Societal Preconceptions Create Emotional Walls

Nikki Suzani

In a world where appearances matter more than feelings, and where teenagers spend hours gazing through photos to find the perfect one to post online, it’s not a surprise that emotions, especially negative ones, are often lost in the conversation. At Gunn, we spend hours puffing up our feathers and talking about our A’s on biology tests and our seemingly perfect relationships, making it appear—at least to others—that our lives are as good as they can be. We craft images of success at school, carefully selecting what to tell others in order to fulfill the expectations that our parents always had for us with their words of “don’t cry” and “stiffen up your upper lip.” On the inside, however, the stress that plagues us and the anxiety that threatens our own wellbeing is kept bottled inside for no one but ourselves to see.

Although people may try to suppress them in today’s world, feelings are more important than ever before. A Psych Central article titled “Why are Feelings Important?” explains that feelings, when shared, not only cause us to feel closer to others, but also guide us towards better health in life. One in 16 children between the ages of 16 and 24 have experienced depression at one point in time, according to Healthline. When left untreated, mental health illnesses can cause diabetes and cardiovascular diseases and can immensely damage your body. Thus, this culture of bottling up emotions hurts students physically.

In terms of overall wellbeing outside of health, bottling up emotions can only harm students. A study done by Education Week found that students who accepted their emotions and asked for help tended to have higher GPAs than those that wouldn’t reach out; they also had fewer behavioral referrals, felt more trust in the school and their peers and had an overall better wellbeing. If all of this is true, then why do so few students confide in their peers about their emotions?

The answer comes from a term coined at Stanford University known as “duck syndrome.” This term is used as an analogy to the life of a duck on the water. Even though a duck keeps up its appearance and looks content to others, it is frantically flapping its legs underneath the water. A big trigger of “duck syndrome” is high family expectations. At Gunn, we are no strangers to expectations: according to the 2016-2017 California Healthy Kids survey, 45 percent of ninth graders and 46 percent of eleventh graders said that they believed that adults had very high expectations of them. This pressure that Palo Alto parents put on their children to exceed expectations and do well in life could possibly be a cause of this stigma against expressing genuine emotion. In addition, students often cultivate an environment of stress and expecatations. As a general rule, children don’t want to disappoint their parents, and admitting that they need help can be difficult. Thus, Gunn students often refrain from confiding in both their parents and their peers out of fear that others will find them weaker and less successful.

Pop culture and social media continue to perpetuate this tale of keeping your feelings inside. Some examples include Fergie’s song “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and the common trope in television shows that the people who cry the most are “crazy.” Exposure to such myths can influence consumers to believe one must hide their feelings in order to avoid being perceived as “overly emotional.” A prime example of this trope is Rachel Green in the TV show “Friends,” who cried a lot and was often perceived as emotionally unstable and dumber, rather than as a human who has emotions and needs to let them out.

This stigma is especially true for men, who are often told to be the alpha male; these labels have become toxic with the connotations behind them. Being masculine has been defined by society as being emotionally invulnerable, so when men, especially teenage boys, have emotions or try to break out of that mold, they are often afraid they will be ostracized by their peers if they don’t conform to this definition. According to Salon Media Group’s article titled “Toxic Masculinity is Killing Men: The Roots of Male Trauma,” parents unknowingly project a specific idea of masculinity onto boys when they are very young, telling them to “be a man” when they are crying and punishing them harshly while they do something wrong while still expecting them to “take it.” This means that little boys start to mask their feelings from ages three to five and continue to do so later in life, as the media portrays the ideal man as an invulnerable Superman archetype. According to the Guardian, men are 28 percent less likely than women to go to a therapist if they need help, causing men to receive less help overall and feed back into the harmful effects mentioned earlier.

A key argument advocating for bottling up feelings is that by sharing your feelings with others, you may be spreading negativity to them. When you talk to someone who understands your situation, however, the burden on your shoulders lessens considerably, and you are able to feel better inside. This sharing of emotion also allows the other person an opportunity to empathize with you. So, while it may be “spreading negativity,” it also stops your mental health from deteriorating and lets your friends know that you trust them enough to be vulnerable with them. Overall, the net benefits of sharing your struggles outweigh the little harm it could potentially inflict.

At the end of the day, the solution to this problem is for communities to come together and counteract the stigma, from parents telling their kids to “just let it out,” to teachers telling their students that it’s okay to cry, to the media showing more men and women who are sensitive and gain power by sharing their feelings. This movement gained momentum at Stanford University, where the community first learned to accept and understand duck syndrome and then started to offer more mental health resources to students. Nowadays, a Facebook group called “Stanford University Places I’ve Cried” has created a safer space for students to share their feelings and talk about what plagues them.

When the individuals of the Gunn community learn to recognize the stigma that surrounds emotions and allows themselves to be vulnerable, then, and only then, will we be able to break the stigma and finally make a change in the culture that surrounds us.

– Suzani, a freshman, is a reporter