When You Get Emotional In Public

Last week, I was casually telling some people about a time when a perspective shifted in my life and suddenly found myself choked up with tears and pain. My first thoughts: Damn. Not here. Not now.

I was with a group of relative strangers, doing task-related, intellectually heavy things. We had an agenda.

Tears were not on the agenda.

Unfortunately, sometimes growth is like that, right? You are going along all fine and good, and then there they are: strong feelings.

And worse: in public.

The story I was telling was about a huge shift I had made at 13, when our family moved from a small, conservative, white town in northern South Africa during Apartheid, to the glitz and glam of Los Angeles in the mid-1980s.

I can still remember the physical ache of that transition. I remember wondering if my body would ever recover; marveling at how something that I thought of as “psychological” or “emotional” actually felt like a physical event to me.

It was painful.

I went from being able to walk just about anywhere I needed to go, nestled in the African savannah surrounded by community, to an irrigated, sterile oasis in which you drove everywhere, often for a long time. It felt like a move from grounded freedom to a plastic golden cage.

As any resilient young teenager might do, I focused on the privilege, opportunity and adventure in the move. I didn't create space for all the other feelings, so they went underground.

Thirty years later, unprocessed pain and grief from that transition tightened my chest. I was ready - finally - to feel the whole experience, not just the good parts.

Personal transformation work happens like this: in unexpected and emergent ways.

We don’t order it up at a convenient time when we decide we are ready. It wafts up behind us, rises up within us and can startle us with sharp, unexpected responses to things we thought we’d put behind us long ago.

The first glimpse of getting choked up is often transparent to others, but what do you do next? Open it up or shut it down?

In these moments, I draw on my deeply non-conforming self, and practice the courageous art of allowing.

  • Don’t resist (or analyze) feelings. Allow them to be known, to be heard, to be felt. Trust that they will shift shape: they are dynamic. Know they bring a message. Trust that they offer more liberation and compassion if you allow them to move through you.
  • I took a risk, allowed the tears to arise and gave language to the grief. I practiced counter-cultural transparency and was met with gentleness and kindness. More often than not, I find that when I am willing to be real about what is arising, the quality of interactions with people around me deepen and expand too.

The next time you find yourself getting "emotional" in public, slow down, open up and allow yourself to just feel. You might just transform the interpersonal space in which you find yourself, and bring healing to yourself and others.