(cross posted from my personal blog)
Since middle school I've generally thought that I'm pretty good at dealing with my emotions, and a handful of close friends and family have made similar comments. Now I can see that though I was particularly good at never flipping out, I was decidedly not good "healthy emotional processing". I'll explain later what I think "healthy emotional processing" is, right now I'm using quotes to indicate "the thing that's good to do with emotions". Here it goes...
When I was a kid I adopted a strong, "Fix it or stop complaining about it" mentality. This applied to stress and worry as well. "Either address the problem you're worried about or quit worrying about it!" Also being a kid, I had a limited capacity to actually fix anything, and as such I was often exercising the "stop worrying about it" option.
Another thing about me, I was a massive book worm and loved to collect "obvious mistakes" that heroes and villains would make. My theory was, "Know all the traps, and then just don't fall for them". That plus the sort of books I read meant that I "knew" it was a big no-no to ignore or repress your emotions. Luckily, since I knew you shouldn't repress your emotions, I "just didn't" and have lived happily ever after
It can be really hard to teach someone to move in a way that is completely new to them. I teach parkour, and sometimes I want to say,
Me: "Do the shock absorbing thing with your legs!" Student: "What's the shock absorbing thing?" Me: "... uh, you know... the thing were your legs... absorb shock?"
It's hard to know how to give cues that will lead to someone making the right mental/muscle connection. Learning new motor movements is somewhat of a process of flailing around in the dark, until some feedback mechanism tells you you did it right (a coach, it's visually obvious, the jump doesn't hurt anymore, etc). Wiggling your ears is a nice concrete version of a) movement most people's bodies are capable of and b) one that most people feel like is impossible.
Claim: learning mental and emotional skills has a similar "flailing around in the dark" aspect. There are the mental and emotional controls you've practiced, and those just feel like moving your arm. Natural, effortless, atomic. But there are other moves, which you are totally capable of which seem impossible because you don't know how your "control panel" connects to that output. This feels like trying to wiggle your ears.
Why "ignore" and "deal with" looked the same
So young me is upset that the grub master for our camping trip forgot half the food on the menu, and all we have for breakfast is milk. I couldn't "fix it" given that we were in the woods, so my next option was "stop feeling upset about it." So I reached around in the dark of my mind, and Oops, the "healthily process feelings" lever is right next to the "stop listening to my emotions" lever.
The end result? "Wow, I decided to stop feeling upset, and then I stopped feeling upset. I'm so fucking good at emotional regulation!!!!!"
My model now is that I substituted "is there a monologue of upsetness in my conscious mental loop?" for "am I feeling upset?". So from my perspective, it just felt like I was very in control of my feelings. Whenever I wanted to stop feeling something, I could. When I thought of ignoring/repressing emotions, I imagined trying to cover up something that was there, maybe with a story. Or I thought if you poked around ignored emotions there would be a response of anger or annoyance. I at least expected that if I was ignoring my emotions, that if I got very calm and then asked myself, "Is there anything that you're feeling?" I would get an answer.
Again, the assumption was, "If it's in my mind, I should be able to notice if I look." This ignored what was actually happening, which was that I was cutting the phone lines so my emotions couldn't talk to me in the first place. Actually, the phone lines metaphor is a bit off, here's a better one.
My self-concept and conscious mind are the parent. Emotions are young children that run up to the parent to tell them something. Sometimes the child runs up to complain, "Heeeeeeeeeey I'm huuuuuuungry!" My emotional management was akin to the parenting style of slapping the child and saying, "Being hungry would suck, so you aren't hungry."
I know full well that you can't slap someone into having a full stomach, but you can slap someone into not bringing their complaints to you.
I've experienced this directly extend to my internal world. My emotions / sub-agents aren't stupid. They learned that telling me, "Hey, you're concerned about your relationship with your friend!", "Hey, we really don't like getting laughed at", "Hey, we're concerned that this bad thing is going to happen indefinitely" would result in getting slapped. So they learned to stay quiet.
This got to the point where I'd feel awesome and great during my busy week, and then "mysteriously" and "for no reason" feel an amorphous blob of gray badness on the weekends. I had various social and emotional needs that weren't being met, but I didn't realize that. I quite intensely tried to introspect to see if this gray blob was "about anything", but only heard quiet static. This was me being the angry parent with their kids having a dinner of half a slice of bread each, shouting, "Is anyone hungry?! Huh??! No? GREAT."
... and now?
When I was a kid, my desire to "not worry if it was useless" was mostly one of "people who worry seem to be in pain, I'd prefer to not be in pain." Overtime, it turned into a judgmental world view. How wasteful and useless to be embarrassed/worried/scared/etc. This was the transition from a naive parent telling their kid, "Hmmmm, have you tried not being hungry?" to the angry parent shouting, "You won't be hungry in my house!!" (one might wonder how exactly that transition from naive to judgmental happened. That's a whole other story for a different post)
Over the past year I've haphazardly free styled towards opening up emotional communication with myself, and I've made progress. I'm still not sure what "healthy emotional processing" looks like, but I've gotten HUGE gains from just being able to sit with the fact that I'm feeling something, and hug the child that brought that emotion instead of slapping them.
I guess the biggest thing I wanted to impart with this piece was 1. the parent child model, but also 2. that ignoring your emotions can start as a simple innocent mistake.
Related. A sentiment in a LW thread I heard in the past few months was that the biggest barrier to rational discourse is creating environments where everyone feels safe thinking (not the same thing as a safe space). Extend that to the mind. The biggest barrier to rational thinking is organizing your mind such that it's safe to think. I still promote and admire "look towards the truth, even if it hurts", but I know see that if you don't spend enough resources on addressing that hurt, the hurt parts of yourself can and will take measures to protect themselves. Treat yourself well.
Related: besides being slapped down, another thing which may discourage subagents from speaking up is if one is too willing to share their reports with other people:... (read more)
What would you recommend to people who are doing this (or to people who aren't sure if they're doing it or not?)
One reason I'm finding it hard to give advice is because though it does feel like there's a generalizable "shape" of this problem, it's got a lot of degrees of freedom and I have seen the detailed way in which my own history has filled those in.
That aside, two guess on "if you have it". If you have strong feelings/beliefs about what sort of emotional reactions you should have to things, that feels relevant. Depending on the person, this might not even feel like a guilty should. I have held that I'm "not an angry person." Digging into that you'd find that I hate when people are overtly angry, it can make my blood boil, and "I'm not an angry person" is some top down, "people who get angry are sub-human, obviously I'm better than that." This seems relevant because this has been the fuel/motivation for me to ignore my emotions.
Also, if you ever explicitly go, "I'm just not going to feel this way anymore" that might be relevant. As mentioned, mine was not a secret under the radar ignoring emotions. I was aware of doing "something", I just thought that something was "being ... (read more)
I relate to this a lot. Gonna skip over the young childhood stuff that started me on this path, but this really became an issue starting in high school. I was really stressed out trying to manage my girlfriend's fragile mental state. Developed acid reflux and thought I was having a heart attack because I ate through the inner lining of my esophagus and breathing was extremely painful. So I picked up meditation. And without a teacher I only focused on quieting my "monologue of upsetness". I had some symptoms of depersonalization before, but this is when it really developed into a full on disorder. And honestly until I realized it was a disorder I was quite proud of it. I'd leave my body and then I wouldn't feel any pain, I'd just observe "notme" handling it. A downright superpower if you ignore all the horrible side effects.
Some thoughts on the "..and now?" I've been wrestling with
1) Much like how I went "idk, I'll just learn to stop feeling bad and then I can keep dating her" I'm now going "idk, I'll just learn to stop worrying about the things that trigger me to feel nothing" which s... (read more)
I feel you so much on depersonalization seeming super awesome until you realize you’re cut off from life itself in many ways. I’m still mad how much the outside world seems to appreciate when you’re half-dead inside...
Oof, I haven't thought directly about that before, but man that can sting.
Part of that seems to be the a basic part of "you're the only one in your own head." Other people have limited ability to know what I feel like, but can visibly tell whether or not I rage at other people. I get congratulated for not raging at people in tense situations, and it feels like I'm getting praised for the internal thing (ignoring my emotions).
Something I'd be interested in from this comment and maybe the OP is more clearly spelling out the bad thing that happened, as a result on "turning off emotions."
I happen to agree with the frame you and Hazard have here, but if I imagine a person who's currently thinking "yeah I can turn off my emotions it's great!", this post and comment doesn't quite articulate what they're missing or sacrificing. (To be clear, articulating this seems quite hard, just noting that it'd be useful if you could manage it)
Sometimes you scrape your knee really badly and don't notice. It's nice to not feel the pain, but also you just bled all over the carpet and now your mom is mad at you because she has to scrub the carpet for 20 minutes to get the dried blood off it.
If you could notice you scraped your knee immediately, make a fair assessment as to what care the scraped knee needs, and then turn the feeling off that is a super power. Sometimes I do that and it's awesome. But I don't have the power to turn them back on. They turn back on when they want, not when I want. Now I'm stuck in a bad state until something shocks me out of it. Plus sometimes they turn off completely involuntarily like the worst habit one could ever have.
My symptoms might be slightly different than Hazard's because I specifically relate to depersonalization symptoms but here are some negative things I deal with when I have involuntary disconnect.
1) Sometimes I try and move my body and nothing happens. I feel the sensations of movement, but my body doesn't move. When my feelings turned off, so did everything else.
2) Sometimes I can't empathize. I can logically say what someone is... (read more)
As someone who fatefully discovered dissociation/depersonalization/derealization (https://mhollyelmoreblog.wordpress.com/2016/06/25/dissociation/) around 10 only to have shit hit the fan in my 20s, I think I can articulate what’s lost when you lose touch with emotions. At first it feels great to ride above the pain, for me social pain in particular, and only come back down when it’s safe, like at home with my family. But eventually you can’t come back down to experience even essential things like interest, excitement, most of all love and connection. I feel that I was slowly bleeding out the entire time I was away from my body, never fully replenishing what was lost, and after years I was just empty and shriveled. I had my first real depression at the end of college and I felt mostly numb but also miserable and heavy. There was a deep sense of loss for I didn’t know what. Now I know what I was craving was a sense of being embodied, of feeling real and being connected to the world.
Healing sucks immensely because years of dissociating from emotion makes them very intense and when you come back and your coping skills extremely weak. But coming back to your body and your feelings is re... (read more)
My suggestion is to continue with this route. Receive his venting, seek to genuinely empathize with it, try to understand and acknowledge his position as well as you can. Remember that understanding his position doesn't mean that you would need to act according to all of his wishes: you can validate his experience and perspective without making a commitment to go along to everything. Just seek to understand as well as possible, without trying to argue with him.
(If you ever find it difficult not to argue or empathize, try treating that desire to argue or empathize as another part of your psyche, one which can be asked if it would be willing to move aside in order to let you help notme better.)
That said, he might not be willing to tell you everything until he trusts you enough. And if he is willing to negotiate with you in exchange for a concession, that can be a useful way to build mutual trust as well.
In all likelihood, you are talking with a traumatized part of your psyche [1, 2, 3]. He has witnessed experiences which make him have extreme beliefs, so that normal IDC is a poor... (read more)
The parent-child model is my cornerstone of healthy emotional processing. I'd like to add that a child often doesn't need much more than your attention. This is one analogy of why meditation works: you just sit down for a while and you just listen.
The monks in my local monastery often quip about "sitting in a cave for 30 years", which is their suggested treatment for someone who is particularly deluded. This implies a model of emotional processing which I cannot stress enough: you can only get in the way. Take all distractions away from someone and they will asymptotically move towards healing. When they temporarily don't, it's only because they're trying to do something, thereby moving away from just listening. They'll get better if they give up.
Another supporting quote from my local Roshi: "we try to make this place as boring as possible". When you get bored, the only interesting stuff left to do is to move your attention inward. As long as there is no external stimulus, you cannot keep your thoughts going forever. By sheer ennui you'll finally start listening to those kids, which is all you need to do.
Strongest upvote. My life story is very similar— what I thought was just discipline totally handling my emotional and personality issues was actually an internally (and sometimes outwardly) abusive system that imploded after enough major life stressors.
I’ve written about the self-righteousness and judgment that came ultimately from not respecting my own vulnerabilities and needs here:
My model there is that I had a strong internal critic that I thought was protecting me from sucking and being unlovable. I liked to turn that critic on others (self-righteousness) because it gave me a break and made me feel safe, like at least I was better than them. But the real problem was how overpowered the critic was and that it had access to my feelings of self-love and self-acceptance at all.
Post is very informal. It reads like, well, a personal blog post. A little in the direction of raw freewriting. It's fluid. Easy to read and relate to.
That matters, when you're trying to convey nuanced information about how minds work. Relatable means the reader is making connections with their personal experiences; one of the most powerful ways to check comprehension and increase retention. This post shows a subtle error as it appears from the inside. It doesn't surprise me that this post sparked some rich discussion in the comments.
To be frank, I'd be very wary of trying to suggest edits. I don't want this post to lose that feeling of unfiltered thought-to-page, when it's a crucial element of its magic. Maybe I'd add some doodley illustrations to vividly supplement the textual imagery. I imagine it *could* get clearer benefit from light restructuring and expansions. The most authentic-*feeling* writing does not perfectly align with with the most *authentic* writing, after all.
(Maybe edit the bit at the end of "Relevant context" so the ironic 'stands out' better... It was perfectly clear from context that this was ironic, but it could have been clearer from ?structure?wording?. id... (read more)
This is an excellent post, with a valuable and well-presented message. This review is going to push back a bit, talk about some ways that the post falls short, with the understanding that it's still a great post.
There's this video of a toddler throwing a tantrum. Whenever the mother (holding the camera) is visible, the child rolls on the floor and loudly cries. But when the mother walks out of sight, the toddler soon stops crying, gets up, and goes in search of the mother. Once the toddler sees the mother again, it's back to rolling on the floor crying.
A key piece of my model here is that the child's emotions aren't faked. I think this child really does feel overcome, when he's rolling on the floor crying. (My evidence for this is mostly based on discussing analogous experiences with adults - I know at least one person who has noticed some tantrum-like emotions just go away when there's nobody around to see them, and then come back once someone else is present.)
More generally, a lot of human emotions are performative. They're emotions which some subconscious process puts on for an audience. When the audience goes away, or even just expresses sufficient disinterest, the subconscious... (read more)
Promoted to curated: I think this post is describing a real error mode that I think many people benefit from identifying. I also particularly appreciate that this post tries to provide concrete evidence in the form of personal experience (though obviously externally verifiable evidence is even better, but also even harder to come by). I think a frequent error mode for posts on LW is to not be grounded sufficiently in even personal experience.
It seems like there's something missing here and I don't know how to add it. You make your childhood behavior of not being upset over things sound bad through framing, but you don't offer many (or maybe any) examples of it being ineffective. You mention that more recently you've been experiencing a sense of general malaise on the weekends, but the extent of that problem isn't clear nor is it obviously linked to the fix it mentality. Many people have malaise on the weekends and sometimes that's just because they're tired from the week and need to recuperate... (read more)
Reminds me of this...
I'm the author, writing a review/reflection.
I wrote this post mainly to express myself and make more real my understanding of my own situation. The summer of 2019 I was doing a lot of exploration on how I felt and experience the world, and also I was doing lots of detective work trying to understand "how I got to now."
The most valuable thing it adds is a detailed example of what it feels like to mishandle advice about emotions from the inside. This was prompted by the fact that younger me "already knew" about dealing with his emotions, and I wanted to writ... (read more)
I'd like to give this post a second nomination. I'm also trying various experiments in tracking down and listening to hidden/ignored emotions and find other peoples' accounts of this very helpful - it was well worth a reread. I also like the vivid real-life examples.
It seems to me that one of the trickier parts of this issue is that you don't know what you don't know. You've got the places in your emotional landscape that you're used to visiting, and that's where your attention naturally goes when you try to do a self-assessment. Reminds me a bit of something I learned in adolescence that when you're playing hide and seek, people are really bad at remembering to look up; I've even had a friend that eluded police chasing him in the park by simply getting out of immediate few and then climbing up into the foliage of a t... (read more)
Related: Just Suffer until it Passes
This is a pretty simple and important point, told memorably through a real story of Hazard's life, with a simple internal-parts monologue. I think it communicates some important points well.
The psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett makes a compelling case that emotions are actually stories that our minds construct to explain the bodily sensations that we experience in different situations. She says that there are no "emotion circuits" in the brain and that you can train yourself to associate the same bodily sensations and situations with more positive emotions. I find this idea liberating and I want it to be true, but I worry that if it's not true, or if I'm applying the idea incorrectly, I will be doing something like ignorin... (read more)
Do you have a source for that claim that most people's bodies are capable of it? If so, is their any good way to learn it?
I'm trying to decide to what extent this applies to my lived experience, but finding it difficult to distinguish between maintaining a healthy tranquility and cultivating habitual impassivity. My intuition is that I've had both experiences, but the internal feedback for either is very similar. Both seem to involve putting a functional amount of distance between yourself and your emotional response, and - in my experience - the healthy habit does reinforce itself, just like the negative version. But then, sometimes, I find myself noticing the lack of an emo... (read more)
Can anyone relate to the fact of having 100% confidence but like 0% social skills?
Oooooh man, I relate to this too hard.
While your specific examples of things you were ignoring are different from mine, and I never developed the judgemental worldview you mentioned in "…and now?", I realized a while ago that this was something I was/am doing, and that it'd been causing me to ignore important things.
I think it might be more common with AMABs, due to the way they're generally socialized. Toxic masculinity's a bitch, y'all.
Also, I specify "AMABs" instead of "guys" because apparently one of the things I was ignoring is that I'm trans; yay me for managing to intentionally miss THAT for 22 years.
Since I am the complete opposite and am more like, if you want to continue that metaphor, „Ok child, are you sure it‘s hunger? Where does it come from? Will simply eating solve your needs?“ I am more the kind of person, that hugs its inner child all the time but sometimes forgets its is only a child (if we continue that example). I am highly sensitive and it feels really unnatural and weird not to completely analyze every little feeling. My brain basically is overthinking because of that all the time.
So long story short, now I know what not to do, but what should I do instead? If anybody has some literature about that, I would be grateful!
Great post. It also looks amazing on your blog - that picture goes with it well.
Is this related to risk aversion?