“Indoda ayikhali!” my uncle once told me.

“But it hurts!” I said, wiping the tears from my eyes.

He looked me straight in the eyes, “I know mtshana, but never let people see how much they are hurting you.”

“Why?” I asked in surprise.

“They’ll think you are weak. And the more they see your pain the more it will hurt.”

Those were the words that came from a man I had looked up to all my life. He told me that crying or showing emotions was weakness. So I hid my emotions so I wouldn’t get hurt. I wouldn’t have to experience anymore of the suffering that affected me. Even some of the adults in my community openly told me the same thing.

“Don’t let your tormentors see what they are doing is affecting you. Don’t allow your negative, weak, vulnerable emotions be revealed. Real men don’t cry, you’ve got to toughen up and be that man.”

Growing up I believed that everyone only needed to see me smile, even if it hurt, and everything would be perfect.

The lie that “everything is fine” became the habit, something so natural to me, that I never once thought about the consequences. I never once thought that all those bottled up, heart shattering, emotions could break free. Slowly, those feelings of not being good enough, those feelings of “where did I go wrong” began to surface. To me, hiding those emotions felt so normal, so mundane, so ordinary that during those late night sob sessions, it felt good to cry. I felt as though a weight had been lifted off my shoulders, that the so-called “weak” emotions, simply disappeared into thin air.

However, my emotions were the double edged sword of the war I called my life, and it was doing more harm than I could possibly have imagined. The emotions I hid slowly grew into the wall that separated me from the ones who wanted me to rely on them. I unknowingly pushed away my family and friends because I thought that my emotions were my weakness, and that my strength came from hiding my sob stories, pain, and worries. I grew up believing that if I wanted to be a real man I had to be strong. I couldn’t cry in front of the others. I had to hide these emotions to maintain a face, and I refused to give that up. In the end, that was the price I had to pay for “being strong,” for avoiding pity, for hiding my emotions.

I never thought about how the feelings that I decided to hide could truly harm me. I believed what I was doing was for the greater good, and was what I needed to do to move on in my life. I forced smile after smile, but all I felt were those negative emotions that lingered within my heart.

The lie that “everything is fine” simmered and brewed, until that lie became the smiles I forced – until that lie slowly became my life. Hiding those emotions for so long left me with an underlying feeling of anger and frustration. And it permeated everything I did. I felt like the life I was living was no longer mine. I chose to wear the smile to ease the minds of those around me, but in fact, that only made them worry more.

For a long time I suffered in silence by allowing the phrase my uncle told me as the child to rule my life. I thought that all other people wanted from me was that reassurance of “he’s okay”, and that my emotions were my weakness.

After some introspection and words of advice from friends I realised I was wrong, they weren’t my weakness, but my strength. Thinking of those nights I cried myself to sleep, how good they felt, I realised it was not because I allowed my boiling sentiment to spill over, but because I was moving on. Those weaknesses that I thought were my feelings shielded me from what could have harmed me, because hiding your emotions is terribly unhealthy. Facing my demons, I struggled enormously to talk about my emotions at first, scared of the risk of being exposed. But I had to do it so I could regain my freedom. And I’m still working on sharing more of myself every single day.