Facial Emotions

In recent weeks, I have fallen in love with the Irish Times Women’s podcasts. These invariably feature interesting women who have done (are doing) interesting things, and who have interesting things to talk about.

Yesterday, I listened to the marvellous Aisling McDermott and the equally wonderful Laura Kennedy. They were interviewed by Marian Keyes, who is one of the funniest writers I have ever come across. I nearly burst my post-surgery stitches I was laughing so much when I read one of her books a few years ago. Anyway, this podcast did provide a few laughs (before I forget, the link is here) but what really grabbed me was the raw honesty with which Aisling spoke about her illness, and Marian’s compassion and kindness in the moment.

At one stage, Aisling’s voice caught on the tears in her throat, and Marian apologised for distressing her. Aisling brushed the apology aside, saying that she wanted to talk, she wanted to share her story, and she wanted to explain what it was like for her to have to deal with a debilitating illness. She was not embarrassed or ashamed or annoyed with herself for crying. And I, in my kitchen, cried too, and applauded Aisling for her pragmatic attitude to the display of emotion.

I have often thought it’s a bit daft that we are embarrassed by crying in public (unless it’s with laughter). We are expected to apologise for, or hide, our tears. Yet we aren’t expected to apologise for, or hide,our frowns, smiles, eye-rolls, gasps, giggles or laughter.

In my family of origin, the manifestation of my emotions – all emotions, but especially sorrow – was ridiculed. I learnt to swallow my laughter because it wasn’t lyrical. I learnt to hide my smile behind my hand because it wasn’t pretty. I learnt to bite the inside of my cheek and tilt my head a certain way so I wouldn’t shed tears. I learnt it was far, far better to cry myself to sleep at night (which I did – every night), than to do so if there was a possibility of an audience.

I decided to stop that nonsense about eighteen months ago. I was addressing the annual conference of Barnardo’s and, in the middle of my piece, I started to cry. Not a full on break-down, not sobs, not snot and shuddering. Just three or four tears and a wobble in my voice that I couldn’t successfully speak through. I decided not to hide it, not to apologise for it, not to fight it, just to go with it. I stood in front of this room full of strangers and said ‘Oh look! An emotion. It will pass.’

And it did. I continued on with my presentation and managed to make people laugh again before I stepped down from the podium.

My point is this – I think we would all be a bit healthier if we allowed our emotions to manifest in safe ways (I don’t mean boxing the heads of people when we’re angry!), acknowledged them, and let them go. And if we learnt how to bear witness, in a supportive way, to others’ tears, too.