“Allow yourself to feel.”

At Forefront’s Day of Hope Conference, this was the keynote speaker’s wisdom for processing hardships. Unexpectedly, tears wet my eyes. I’d been leading my school’s Forefront program, facilitating peer-to-peer support, but in that moment, I wondered: had I even been feeling my own feelings? Was I now the one in need of support?

* * *

I flashed back to my childhood: In preschool, sitting in the principal’s office, crying that my dad was gone on a business trip. In kindergarten, both kicking around soccer balls with boys and playing “house” with girls. Along the way, realizing I acted differently from other boys my age. My dad’s voice echoing in my head, telling me to “man up,” “stop feeling that way,” or “snap out of it” when I was upset.

“Man up.”

Later, to compensate for being “too sensitive” and “soft,” I took advantage of my natural athleticism to build an outward appearance of “masculinity.” At the same time, I was learning to suppress my feelings and training myself to be emotionally illiterate.

While my emotional wellbeing suffered, my athletic career soared as I competed in five National Fencing Championships. My athleticism became the central pin to my identity, the source of my pride and self-worth, embellished by record sprint times and rows of medals.

In March 2018, a few weeks before the conference, I pushed myself past my breaking point, tearing the peroneal retinaculum in my right ankle. The injury and impending cast, surgery, stitches, bone sutures, and crutches meant I had lost what I felt defined me.

* * *

Between my injury and the conference, I felt like I was in free fall. I felt stripped of my identity: Would I ever run again? Ever have that life again?

But by allowing myself to feel, I started seeing past the pain. I saw how, for the past three years, Forefront had been the outlet for a compassion I’d long been too afraid to show. In the absence of sports, I realized mental health advocacy was deeply meaningful to me.

Inspired by that moment of self-realization at the conference, I accepted a position as a member of the Student Life Committee and later ran for ASB Vice President, where I worked with students, faculty, and administrators to improve school-life balance for the student body and tackle stigmatized social issues. Creating meaningful, lasting solutions to benefit my community ignited a passion that had long lay dormant during my work with Forefront. I found the power and voice to address the complex and seldom discussed issues that I had grappled with all my life. 

I am learning to more fully embrace my non-traditional, empathetic, emotionally honest image of masculinity. I am finding the bravery to be vulnerable. The strength to cry. The power in showing weakness. I am allowing myself to feel, and in those moments of understanding and reflection, I uncover glimpses of who I really am. (486 words)

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Four Things I Love About This Essay:

  1. The Values. This author demonstrates vulnerability, self-awareness, athleticism, helping others, personal development, and more.

  2. The Insight. The author offers a nice range of “so what” moments, including the realization “Was I now the one in need of support?” and pretty much everything in the final paragraph: “I am learning to more fully embrace my non-traditional, empathetic, emotionally honest image of masculinity. I am finding the bravery to be vulnerable. The strength to cry. The power in showing weakness. I am allowing myself to feel, and in those moments of understanding and reflection, I uncover glimpses of who I really am.”

  3. The Vulnerability. This essay is vulnerable throughout, from first sentence to last.

  4. The Craft. I appreciate the structure of this essay, with the brief opening to get our attention, the flashback that provides context, and the series of realizations that build on one another all the way through to the end. I also feel like not a word in this essay is wasted.