Emotionally Unstable?

Photo by Axel Naud via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons. (Photo has been cropped.)

As I’ve mentioned a number of times, I have often been called “emotionally immature” or “emotionally unstable,” usually by teachers or bosses, and always after they’ve witnessed one of my public crying meltdowns. Until recently I’ve just accepted that I am those things, and I’ve even referred to my meltdowns as “emotional meltdowns” myself. It seems obvious: crying = emotion. But I’ve just been struck by the realization that I don’t cry in public out of emotion. It’s not because someone hurt my delicate feelings. It is from sensory overload. My public crying meltdowns are always from sensory or stress overload. If someone has hurt my feelings, that’s just the cherry on top, but I don’t think I’ve ever had a public crying meltdown due to hurt feelings alone.

While I am an emotional person and I do experience hurt feelings sometimes, I think I deal with them in a reasonable way in most cases. Only my very closest friends ever know how I’m feeling and that’s because I choose to share it with them, not because I’m out of control. When I need a purely emotional cry, I can wait until I get home and have privacy. I also don’t lash out in anger at people, and I never hold a grudge. I try to treat others in a mature and fair way regardless of how I feel. And as for marriage, which is the most emotional relationship of all, mine is very happy and harmonious, because we both treat each other with respect and when we disagree, we “fight fair.” Unlike my parents, who used to have huge anger issues and petty jealousies, I am actually pretty good at being married. My husband especially appreciates that I don’t play manipulative games like some people do.

But sensory overload is another matter entirely. When I experience sensory overload I lose all control. Once I reach a tipping point, I can’t hold it in. I cry, I shake, I wheeze, right then and there. I’m usually not feeling any emotion except embarrassment, and that’s only because I know people are looking at me melting down and I’m making a public fool out of myself.

People can only go by what they see and by their own experience. And if someone’s never experienced a sensory meltdown, they can’t even begin to imagine what it’s like or what may have caused it. All they know is that for most people, crying is an emotional response, so they jump to the conclusion that I’m freaking out because of out-of-control emotions, when that’s not the case at all.

If other people are going to put labels on me, or if I’m going to put labels on myself, I think it’s helpful to at least pick the right ones.



Photo from Photofunia.
Photo from Photofunia.

When I was talking to my mom on the phone the other day, I brought up the fact that when I was a child, my teachers often assessed me as lacking social skills and being emotionally immature. I asked her what behaviors, exactly, led to these assessments. I mean, I had to live under the weight of those labels. I deserved further information.

She answered that there were two main problems. The first one was that when other children were playing, I just stood on the sidelines and didn’t join in. I did nothing but quietly observe.

Okay, that makes sense. I remember not knowing how to play with other kids and not understanding — or even being interested in participating in — their games. (Maybe my tendency to stay on the sidelines is why many people I went to school with don’t remember me now.) But I also did have friends, some of whom I am still friends with to this day. I may not have played games or climbed the monkey bars with them, but we would sit together and have great conversations.

The second problem was that I often expressed the wish to not be at school and sometimes cried because I wanted to go home.

Both of these things were attributed to me being an only child, and my parents were told I would grow out of them as I continued to go to school and be exposed to more people and more activities.

But the funny thing is, as an adult, I still would rather observe than join in. And I still prefer being at home when I can get away with it. When I have one of my sensory meltdowns, I suppose I’m basically crying because I want to go home, or at least somewhere more calm and peaceful, which I’m sure is what I was feeling when I cried to go home as a child.

So I didn’t grow out of it after all. This is just who I am. I can accept that, but I can’t accept the labels that were used to describe these traits, or the negative connotations that went along with them. I hope these days the education system is kinder to children who are different than it was to me.