How to Ignore Your Emotions (while also thinking you’re awesome at emotions)

(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...

Rele­vant context

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

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yeah nopes.

Wig­gling ears

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.

Par­ent-child model

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.”

Yikes.

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.”

Owwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww

… 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.