It was happening again. That familiar tightness in my throat. My eyes started to sting. I could feel the emotion about to burst out of me.
On reflex, I bit down hard on my tongue and held my breath. Pushing those thoughts and emotions back into the corner of my mind. Into a mental box I had created long ago. Once hidden, I picked up the dead capercaillie, a species I have worked tirelessly to protect for years, put it in a bag, and methodically went through the motions of arranging a post-mortem. Quietly burying my grief.
I'm not sure when I stopped letting myself feel. It was a gradual process. I was probably what you would describe as a sensitive child. My emotions were easily bruised. I cried often and in excess. I would lose myself in stories and become overly attached to the characters. If, god forbid, one of these characters met an untimely end, I was often inconsolable.
I've always been someone who struggles to watch another living creature in pain. Just seeing someone else cry would set me off. Even the perhaps overamped sob stories on reality TV shows would have me sniffing.
For a long time, I just accepted this. It was part of who I am. I come from a family of sensitive souls, so my emotions were never undermined or brushed over. Each tiny tragedy was given the respect it deserved. Even when my hormones kicked in, and my tears came about under rather ridiculous circumstances, like my inability to find matching socks, I received sympathy. Even if this was followed by laughter at my absurd hormonal reactions.
This does not mean I had a miserable childhood. Quite the opposite. The tears were quickly wiped away and I was able to enjoy the simple joys that came with the freedom of being a child who was loved. My laughter was quick and, at times, obnoxiously loud. This joy more than balanced out the occasional sob that I deemed natural and inevitable.
The shame was slow to creep in. By the time I was fully in my teenage years, I started to feel embarrassed by my emotions. I would flee rather than be seen to cry in front of my peers or even family members. The sad truth of a teenage life.
The real turning point came when I decided to work in wildlife conservation. Ironically, it was my empathy and need to help other living creatures that drew me to this profession. However, I quickly realised that my deep emotion when it came to animals could cause me issues in this sector. I had to face some harsh truths about the pitiful state our wildlife was in and not let it overwhelm me. This was when I really started to resent my sensitivity and worked hard to hide it, even from myself.
As with many sectors, traditionally, wildlife conservation has been male dominated. Although this is changing, in certain roles, it really is a man's world. In my current role, I spend much of my time with land managers, such as foresters and keepers, where it is still rare to find a women.
Coming into this position as a young female, as opposed to older men that have proceeded me, I felt acutely self-conscious. As much as I am ashamed to admit it, I started to cover up my femininity. This included hiding every ounce of sensitivity, which of course, is a 'feminine' trait. I could not appear weak.
This strategy could only last so long. My buried sadness started to manifest in different emotions. I started to harbour anger, both towards others and myself. I worked to strip myself of all empathy. I no longer wanted to feel. It was easier this way.
However, I started to notice the impact my behaviour was having on others. My impatience would lead me to snap. Speak hasty, overly harsh words. Especially to my loved ones. This did not sit well with me.
I'm not sure exactly when the tides started to shift. It started with reflection. I underwent the uncomfortable process of peeling back this harsh persona that I had created. Questioning why I had to be this way. Behave this way. Was this really the person I wanted to be?
Over the last few years, I've felt myself change. It took time, but I now know that, in order to properly feel the joys in life, I had to embrace my emotions. All of them. I started disentangling shame from my sadness. I let my tears fall again. My inner child was returning and I was welcoming her with open arms.
As with all personal growth, this is a journey and something I will continue to work on. Society is not kind to sensitive souls. I know this shame has come from external influences rather than my own heart.
But recognising this is powerful. I am able to find myself amongst these influences. Cherish my emotions. Not discerning them as a weakness but, in fact, my ultimate strength. Yes, I may cry often and sometimes in embarrassing circumstances, such as welling up with happy tears when reading a book in a public café. However, beneath my tears, I have inner steel. A strength that has never, and will never, fail me.
So, I can now be proud of the person I really am. I am kind. I am strong. I am sensitive. And I am content. What more can I really ask for?