Jane Caro: Are you too emotional? Join the club - Women's Agenda

Jane Caro: Are you too emotional? Join the club

When I was young I was constantly being told I was too emotional, too intense, too pushy, too talkative, too argumentative, too opinionated. Basically, I was told that I was just too much altogether.

It hurt and bewildered me. I was just reacting to the world and to situations spontaneously, as I saw them. Naturally responsive and expressive, brought up in a family that encouraged such behaviour, my reactions to what went on around me were written on my face even if I (very) occasionally managed to hold my tongue. Not all the people who found me too [choose your own emotion] were men, but many of them were. Even in my first job, I was often told I was like a dog with a bone – too determined, too tenacious. I was even criticised for using too many big words – even though I was employed as a copywriter!

I was left with an impression of myself as psychically too big (despite my 5’1” 45k actual size), clumsy and egotistical. I often felt ashamed of myself, particularly when I had let my guard down and expressed something honestly only to be squelched mid-sentence for being too something or other. I wasted many hours beating myself up about my too-muchness and made repeated futile pacts with myself that I would be more laid-back and react less. I never managed to keep those silent vows; it just wasn’t my natural style. Apparently I was that most despised of all personality types – a show-off. Without realising it I incorporated into my self-image a belief that people who met me would not like me very much; that I was just naturally irritating and over-the-top.

Unsurprisingly, I also struggled with anxiety and depression throughout my twenties and my self-confidence was very shaky. It was this misery that led me to the therapist who gave me the formula I needed to start fighting back against those who wanted me to be smaller. I was relating some tale of woe and confessed that I had been too emotional. The therapist stopped me. 

“Too emotional?” she said. “That’s interesting. So do tell me, exactly how much emotion is enough, how much is too much, and who decides?” For once, I had no answer. Indeed, I think my mouth fell open. I understood what she was saying to me, it had just never dawned on me before that there was very little logic to the criticism I had accepted so often without question. From that moment on, I became much less vulnerable to other people telling me what I was permitted to feel. I started to fight back.

I don’t think I was Robinson Crusoe in my youthful experience of the too emotional etc criticism. Indeed, I was forcibly reminded of it recently when Opposition leader Tony Abbott told a persistent young female journalist who refused to stop asking him a question he did not want to answer, to “calm down.” After all, isn’t that exactly what you say to people (usually women) who are too emotional, pushy, tenacious, take your pick? It’s a way of projecting your own discomfort onto somebody else. Basically Abbott was saying that it wasn’t him who was on the back foot, it was the young woman who didn’t know her place. It’s a power-play, pure and simple.

The tendency for women who put their perspective on the world forward forcefully to be told that their feelings are somehow illegitimate has caused great damage, so much, in fact, that we now have a word for it. This matters because the first step towards fixing something is to acknowledge it exists and we do that by giving it a name. When a woman’s feelings or reactions are discounted, we call it being “gaslighted”. The term comes from an old 1940s movie called Gaslight where Charles Boyer’s character tries to make Ingrid Bergman’s character think she is insane so he can have her committed and inherit her money.

Being told that your spontaneous responses, feelings and perspectives are wrong, over-the-top or out of place can make you feel crazy. Done often enough it can fundamentally destabilise you because you no longer feel you can rely on your own reactions as a guide to what is actually going on. I suspect that in the past women did end up in mental hospitals or on tranquilisers and anti-depressants simply because their reactions were consistently belittled and dismissed. Some of those women may not have been crazy to begin with, but they sure felt crazy by the end of it.

How you feel is always legitimate. It is not possible to be too emotional. The fact that your emotional response – be it anger, grief or even just enthusiasm and excitement – makes someone else feel uncomfortable is actually their problem, not yours.

Telling you you are too much is simply a response to feeling threatened. It is an attempt to make you make yourself smaller. Don’t buy it.

Stay Smart! Get Savvy!

Get Women's Agenda in your inbox