The Women in Housing series is a month-long project featuring the voices, stories, and experiences of women who currently or formerly work in housing and residence life. Today's post was written by Kelsey Murray.
Often we think of women as people who are naturally emotional and comfortable displaying emotions of empathy, sadness, happiness, and overall being sensitive. What happens when you are a woman who does not adhere to these roles and experience backlash from your lack of feeling? As a woman who is often described as being aggressive, assertive, and bitchy, I have experienced the judgement and ostracism of being an unfeeling woman in the feeling profession of student affairs and residence life.
Within my first few weeks of being in my current position, I experienced a situation that made myself, my supervisor, and my staff aware that I struggled expressing feelings and empathy. Two of my resident assistants had a very public and very emotional yelling match that caused both RAs to come to me in tears. I spoke with both of them calmly and allowed them to express themselves. During that time, I did not comfort them to their expectations and did not display empathy for their situation. Not displaying empathy does not mean that I did not feel empathy. I was empathetic to their emotional state, their feelings of insecurities, and their fear of losing their job over their outburst. However, I was not displaying the empathy that I felt, and they saw that as uncaring and unfeeling.
Growing up in a family where emotions were frowned up and I was frequently yelled at for crying, I quickly learned to hide emotions and became uncomfortable with any display of emotion. As I entered college, I was often told that I came off as intimidating, heartless, and unapproachable. Being labeled as someone who was unfeeling affected my ability to inspire others to follow my lead and caused others to doubt my passion about various organizations. I had supervisors advise me that my unfeeling nature was a weakness and that I needed to change it. Not only did I have a problem appearing approachable, I had an issue with my tone of voice being harsh.
As I continued in my leadership and education, I continued to face the same criticism that had followed me during my undergraduate career. I could tell that students believed that I did not care about their emotional well-being and that they were not comfortable speaking with me about personal issues. Supervisors continued to suggest I express more emotion, watch my tone, and overall have a warmer and welcoming persona. My supervisors were never in the wrong when they suggested I make changes, but many of them did not understand that women can be unfeeling. To this day, I continue to receive negative evaluations because of my lack of ability to be personable. That it is not to say that I have not improved in this area. I have vastly improved over the last several years but I know that I will never become a woman for whom feeling is natural. I know that as I continue my career, I will always be evaluated on this aspect of my personality and will be asked to develop my feelings further.
For me, my lack of feeling comes from a negative environment growing up. For others, it may be an attempt to appear strong or it may just naturally be their personality. No matter the reason for our unfeeling demeanor, we need to find a balance between supporting others and being ourselves. But we also need to create an environment where women are free to be unfeeling and not expected to follow emotional norms set by society. So how do we do this? How do we stay true to our unfeeling self but also present an open, caring, and approachable front? How do we work to change a gendered idea like emotions? We work in a profession that does not allow us to always shy away from emotions so therefore we must challenge ourselves to find our voice in a balanced manner.
The first way to find your voice in your work area is to challenge yourself both emotionally and professionally. Speak with your coworkers who excel in emotionally supporting their students and displaying emotions about how they authentically portray their feeling while supervising. Slowly adapt their style to fit your own personality but remember to not become unauthentic in your actions. Pushing yourself to display emotions that are not naturally strong is an exhausting endeavor, so take time to care for yourself and using your support system.
As I previously mentioned, almost every supervisor I have had has informed me that I come off as unfeeling and intimidating often because I struggle to show emotions. It was difficult for me to hear these evaluations. I needed to face the facts in order for me to improve and become a better Student Affairs professional. I asked my supervisor, coworkers, and staff to help me interrupt language they felt was unsupportive. Speak with your supervisor, coworkers, and staff about your struggle with displaying and supporting emotions. Have them inform you when your unfeeling personality is creating tension. Eventually, recognizing these moments will become easier.
If you are able to, team up with a coworker whose strength is feeling but needs assistance in an area that you excel in. While I was in my first position after undergrad, I worked with a woman whose number one concern was ensuring that everyone was emotionally and mentally well while my strength was taking action to solve problems. During a leadership retreat, this coworker was speaking with students to help them debrief after an emotionally challenging day when I received a phone call about loud students. I was immediately able to take care of the situation and was more comfortable confronting the issue than my coworker. We were able to balance each other’s strengths and weakness and were a successful team. Be sure to look for coworkers who can do the same for you!
Being asked to focus in and respond to others’ emotions can be exhausting. It requires someone who struggles with emotions to be constantly observant and looking for physical cues or listening intently. Doing something that does not come natural and forces you out of your comfort zone requires an extreme amount of emotional and mental energy. Learning how to display feelings does not happen overnight so do not be hard on yourself if the change comes slow. When you are exhausted, frustrated, or discouraged, take time for yourself. Self-care is one of the most important skills you can learn especially in the process of displaying emotions.
Ultimately, remember that not everyone is suited to a position that requires staff to be feeling people. If you are struggling in a position because you are unfeeling, it may be time to look at other departments or positions within your current department. From personal experience, I know that being a Hall Director is challenging when you are a woman who is not comfortable with feelings. That does not mean that it is impossible to be successful in the Hall Director position. I am currently doing it! However, I love Residence Life and know I can be more successful in and better suited for other positions within the department.
Being someone who struggles to show feelings and lacks sensitivity is often seen as a negative. However, lacking the ability to show or feel strong emotions can be a strength in many areas. It allows you to see problems clearly and not be swayed by a student’s emotional story during a conduct meeting. You can also eliminate concern about biased supervision due to emotional connections. For some, women who do not display emotions openly are seen as stronger and more capable (an inaccurate assumption), which could open more doors professionally. Someone who lacks feelings will also be more successful in positions that do not have frequent interaction with students or staff.
Through all of this, it is most important for you to remember that you are you and that is good enough. Being an unfeeling woman does not make you a bad person or professional. It is important to remember that. Some of us feel uncomfortable displaying or being surrounded by strong emotions. That is okay. Embrace your unfeeling identity and be yourself. Own it.
Kelsey Murray is a hall director at the University of Tennessee at Martin. She recently moved to Tennessee from Colorado after receiving her master’s from the University of Colorado Colorado Springs and is excited to have new opportunities in the Southeast. In her free time, Kelsey enjoys playing her ukulele, running, but most of all, loving her fur baby cat, Penny Lane.