October 12, 2011

My Life is a Stump Speech

It kills me that I cannot express emotion. In so many ways I feel desensitized to the world around me. For so much of my life I’ve subconsciously been driven by society to conform to a gender role that stifles the expression of emotion and frowns upon anything that contradicts traditional notions of masculinity.

Over the past couple of years I’ve become much more extroverted in my interactions with others. But just because I’ve become comfortable speaking up and filling space with words doesn’t mean my contributions are meaningful. I lived in silence for so long that I feel like I now have to speak up anytime the room falls quiet. I’m more than willing to intellectualize, to offer up my opinions of why a football team should have run a particular play, why a certain economic policy is bad, or why the special effects in a movie were horrible. But I have trouble expressing my emotions and relating to people on a personal level. So much of my existence operates on a very impersonal level.

I’m more than willing to step up to a podium and deliver a speech or talk in a large group setting. In many ways a larger setting enables me to be impersonal, to remove myself from what I’m saying. Or at least I perceive the collective response by the audience as detached. I hate my life on a micro level. I struggle so hard to sit people down and explain to them on a one-to-one basis how I feel. I struggle to comfort people in times of need, often having no idea what to say and what body language to use. I feel so vulnerable when sharing my emotions on a more private, intimate level. The ultimate fear of rejection becomes so much more real to me.

When you talk in abstract terms and theories and someone disagrees with you, they reject the idea you put forth. If you open up emotionally on a personal level and someone disagrees with you, in many ways they reject who you are as a person. And to me that thought is terrifying.

It kills me that whenever my parents conclude a phone conversation with the phrase “I love you,” I never respond in kind but rather reply with a mere “have a good night.” It pains me that this weekend, at a retreat designed to foster a safe environment, I wrote a letter to one of my best friends in order to explain to him how much he means to me, because I couldn’t tell him to his face. It’s humiliating to come out to your parents by texting them from an airport security line before leaving home for six months. To me that’s the definition of being selfish, impersonal, and unable to recognize the impact your words and actions have on others.

I’m sick of running from discussing my real emotions with those who matter to me most in life. I’m tired of always running for political cover. I feel so much of what I say every day is merely a stump speech - the inspirational and eloquent, yet utterly meaningless trash we see politicians spew out all the time. So much of what I say is just bullshit. My humor and my love of metaphor are important parts of my personality. Parts that I love and refuse to give up. But I need to carve out a chunk of space for a little bit of candidness, a dash of frankness, and an iota of pure, raw, truth. Figuring out how to do so, well, I’m open for suggestions.



  1. I hope to get to know you better John, I feel like I'm in the place you were several months ago (or maybe even a couple years behind you, but same track). So I can't speak with any experience of how it gets better or how to be more open with people, because frankly that is my biggest problem too.
    I find myself wanting to tell my friends how much they mean to me, and I plan it out in my head perfectly. But as soon as I see them it devolves into some stupid, "hey man, wanna watch a movie?" or "how's it going?". I don't have the balls to talk with my guy friends on a profound level about anything. The closest I can come is listen to them complain about girlfriend problems, but I'm obviously no help there.

    I think we just have to be patient and try to meet new people, hoping that you're now in a place comfort-wise that you'll meet someone who completely takes your guard down. You've surely come a loooong way from what you were a few years ago, maybe even a few months ago. Who knows about a few months from now?


  3. I'm just beaming. So proud, JM.

    Also I exclaimed "OMG I KNOW" at the consoling part. You're definitely not alone with that one.

  4. I feel ya John. The most obvious things in our minds, like how much we deeply love our best friends, can be so uncomfortable to actually express.

  5. You are most definitely not alone.

    I've always struggled with expressing my emotions. What's worse is that in order to cope, I (or culture? not sure) have raised this emotionlessness to the level of a virtue or something somehow to be striven for. I feel simultaneously flattered and like a failure when people call me Spock or Data. This is normally okay--I can usually find people who are willing to deal with me and with whom I can bond, but I truly worry these are only arms-length relationships and that I will go through life without having found meaningful connections.

    Long-term, I'm worried, because the people you spend time with tend to be your greatest influences, and I'll be in the military for the next few years, a place where feelings seem to have particularly little value. And y'all, I'm seriously worried about socially failing during my reintegration with civilian life, should I decide on that. So on the one hand, I really want to live the normal life, but I'm super terrified to go back and try to find a job and friends, etc. I really don't want my fears to determine my career path, though, so I really hope I can make progress here!

    Is it selective numbing that has spread everywhere, or is it just the way I am/some of us are? I really don't know. I'm inclined to say the first but if that is the case, I don't know how to "fix" that.

    I feel for you--thank you so much for sharing and letting me know I'm not the only one :)

  6. I love Summer's comment, just as a sidenote :)


    I really like the sentiments you're expressing-I really like realness, and I have to admit it's really discouraging for me when I feel like I'm engaging with others and it's not that way. Here's to working on keeping it more real and personal! Thanks again for writing this.
    Way to go!

  7. I just want to point out for someone who has difficulty talking about important issues, you do a very eloquent job of expressing your struggles and opening up here.

    As far as suggestions go, maybe the blog is a space for you to be able to start sharing more personal things, especially if writing is more comfortable for you. I know that's not perfect, because you'd like to be able to talk about them, but maybe you could write about them and then use it to spark in person conversations.

    Even as someone who is seemingly an extreme extrovert, I have my own mysteriously introverted ways and can really relate to being more expressive in writing than in face-to-face words.

  8. So glad I got to share this weekend with you. Looking forward to great the things to come.

  9. Wow. Reading this made me more emotional than I've been in a long time. Thank you. And I would love to talk any time you wanted (aside from our small group dinners where I will force you to talk lol)

  10. This really got me thinking. Excellent post.

  11. I want to ditto Risa's comment. I find it easier to brush off the subject of how I'm "really" feeling than to talk about it. I'd much rather write it down or just put on some music, lay on the floor, and ponder everything alone in my apartment.

    I can't tell you what steps to take to open up to people, but I can say that your true friends will always be there for you no matter what. You should never worry about them rejecting your expression. If anything, they'll appreciate you even more for opening up to them. For me, when I was actually able to open up to someone about the hurricane of emotions going on in my head and heart, that's when I knew that I found my true friend. Our relationship has grown so much stronger and now we're planning on rooming together in NYC after we both graduate (if everything goes according to plan...)

    You're already on the right track. Keep on trucking, my friend.

  12. Dear John,

    I am completely in love with you.

    On a more blog-related note: You are most definitely not alone. I worry constantly about relating to people on a personal level because (and it's really not a lie) 80% of what comes out of my mouth is some sort of a joke.
    I sometimes just feel like being funny or entertaining is the only way I can keep people around me/connect with them, but in turn it makes me completely disassociated.

    In any case, I feel you completely on this one.

  13. John this is awesome. You expressed what I feel better than I ever could have.

  14. I feel precisely the same way.

    -first post

  15. I agree completely with Risa and AJ. You have done a fantastic job of conveying the nature of your struggle and its emotional impact on you. AJ's note on friendship is also key. True friends will not judge you for your emotions. Nor will they feel burdened by them. A good friend will be interested in your life and your emotional experience. When I see that a friend is having a hard time, I feel compelled to learn more and to do my best to ameliorate the situation. My friends are deeply meaningful to me and I want to share in their experiences, whether they be good or bad.

    I feel fortunate because I have become a highly extroverted person. But it hasn't always been that way. Throughout much of grade school, I was terribly shy. I had a group of friends with whom I interacted almost exclusively. I completed K-12 in one school system and as the years passed I felt more and more confined to the social group that I had formed at the age of 5 and 6. Sometimes I became friendly with new people, but rarely did that translate into interaction outside of school. I found little opportunity for social mobility (not social climbing…but expansion of my social network) as I was afraid to put myself out there and to make new friends. I knew that I was intelligent and kind, but that was all I had in terms of self-esteem and it wasn’t really enough.

    So when I got to college, I decided that I would change that. I was tired of being restricted to my 10 or so close friends from high school. I joined clubs, I became vocal within the classroom, and I started to meet people. I met a lot of people. By the third week of school, my roommates felt like I knew everyone on campus. I had a lot of friends and I really valued their relationships. (Of course, I still do.) I felt myself becoming more comfortable sharing intimate details about my life as I garnered tangible rewards – strong bonds of friendship and a positive reception. My confidence and charisma grew as I developed an outgoing personality and connected more profoundly with my friends. I realized a couple things: (1) I am who I am, (2) there are enough people who value me for that, and (3) if someone doesn’t appreciate me for who I am, it’s too bad for them. And it’s probably better that we figure that out earlier rather than later.

    Even since this realization I have had instances of relapse in which I struggled to connect and share important emotional components of my life with close friends. It was only in December that I came out, and before that time I anguished over the knowledge that I must have been gay and yet was unable to even utter those words out loud in private. As an individual who is comfortable discussing the most personal details of his life with friends and, when I imagine that it will influence perspective, people who I have just met, I felt trapped. How can I not share this most significant component of my being with those who care most for me? Like Megan (who recently discussed this in another post), it took me ages to develop confidence and to eradicate my own internal homophobia. But eventually I did, and I began to tell people, starting with my closest friends. And guess what? No one cared. Actually, they did care. Many of them were surprised, but mostly they were excited for me. They were excited that I was comfortable being myself and that I was comfortable expressing myself They were excited that I was ready to fully engage in this most wonderful of cultures and to expand my social and sexual experience by dating other dudes. It’s hard to take risks. It’s scary. But it’s also rewarding. I have never felt closer to my friends. I know what’s going on in their lives and they in mine. And we are there for each other. Those who care for you will be thrilled to engage on a deeper level. Your relationships will strengthen as you open up to them and the effect can only snowball as your comfort in doing so develops with experience.

  16. This is so genuine, so forthright, and so honest - in terms of the things you talked about, it seems you've come a long way just by admitting these things to yourself and to all of us. We're all at different stages on our journey.

    As a freshman, I hope you're not annoyed by my attempts to offer you advice, but since I have long struggled with the expression of emotion, I am in the same proverbial boat as you, which sometimes may feel like the Titanic - destined only for tragedy; but, luckily for you (and me), Durham is void of icebergs. While that doesn’t mean things will always be easy, take comfort in having a great network like BDU who is able to support you in your personal growth.

    Learning to express emotion is not a ‘do-it-yourself’ project, and that’s probably the most difficult aspect of it – as an extremely independent person, who tends to internalize emotion and attempt deal with it on my own, I certainly understand the reluctance to admit your own shortcomings, but the most important thing is that you have begun a phase of inward reflection that, with time and effort, will surely allow you to conquer your percieved inability to express emotion. Good luck with everything.

  17. Thanks for all of the feedback everyone. Much appreciated :)