Do I Need to Toughen Up?

Papi, I think I might need thicker skin.

¡Hola Papi! is the preeminent deranged advice column from writer and author John Paul Brammer, now living on Substack! If you’ve ever wanted advice from a Twitter-addled gay Mexican with anxiety, here is your chance. Support this column by sharing it and subscribing below, and send him a letter at holapapiletters@gmail.com

¡Hola Papi!  

I'm a crybaby. I'm sensitive as hell! I cry at the drop of a hat! I'm thinking about all the things that upset me right now as I'm writing this and I'm about to cry.

I wish I was kidding, but I'm not. I cry at everything. I cry over how much my cats have grown. I cry over injustice. I've always struggled between hating myself for it and telling myself that It's Okay to Cry (SOPHIE, 2017). I know it's partly due to my mental illness and other conditions, but I still struggle. It feels like I'm giving in—to what, I don't know.

I'm scared of what this means for me and my future because I want to model, which I know can be especially tough on self-esteem and emotions. It's made me give up my vague dreams of modeling in NYC (friends and my girlfriend all said with love that they think I'd be too sensitive for NYC, and to be honest, they might be right) and instead thinking about modeling in LA. 

I feel so daunted by my fear of looking like a fool by crying at everything that it makes me want... to cry! I feel like I'm ruled by my fear of not looking tough enough, too easily affected, too sensitive, and not enough of an adult. What should I do, Papi? Should I grow thicker skin?

Signed,

Crybaby


Hey there, Crybaby! 

First of all, you’re writing into the column where just last week I smacked someone down for having a Latino fetish. You can’t be that cowardly. So, jot that down, Eeyore.

With that out of the way, did you know science doesn’t have a solid answer as to why we cry? We are the only animals that do it. Perhaps our tears serve a social function, alerting others that we are in pain. Or maybe the benefits are entirely psychological, providing us catharsis. Whatever the case, crying: it’s a mystery, not everyone does it, and it carries a lot of social baggage.

If you want to know my personal theory, Crybaby, it’s that everyone is crying all the time, just in different ways. What I mean is: suffering is a fundamental element of the human experience; just like joy, and just like loneliness, and just like love. I’ve seen this on full display over the past week or so, which, as you may or may not be aware, has been somewhat of a trial. 

We all react to the immutable fact of suffering in different ways. Some of us become numb. We might preemptively wound ourselves in an attempt to make tough what was soft, to form a callus. Some of us try to laugh our way through it and turn everything into a joke. Others become nihilists, deciding that nothing matters in an attempt to rob suffering of its capacity to bring them low. Others, like you, might shed tears.

And if you ask me, I think crying is one of the healthier ways to meet suffering. Crying allows pain to physically move through you. It’s your body saying: I am hurting, and I need time. I think crying gets a bad rep because it’s honest. We are human, and so we are weak, and crying fesses up to that. Honesty tends to make people uncomfortable.

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That’s all well and good, Crybaby, but that doesn’t mean I can have you traipsing around Los Angeles full on bawling every time a twink with a Barry’s Bootcamp Star Membership lands a modeling gig that passed you over. I’m not sure this “NYC Mean, LA Nice” binary exists, either! I just don’t think it does! I’ve seen, like, “La La Land.”

Once crying, or any response mechanism to pain, becomes debilitating, that’s when we have a problem on our hands. If this is keeping you from pursuing your dreams, then, yes, we have some work to do. I just want to make it abundantly clear that it’s not crying itself that’s the problem. It’s that you’re allowing your fears to paralyze you.

With that in mind, I’m going to do my best to properly equip you for the perils that will surely come. For that, here’s my advice: You can try, and try, and try to get “thicker skin,” but the things that are tormenting you, really tormenting you, are coming from inside, Crybaby. Not outside. As long as we’re just making up kinds of skin we can have, then I think a translucent skin would serve you better. 

Well, metaphorically, at least. Translucent skin sounds pretty membranous, and in this, the year of coronavirus, perhaps it wouldn’t physically serve you well. But what I’m trying to say is that the ability to identify and manage your own emotions is leagues more useful than trying to let things bounce off you. We need to feel things, Crybaby. Otherwise, we go numb.

I would like for you to shift your goal away from “I need to stop crying” to “I need to be able to identify my emotions and respond to them better.” Because, the truth is, in this life you will be sad. In this life you will be hurt and disappointed and demoralized, and you won’t always have control over how or why those things happen, and you won’t even always have control over the feelings that bubble up when they do. 

What you do have control over is whether or not you can recognize those feelings, acknowledge them, and not let them rule you or keep you from living. This is called mindfulness, and I have found that reading a book or two on DBT is super helpful. It’s what was prescribed to me shortly after my borderline personality diagnosis, a condition that involves turbulent emotions that are difficult to control, and I genuinely think it’s saved my life.

We find ourselves in a frightening time, Crybaby. There’s plenty to be upset about and to be afraid of. But those feelings, like any other, have to move through you, and you have to find a way to live with them. You don’t have to stop crying. It’s okay to cry. I encourage it, even. But you also have to live, and living has less to do with “not feelings things” and more to do with “moving ahead anyway.” Even when it’s tough.

Except for right this moment. Stay inside, ya big dummy.

Con mucho amor,

Papi