True story. One night fairly recently, I was on the phone with my boyfriend, and I told him that. Granted, I was a little (okay, fine, I admit it, more than a little) drunk. And I needed him to know that even though I hate mowing the lawn, and taking out the trash, and dealing with litter boxes, that I loved him enough to do it all.
The next day, he and I were talking, and he mentioned that I was a little “toasty” (our euphemism) the night before, and that I had told him that. I laughed; I thought it was hilarious. I told him that I meant it, because yeah, I did. And I’ve been thinking about that ever since.
Because here’s the deal. I pride myself on how emotionally reserved I am. How walled off and private I am. I am extremely content with not letting anyone know how I feel about them, good or bad. (Okay, that might be debatable, because if I don’t like someone, apparently they always know, but that’s another story.) And sometimes when I’ve had a bit too much to drink, I have learned that I become effusive. Personally, I blame my love of gin, but whatever. Point is, there is this very grand and imposing barrier that prevents me from taking a moment to express my appreciation, my gratitude, and my love for the people in my life.
And it’s not just my partner. I hold my parents, my brothers, and my sisters at an emotional distance. My friends, my room mate, my coworkers. Really, my cats are the only ones who are ever smothered with verbal affection. And I don’t know how I learned this way of living. I don’t know who taught me to keep everyone at a distance. And as I have come into my own as an adult, I have had to take some serious time to figure out the why of it, but so far that hasn’t been enough for me.
Somewhere in my early, formative years, I learned some very hard and painful lessons about the way the world truly works. Lessons that children aren’t supposed to learn, much less adults. I’ve come out of all of it by some miracle as a mostly well-adjusted woman, but somewhere along the way I failed to undo some of the damage. Somehow, no one told me that having a soft heart wasn’t a weakness to be weaponized against you.
That is exactly how I have always viewed emotion and emotional displays. Letting anyone in as a first hand witness to how you feel is just asking for it to be used against you. And how horrible is that. How lonely is that. What kind of life is it, not letting inside because of that fear. These are statements, not questions, because I know the answer to all of it. That has been my life, all of my life. And at the end of the day, it isn’t an unfounded fear; we have all had that experience of confiding in someone, and then that being used against us.
So how do you go back to having a soft heart? How do you undo decades of emotional isolation? What steps are you supposed to take to become happy and whole again? These are questions that I haven’t discovered an answer to.
Because it’s all just one big messy journey of figuring stuff out. Figuring out that hey, yes, emotional vulnerability by its very definition is terrifying. Being able to trust your parents, your siblings, your friends, your partner with those scary feelings and thoughts and hopes and fears is literally the worst thing that I can think of doing. But I’m told that there is this beautiful award that comes with tearing down those walls, and embracing that fear while marching forward.
What does this all have to do with loving someone so much that I’d gladly mow the lawn? The follow up to “wow, you’re toasty. You always get effusive when you drink” is usually something along the lines of “but no, that’s how I always feel about you.” For whatever reason, a cheap bottle of red wine or a few salty dogs is all that it takes for those walls and barriers to come down. So what I have been challenging myself with lately is to as fearlessly as I can, say those words that I want to say, but before happy hour gets into full swing.
Because we’ve all been there. We’re hanging out with friends, or coworkers, or our significant other, and they’re feeling the booze. And they put their arms around your shoulder, and come out with “I love you, man”, “I’m so happy we’re friends”, or whatever it was that they said. We. Have. All. Been. There. And yes, sure, that person probably did mean it.
But there is a special kind of gratification in hearing “you’re my favorite person in the whole wide world” at 1p on a Tuesday. And there’s a special kind of bravery that goes with being open and honest and effusive with the people in your life, without any kind of… aid. When I think back on anytime I ever took a deep breath and laid bare my feelings, that gratification and sense of “wow I did it”, well.
At the end of the day, it takes a conscious decision (every day) to make your heart soft. It is definitely a challenge that I have to rise to, each morning, just like I rise out of bed. And right now, all of that effort is manifesting itself in baby steps— a text message in the afternoon, a ten minute phone call on my way home, a hand-written card. But baby steps are still steps in the right direction.
Because what good is loving someone enough to do the gross chores, if you’re only willing to tell them when you probably won’t remember. More importantly, what good is it to love someone that much, if you can’t or won’t tell them. And that’s the challenge that I’m going to continue to embrace.