective launched #SAcommits, a call for the field to continue the conversation about mental health in a constructive and not reactionary manner. I applaud their efforts on so many levels and soon realized that by apologizing for my emotional reaction in class, I was dismissing emotion too. I had, in an effort to save face, dismissed a great teaching moment for incoming student leaders. I had taught them that showing emotions is not okay and perhaps even worse, is shameful. I felt the pressure of maintaining professionalism, of creating distance between instructor and student, and the pressure of keeping it together as a woman in order to be taken seriously all funnel down into two words: I’m sorry.
Guess what? I’m not sorry. I’m not sorry these student leaders saw how impacted I have been by my work. I’m not sorry they got to see that I am more than someone who grades their papers. I’m not sorry they got to see that emotions are a part of people’s lives. I am deeply sorry that student leaders who plan to work in our residence halls, which is arguably some of the most emotionally charged work a student leader can do, didn’t see me take a moment, and address the fact that the question sparked something personal in me that I was still working through. I’m sorry they weren’t able to see me be kind with myself in the moment, that I waved away the tears like it was an annoying mosquito that kept buzzing around my face. I’m deeply sorry that Gigi, the Assistant RD who first started to well up, got verbally abandoned when I apologized for my own tears, and underhandedly got the message that her tears didn’t matter.
These student leaders are going to be privy to some of the most emotional situations a college student can face, from the break-up of a relationship, to not living up to academic potential, to struggling through the redefinition of their relationship with family members and countless others. I told my class that viewing the humanity of the person in front of you is tantamount to stepping on someone’s toe in a subway or knocking a glass off a coffee table. We’re more than that. Emotions do not require apologies. They require care and compassion and taking just a moment to be in that space.
So I’m done apologizing, dismissing, and making light of my tears. My tears make me a kind, empathetic person who values the connections found in the world. In the words of Queen Elsa, “conceal, don’t feel” isn’t going to cut it for me any more.